On Race, the Benefit of the Doubt, and Complicity

The morning after the jury reached a verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, I watched the sun rise over snowcapped mountains from the coffee shop at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park.  Dan and I were vacationing there with friends, and I’d arrived at our designated meeting point a little early so I could  "pray and meditate" [read: drink my first cup of coffee without having to talk to anyone].

At the Many Glacier Hotel, we had no TV, no Internet, and only spotty cell phone coverage, so I learned the news by eavesdropping on the conversation happening at the table next to mine. 

“Not guilty,” a middle-aged man wearing a North Face fleece said to the group of four—all men, all white. 

His declaration was followed by nods and murmurs of assent from the rest at the table. Something was said about self-defense, something else about “thugs.” 

Then, “Those people need to learn some respect.” 

Those people? 

Surely I had heard him wrong. 

I turned to face the table and opened my mouth to speak.  

And then I closed it. 

Surely I had heard him wrong.  

I’ve been doing this all my life—giving white people the benefit of the doubt, imagining that racism is largely a thing of the past, not nearly as bad as others say.

I did it when, on a double-date, my friend’s boyfriend used an ugly variation of the n-word to describe a group of Black children at the park. Surely I’d misheard him. No one says that sort of thing anymore, right? 

I did it when a Black friend in college divulged to me how difficult it was for her to be a minority on a Christian college campus. Surely she’s just being oversensitive. People aren’t racist here; she must be reading into things. 

I did it when Trayvon was first shot. We need to wait to get all the facts before we react, right? No need to jump to conclusions; there are two sides to every story. 

And I do it every time my first response to a report about police brutality or a story about racial prejudice is,  well it couldn't be THAT bad.

...But it is that bad. 

I do it thinking I’m being careful and gracious and deferential, when the truth is, I’m only being careful and gracious and deferential to the people who look like me. I’m more likely to believe a white person than a black person, to give the former the benefit of the doubt. Thus, I become part of the problem. I am complicit—via ignorance, via unchecked privilege, via selective curiosity and engagement—in a culture that places more value on the stories of the fair-skinned than the stories of the dark-skinned. 

Robin DiAngelo describes the problem as racial illiteracy, and she puts it like this: 

“Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race. Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to racial prejudice and the personal actions that result. But this definition does little to explain how racial hierarchies are consistently reproduced. Social scientists define racism as a multidimensional, highly adaptive system — a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources among racial groups. The group that controls the institutions controls the distribution and embeds its racial bias into the fabric of society.”

I’ve been told all of my life that we live in a post-racial culture, that my generation is essentially free of racial prejudice. And from my small, predominantly white town in East Tennessee, that’s an easy enough lie to believe. It’s a lie I want to believe. 

But wanting to live in a just world is not the same as living in a just world. And as the events in Ferguson this week reminded us, our country is far from just. Racism isn’t simply an insensitive comment your elderly relative makes here and there, it’s a pervasive, unjust, and ongoing system that actively oppresses millions of people. And white Christians have absolutely no excuse to ignore it. 

In the U.S., African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. And even though five times as many white people use drugs as African Americans, the latter are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. 

One study suggests that in 2012, a black man was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes.  This week, it was Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager from Ferguson, Missouri. Last week, it was John Crawford, shot and killed for holding an airsoft gun inside a Walmart. The week before, it was Eric Garner, choked to death by police after he was caught selling cigarettes illegally. And as many parents of Black children will tell you, their greatest fear is that it will be their sons or daughters next, so much so that they often give their kids ‘The Talk,’ warning them that they will be treated differently by police because of the color of their skin. 

If you’ve never had to give your kids that Talk, think twice before you call this an “isolated incident” to which our brothers and sisters are “overreacting.” 

Multiple studies have confirmed the presence of racial bias in law enforcement, and yet Pew reports that when asked the question, ‘Do police treat blacks less fairly?’ only 37 percent of whites said yes (while 70 percent of African-Americans said yes).  How can this be reconciled with this week’s images of a highly-militarized police force using tear gas on peaceful protestors? How can it be reconciled with the stories our Black brothers and sisters tell us about being harassed and treated with suspicion? 

