267. eponym

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forgiveness-and-reconciliationSuffice to say that, at least in American society, we have a pretty muddled notion of forgiveness. It’s often used in the sense of a pardon: to let someone off the hook; to pretend as if a wrong never took place.

The OED provides several useful definitions:

  • To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence).
  • To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender).
  • To make excuse or apology for, regard indulgently.

The concept of forgiveness is a strange one for me. For one, it was a bedrock of my community’s theology growing up, through Bible verses such as:

  • This is my blood, which ratifies the New Covenant, my blood shed on behalf of many, so that they may have their sins forgiven. (Matthew 26:28, CJB)
  • If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, ESV)

We were supposed to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV). If we’d been properly taught the theory of forgiveness as children, we might have had the tools to process hurt and loss, to work towards reconciliation and/or healing.

How different my life might’ve been.


For many evangelicals, what forgiveness meant in practice was that we were supposed to be doormats for each other, meekly turning the other cheek (no matter how egregious the offense) and forgetting about it, as if nothing had happened. Growing up, if one brought up a past wrong that had supposedly been forgiven, that would be met with an exclamation of, “See, you didn’t really forgive me!”

Is it any surprise that, in some churches, crimes like rape go unreported and unpunished?

We also learned some profoundly confusing lessons about forgiveness. On the one hand, you have New Testament Jesus who teaches us to roll over and let people do whatever they want to him.

Then there’s the Jesus of the Book of Revelation who makes the Bride from Kill Bill look like My Little Pony.

There’s also the god of the Tanakh (which Christians call their “Old Testament”) who Richard Dawkins describes in The God Delusion as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” who wipes out virtually the entire human race in the flood, kills people for all manner of reasons, etc.

Some disturbingly mixed signals.

There were also certain sins that were seemingly unforgivable, such as sex outside of marriage—well, women who had sex outside of marriage, that is, who were forever branded as sluts, unclean, polluted, unmarriageable. “Unrepentant” homosexuality, too. These were sins God could never forgive, and conveniently, neither could his followers.

So we were supposed to forgive, but only under certain circumstances; and if we truly forgave someone, we were never supposed to bring up the offense again, even if they continued to hurt us (Matthew 18:21-22)?

Needless to say, I came into adulthood with convoluted ideas about forgiveness.


Among the lessons I’ve since learned since then is that, to quote Lewis Smedes, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.”

It’s not about forgetting. It’s not about the other person. It doesn’t even require reconciliation.

Forgiveness is ultimately about freeing yourself from bitterness, grieving a loss from hurt or suffering, accepting that the past won’t ever be different from what we want, and intentionally moving forward into a healthier future.

A couple of months ago, my current therapist asked if I’d forgiven my parents. I told her that I didn’t know, that I don’t know what forgiveness feels like. I explained what I’d been taught about forgiveness, and she responded with some of the above views and current teachings on the subject… that it’s not about the other person, it’s about you, etc.

Frankly, I don’t think I’m still angry at my parents. Rather, those feelings have morphed into sadness—sadness for a relationship that will probably never be there. My friend Tom has reiterated his hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reconcile, to reconnect. To which I usually respond that maybe we will, but it’s unlikely.


I’ve probably written about this before, but quite a lot has changed in the years since I came out (2008) and since I became an atheist (2011). In the nearly six years that have followed, my parents and I have gone on increasingly divergent paths. They have clung more staunchly to their evangelical Christian faith and their conservative values, whereas I am heading further to the left with every passing day. It’s not that there isn’t room for common ground.

There isn’t much commonality left, period.

Sure, there are shared memories, inside jokes—but these feel more like when you awkwardly run into an old work colleague and realize the spark of friendship is gone. Jokes that were once hilarious now seem a desperate attempt to make something relevant that long ago lost its currency.

Prior to my becoming an atheist in 2011, what my parents and I shared—despite our differences—was our faith. Even though I drank and swore, and (when I became sexually active) had sex with men, we could still agree on the basic tenets of our Christian faith.