“I have no criminal record,” writes Ryan Herring at The Ghetto Monk, “however I have had numerous run-ins with the police, none of which my actions provoked. The most common of course is being followed around a store. I have never committed a traffic violation but I have been pulled over several times. A few of those times I was asked to step out of my vehicle to be frisked and forced to sit on the curb in humiliation while being verbally intimidated and having my car searched. The reasons I was given as to why this type of action was necessary or to why I was even pulled over to begin with were always made up out of thin air.” 

What has perhaps struck me the most in the six days since Michael Brown was shot is the difference in my social media feeds. Among my white friends and followers, things pretty much carried on as usual up until Wednesday afternoon when I began to see more tweets and Facebook statues about the events in Ferguson. But among my friends and followers of color, this story elicited a passionate, focused response, right from the start.  

This is not to say white people don’t care, or that delayed responses should be chastised as “too little too late.” Not at all. We’re all learning here, and we all communicate our concern in different ways. I just wonder if it simply reflects the painful reality that one group’s “let’s wait and see” is another group’s “not again!” Perhaps if we, the privileged, were in a better habit of listening, the response would have been more universally shared. Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep happens more naturally among those who have listened long enough to know the depth of one another’s stories, and to know their context. 

I was reluctant to post this article when so many others are writing better, more practical things about race and reconciliation. To be honest, I’m scared—of saying the wrong thing, of revealing my ignorance, of detracting attention from the voices that really ought to be heard.  (And I think, in the long run, the best thing I can do is share my platform with others through guest posts and interviews.) But several friends encouraged me to go ahead and speak up. “Show solidarity with the oppressed,” they said, “and challenge the privileged.” 

Well, that means challenging myself. 

To listen better. 

To educate myself. 

To remain open to correction. (That one's hard!) 

To speak up, even when it’s risky. 

To confront my own privilege, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

And to actually believe that racism is real and pervasive—present not only in the power structures of the Empire, or in the conversation around a neighboring table at a restaurant, but also in the dark corners of my own, dangerously-biased heart.  

Lord, have mercy. Forgive us our sins. Light the path to change. 

[For some great insight on how white allies can best respond to this situation, check out "Becoming A White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder" by Janee Woods.]

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Pay Attention to #Ferguson: Some Resources

Social media has transformed the way we talk about injustice, and as events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, we’ve been reminded once again of the pervasive and systemic racism that is present in the U.S. and that affects millions of our brothers and sisters every single day. I am at once grateful for the power of social media and disturbed by the uncomfortable realities it often forces me to face. I’ll write more about that next week, but in the meantime, some ways to listen, learn, and act: 

Follow on Twitter…

Antonio French

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Sunday Superlatives 8/10/14

Around the Blogosphere…

Funniest:
Pete Reynolds at McSweeney’s with “A Meteorologist Works Out Some Personal Issues During His Forecast” 

“Are you going to want to die because of how hot it is outside? Yes, you will want to die. I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. If you want someone to sugarcoat it for you, somebody to tuck you in at night and tell you that there’s a cold front on the way, that the sun-sweetened summer days of your youth haven’t been transformed by global warming and a lifetime of crippling mistakes into a pit-stained heat-hole of suffocating regret, then maybe you should just switch right on over to Kevin O’Dell and the Channel 6 Weather Squad, because you won’t find it here. I’m not Kevin O’Dell, folks. I’m Tom Sykes, and I’m just giving you the straight dope here at Channel 3. I tell it like it is. And what it is, folks, is extremely hot outside.”

Wisest: 
Sarah Joslyn at She Loves with “Lazy is a Four-Letter Word”

“I’m learning something about my need to say YES—it comes from a deeply rooted need to prove I’m enough. I need to prove I’m not lazy. I need to prove I’m worth having around. You know what I want to say yes to more often? Nap time. I want to shut down my computer all the way because I have completed my work and I can rest. I want to say yes to rest.” 

Cutest: 
Noah Ritter steals the show during interview 

Coolest: 
Julie Fletcher photographs Australia’s remote Southern region

Most Liberating: 
Christena Cleveland with “Farewell, StrongBlackWoman”

“My name is Christena and I am a StrongBlackWoman. I am beatable and human, and I am okay with that.  I give myself permission to scream when I am angry, cry when I am hurting, ask for help when I need it, and remove myself from communities that can’t or won’t care for and nurture me as a black woman. Every day is a struggle to put down the StrongBlackWoman façade and take up authenticity, true strength rooted in God and community, self-love, and mutual love. But today I choose to face that struggle and receive the help I need to overcome it.” 

Most Enlightening (nominated by Shirley W)‏:
Jeremy Courtney with “Learning to love the ‘enemy’ in Iraq” 

“The world may watch from afar and denounce all Iraqi Muslims as militants bent on conquest. But up close, the reality is very different. It was a Muslim cleric who may have saved this Christian's life. And I'm not the only one. Even as jihadists justify their atrocities in the name of Islam, millions of Muslims are standing in solidarity with Christians who have been expelled from their homes.”

[Related, be sure to check out and share Karima Bennounce’s TED Talk on people of Muslim heritage challenging fundamentalism. I shared it a couple weeks ago in Superlatives, but it seems freshly relevant in light of recent news.] 

Most Thoughtful:
Kristen Rosser with “The Feminization of the Church”

“Ultimately, ‘feminization’ isn't the real problem.  Women aren't the problem.  Let's face it, in the vast majority of churches the decisions aren't getting made by women-- but Adam's tendency to blame ‘this woman You gave me’ for his choices is still visible in male church leaders today. I firmly believe that if churches will just preach the gospel of the kingdom of God, both its comfort and its challenge-- Christ will take care of the rest.  Men will rise to the challenge to pick up their crosses and endure the stigma of gender contamination in order to identify with Christ.  And this will in time erase the notion that church is a ‘women's thing.’” 

Most Heartbreaking (nominated by Kristin Selby
Stacia L. Brown with “When parenting feels like a fool’s errand” 

“I do not want to talk about this anymore because I was happy this month and you just turned four on the first and all I can think about is the promise I see in you. I think about how well you’re hearing these days with the tiny aids that screech when you hug me and hiss when the batteries are weak. I think about how much easier it’s become for you to simply say, “Help, please” instead of throwing a frustrated fit for the language you cannot find. I think about how often I keep you near me and how many people take umbrage with that. She has to learn, they say, how to live in this world. But how can you learn at 4 to do what still makes me flail and falter at 34? And how can I let you go when a girl a year younger than you was gunned down in our city last week and a boy who would’ve headed off to college for the first time on Monday was executed within steps of his Ferguson, MO home on Saturday?” 

Most Convicting: 
Rev. Erin Wathen with “#BecauseJesus” 

“…Tangled up in each of these contradictions, we glimpse the dark soul of a nation in love with its own comfort, and often indifferent to the suffering of others. And while the Christian tradition may not have conceived this rhetoric of chilled apathy, it has certainly aided in its birth and consequent upbringing.” 

Most Eye-Opening:
Marianne T. Duddy-Burke with “A Lesbian Mother on the Discriminatory 'Inclusion Act'” 

“Adopting these two strong, resilient, loving, generous, talented girls is probably the best thing my spouse and I have ever done. We knew that children who have been in the foster care system would bring scars with them, and that those scars would cover deep wounds. But nothing in the months of training, interviews with social workers that at times felt more probing than doctor's visits, or the reams of paperwork we completed before being certified as foster parents fully prepared us for what lay ahead. We have spent countless hours with trauma therapists, family coaches, physical and occupational therapists, teachers, principals, mentors, tutors, adoption support agencies, physicians, psychopharmacologists, and other adoptive parents than I'd ever want to tally up, all in hopes of finding ways to support our kids.”

Most Challenging: 
Michael McBride (at Amy Julia Becker’s place) with “In Christ there are no racial stereotypes” 

“Along with pastoring The Way Christian Center in the Bay Area, I serve as the director of the LIVE FREE Campaign, a faith-based movement committed to organizing the moral voice and actions of the faith community to end gun violence and mass incarceration. I remember speaking to a largely evangelical audience about the destructive impact that gun violence and mass incarceration are having on the youth and families in my congregation and neighborhood. I explained how these families are largely working class, black and Latino families who find their kids and loved ones caught in a maze of broken systems and structures as soon as they make a bad decision or mistake in judgment. At the end of my talk, a pastor, who described his congregation to me as white suburban dwellers, said to me, 'You know Pastor Mike, I am just gonna' be honest, why don't your people just get a job, stop asking for a free pass and stop committing crimes? My people are struggling just like yours and we are not looking for anyone's help!..."