So it wasn’t out of resentment that I disowned my parents. Rather, it’s merely that we don’t have anything in common beyond genetics. I don’t expect them to renounce their faith and join PFLAG any more than they (as much as I’m sure they pray daily for my soul) expect me to revert to the person they used to know.

It sucks to not have parents who accept me for who I am (as other LGBT friends do, whose parents eventually did a 180-degree turn), but it’s healthier than closing my eyes, pretending nothing is wrong.

Yet things are not all bad. While I don’t have a native home to go for the holidays, I do have chosen homes and families now. That’s not Pollyannaish gratitude.

That’s moving on.

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7 thoughts on “267. eponym

  1. Do you (genuinely) miss having a relationship with your parents? I ask because it doesn’t sound like you were ever an ideal grouping of people. Society pushes the notion that blood relations are incredibly important- but that’s just something that’s stuck around from shame/honour tribal societies (including the religious variety.)

    • David

      It’s not so much the relationship with my parents that I miss as it is the idea of it. I’ve observed interactions with friends and their parents, and while no relationship is perfect and there are whole histories of hurts and redresses that are invisible to me, there’s still a family semblance. Although they may, at times, dislike or even hate each other, there’s still a fondness and kinship expressed that appears to draw them together. They overall look forward to going home, to seeing their parents and siblings. I even have friends whose parents eventually came around to fully accept and embrace them after years of being horrid and bigoted about their sexuality.

      That, or (as the more cynical part of me thinks) it’s mere social conditioning that obliges them to make the journey, to put up with the intrusive, infuriating, and sometimes demeaning behavior I’ve also observed in parents towards their adult children.

      Frankly, I’ve no such drive. Yes, there was a toxic level of codependency and passive-aggressiveness that I no longer felt the need to put up with from my parents. Moreover, once I moved out of our family bubble and established a life of my own (this stage was delayed due to being homeschooled until age 16), I felt more the proverbial ugly duckling around them. Eventually I recognized that this alienation was just a symptom of our fundamental unlikeness rather than anything being wrong with me—which is what I’d grown up believing.

      I’m learning to accept the reality that I will likely never have an immediate family like most other peoples’. Yet this is in keeping with how, in general, I seem meant for “the road less traveled.”

      • David

        Right. It took a long time to recognize and accept that. They are so deeply inculcated in their religious beliefs that I don’t think they’re capable of change at this point, so I’m choosing to move forward as if they’d died. Mourn the loss of what wasn’t and will never be, and live the best life possible in the present.

  2. Violet

    As a former devout christian I don’t feel it’s necessary to forgive at all anymore. When I became an atheist 2 years ago I was, for all practical purposes, shunned by the vast majority of my family and all my friends/colleagues. My parents still talk to me but the relationship is antagonistic in many ways. I have let go of the idea of forgiveness. It’s not that I’m going to stew in hatred and bitterness, but I simply see the forgiveness issues as pointless. These people turned their backs on me completely the second I lost my faith…and losing god was the most painful experience of my life. Of course it’s their prerogative on whether or not they speak to me or look at me, but I’m not inclined to be forgiving of people who actively refer to me as “satan’s daughter.”

    It seems the best strategy is to move forward and create a new life for myself, and not waste any of my resources on these people. Forgiveness does take mental energy and I don’t want to waste it on them. Ironically, they’ll never “forgive” me, and they are the christians.

  3. Damn. I loved this post. That quote about forgiveness, very relevant to me at the moment. I am sorry to hear you have a shit relationship with your parents. Nothing can ever replace that hole. But I think from what I read here your family bonds can be repaired. It might seem crazy, impossible, and a stupid idea, but I think it’s worth every pain.

    • David

      Thanks, James. It’s possible that we’ll reconcile, sure… but to what end? We literally have nothing in common anymore, and I’m fairly certain at this point that they voted for Drumpf in the presidential election. We have a past, but not much foundation for a future.

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