Best Writing:
Jessica Bowman at Deeper Story with “His Hands They Heal, His Hands They Bruise”

“His fists fly frantically and I raise my arms in protection. He batters against my weak barrier of forearms and fingers, unconscious to the struggle. He isn’t fighting me. He’s fighting someone far away, in deserts of trauma, in wars without hope. A wrist, a shoulder, I manage to cling to him.” 

Best Response: 
Michael Gungor with “I’m With You”

“But listen, huddle people… I’m for you. I really am. And I’m with you. I was raised in the huddle. Some of the best people I know are in the huddle. But you don’t need to be so afraid. You don’t need to repress your intellectual ability to ask questions and seek truth in order to stay in the shadow of the huddle. Because, let me tell you something, there is light outside. In fact, God is both inside and outside of your huddle. And you can still love God and love people and read those early Genesis stories as myth with some important things to teach us. Not all of you will be ready to do that, and that’s perfectly ok. But know that if you create these dichotomies where we force people to either fall into the camp of scientifically blind biblical literalism or a camp where they totally write off the Bible as a complete lie, you’re going to rob a lot of people of some of the richness that the Bible offers. You’re going to create a lot more jaded, cynical people that are completely anti-religion out there. And you are going to continue to repress the questions that lurk in the back of your own mind. And that’s just not healthy. That sort of thinking actually quashes and limits human thriving in the world.” 

Best Reflection:
Richard Beck (quoting Cornel West) with “Love Your Way Through”

“I think a lot of theological conversation ends up in absurdity. In the face of pain. In the face of suffering. In the face of death. In the face of things we know nothing about. In the face of all that absurdity I think Christians talk too damn much.  Me included, given the flood of words on this blog. But the main reason I am a Christian is that it gives me a way to ‘love my way through.’” 

Best Interview: 
Grace Wong interviews Helen Lee and Kathy Kang in “There’s No Such Thing as Passive Aggressive Peace” 

“’It’s hard to be a peacemaker if you don’t have an understanding of the different ways of communication and wrestling with different conflicts and styles,’ Lee said. ‘Diversify your own relational circles. Ask yourself if you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to interact with people who are different from you.’” 

Best Question:
Kathy Schiffer with “Should the Catholic Church Sell St. Peter’s Basilica to Help the Poor?”

“If the great art of the Church were sold, it would most likely be preserved behind closed doors, in private collections of the very wealthy.  Better, I think, to allow everyone–even persons of humble means–to enjoy the works of the Masters, to allow their hearts and minds to be drawn upward toward heaven by the rich imagery of the saints, by the glow of alabaster and the sheen of marble and the intricacy of fine metalwork.  The Church has been a repository of great art, and has made its treasures available for all to enjoy."


Best Perspective:  
Elizabeth Esther with “Some thoughts on what it means to forgive our abusers” 

“Forgiveness means I have no more resentment or the desire for revenge. It DOESN’T mean I tolerate more abuse. It DOESN’T mean I must “accept” empty apologies.”

Best Step in the Right Direction: 
Acts 29 Removes Mars Hill, Asks Mark Driscoll To Step Down and Seek Help

Best Point: 
Rachel Marie Stone with “Inclusive language for God does not equal heresy” 

“Beneath all this, I can’t help wondering: Surely God is not really so fragile as to need all this defending? ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ God says to Moses. God gets to define who God is, and no one else does. If God is pleased to express God’s nature in female metaphors, as a birthing, nursing, comforting mother, who are we to object?” 

On my nightstand…

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm

I’ve long been interested in the life and writings of Julian of Norwich, and Amy Frykholm brings her world to life in this lively and accessible volume, which I devoured in a matter of hours. Highly recommended for fellow Julian fans. 

Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength by Chanequa Walker-Barnes 

 
yoke-3.jpeg
 

I was so moved by Christena Cleveland’s review of this book I decided to check it out myself, and I’ve not been disappointed.

Walker-Barnes seamlessly weaves together the academic and pastoral in this book that has me rethinking everything I thought I knew about race, womanhood, and even the Trinity. I’m hoping to feature an interview with the author on the blog later this month, so keep an eye out for that. 

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen

This book has been recommended to me about a thousand times, but since I have never been the victim of serious spiritual abuse, I figured I wouldn’t have much to learn from it.

But since we’ve been discussing the subject so much on the blog, I finally delved in. This is such a wise, instructive, and enlightening book, I wish I’d read it sooner. I recognize so many of your stories in its pages. We will definitely be discussing this one in the weeks to come. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 

Because some books are just worth reading twice…or three times…or four times. 

***

So, what caught your eye online this week? What's happening on your blog?

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From the Lectionary: Present in the Chaos

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the primordial waters. The water was dark and deep and everywhere, the ancients say, an endless and chaotic sea. Then God separated the water, pushing some of it below to make oceans, rivers, and seas, and vaulting the rest of the torrents above to be locked behind a glassy firmament. In Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, all of life hung suspended between these waters, vulnerable as a fetus in the womb.  

For the disciples of Jesus, the volatility and mystery of the sea was associated with the chaotic, the demonic, the unknown. A powerful storm conjured memories of the story of Noah’s flood when “the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”  Water was, and is, a powerful force that can in a moment give life and in another take it away. 

I know this fear—the fear of chaos, of evil, of death. It arrives unexpectedly and unwelcome, often just after I’ve made some great declaration of faith and convinced myself I’m in control. I’ve climbed out of the boat, put one foot in front of the other, and then suddenly realized the foolishness of the whole enterprise, the forces we’re all up against in this scary world.  They’re dropping bombs in Iraq now, and I know I’m supposed to be against that, but the alternative seems just as dangerous, just as awful. The cycle of violence, fear, and hate continues, on and on—only the word cycle doesn’t quite seem to fit, does it? It’s too neat, too orderly, too predictable. It seems more like chaos, like an unleashed sea.  

No rhyme. No reason. No guiding Hand. 

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to stop asking questions. He doesn’t tell them to abandon inquiry, lament, or struggle. He doesn’t chastise Peter for taking the risk and climbing out of the boat and into the thick of it. He simply reminds him, “I am here. Do not be afraid.” He is present—even in the chaos, even in the storm. We have to be present in the chaos too, to see Him and to trust Him again, to walk on water. 

I am a person of little faith.  I startle at every crack of thunder. I worry about the wind and the waves. I am not convinced that God is present in the chaos, much less able to save us from it. I am standing in the thick of it. And yet Jesus said that even a little faith is enough to uproot a mountain and send it into the wild sea. Even a little faith is enough. 

 

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On Forgiveness and Abuse

Note: Healing from abuse is a long and difficult road and requires a lot of “offline” work. If you have experienced abuse, or are in an abusive relationship, I’d encourage you get help from the authorities if necessary, and from in-the-flesh counselors if possible. I am not a professional counselor. Blog posts and social media can help us think through and confront the dynamics of abuse, and they can assist in healing, but they are no substitute for professional help. For a long list of resources relating to domestic violence, sex abuse, bullying, child abuse, and spiritual abuse, please check out this list that followed our “Into the Light” series on abuse and the Church. 

Lately I’ve found myself engaged in several conversations about the place of forgiveness and grace in the context of bullying and abuse. 

For Christians whose abuse occurs at the hands of a pastor or in the context of a religious environment, getting out and getting help can be complicated by appeals from the abuser (and his or her supporters) to Christian values like unity, grace, and forgiveness. These values are indeed at the very center of what it means to be Christian, and so it is especially tragic when they are invoked to maintain a culture of abuse or to shame those who speak out about it. 

An example that comes to mind, of course, is Sovereign Grace Ministries, where dozens have come forward alleging their families were discouraged from reporting sexual abuse to authorities and small children were forced to “forgive” their abusers in person, even hug them, because church leaders insisted the sins of the child were equal to those of the abuser and all people are in need of the same grace. We see it play out every time Mark Driscoll engages in bullying behavior and those who call it out as wrong are shamed for not extending more grace to the famous pastor. Each time he issues yet another apology, Christian leaders tell us, (and those caught in the abusive environment at Mars Hill), that the Christian thing to do is accept the apology without question and wipe the slate clean in the name of grace and forgiveness. 

What makes this sort of response to bullying and abuse so profoundly damaging is the grain of truth it contains. Central to the Christian message of salvation is the scandalous good news that Jesus Christ sets both the oppressed and their oppressors free, that there is grace enough for them both. Christians are indeed called to forgive, even when it is costly and undeserved, and Christians are indeed called to work toward healing and reconciliation even when it is hard.

But these teachings should never be invoked to protect abusers, shame survivors, or coerce reconciliation. Yet in nearly every email I receive from survivors of abuse, (and sadly, I receive a lot), I hear stories about how hard it was for them to confront and address the abuse they suffered because they were told that doing so wasn’t Christlike. 

So this is something we need to talk about.  It’s tough to disentangle stands of truth from strands of lies, strands of good motives from strands of selfish motives. Our conversation here is only a start, but here are four thoughts on which to build: 

1.  Forgiveness does not require staying in an abusive situation. 

Elizabeth Esther, author of Girl at the End of the World and herself a survivor of spiritual abuse, puts it beautifully: “Forgiveness means I carry no more resentment. It doesn’t mean I tolerate more abuse.” 

It’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve been made aware of just how often victims of abuse are discouraged by church leaders from reporting and escaping their abuse. Often victims are told that it is selfish to speak up or get out, that just as Christ suffered on the cross, they must suffer too. 

Let me say this loud and clear: There is nothing selfish about escaping an abusive relationship or a toxic religious environment. The life to which Jesus calls us is an abundant one, a joyful one, and a just one. It isn’t always easy, and it certainly requires self-sacrifice, but God does not delight in the suffering of His children. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If you are being bullied or abused in the name of religion, if you suffer the heavy yoke of legalistic rules and authoritarian church leadership, Jesus is calling you out of that life and into a new one, where the fruit of the Spirit isn’t coercion or fear, but rather love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Healing is a long and hard road, and forgiveness often takes time. But neither requires staying in a destructive, damaging environment. No one—not the abuser, not the abused, not the community—benefits when abuse or bullying goes unchallenged.  In fact, often the first step toward healing for everyone involved is to stop the abuse or to flee it. It’s hard to heal in a war zone. 

[For more on this, check out The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, and Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for those Suffering Domestic Violence by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb.]


2.  Forgiveness does not require accepting empty apologies or trusting the bully/ abuser. 

Here’s what I mean:  Anyone who has studied the dynamics of abuse knows that the "tearful apology" is often just a part of the cycle. A woman is abused by her boyfriend. She leaves. He offers a tearful apology. She accepts it as sufficient and returns to him. He starts abusing her again. And on and on it goes.  Those who have seen a loved one caught in this cycle know the frustration of hearing her say, “I think he really meant it this time,” when no substantive steps have been made to put an end to the abuse. 

When Christians are told that Christlike forgiveness means accepting every apology as sincere, we can inadvertently perpetuate abuse. There is a difference, after all, between an apology and repentance. An apology is an acknowledgment of wrong. Repentance is marked by a dramatic change in direction, a noticeable change in behavior.  While neither an apology nor repentance is required for forgiveness, an apology alone is not enough to rebuild trust. The abused girlfriend can forgive her abuser without accepting another empty apology as a sufficient reason for returning to him. 

Forgiveness isn’t earned, but trust is. You can forgive a person without trusting him.

Dan and I were talking about this yesterday, and Dan put it like this: “An apology is for the benefit of the bully/ abuser. Forgiveness is for the benefit of the victim. It releases the victim from lingering damage caused by past abuse. But it's a mistake to tell anyone in an abusive situation exactly when they should accept an apology. Until the victim is completely removed from abusive situation and has had time to process what's happened on their own, what looks like beneficial forgiveness can actually enable the abuse cycle to continue. When the exchange of verbal apology and forgiveness allows abuse to continue it defeats the purpose and benefit of the forgiveness, which is to lessen the harm done to the victim… Forgiveness is renewable and not the same thing as trust which can be lost forever... If someone's been a victim of bullying at the hands of Mark Driscoll, for example, they are under no obligation to ever trust him again.” 


3.  Grace does not require remaining silent about bullying and abuse. 

Whenever I write about this topic, I get a flood of responses from people who say I’m being too divisive. Why should the Church air its dirty laundry when it comes to abuse? Why should we call out bullying behavior in our brothers and sisters in Christ? Won’t that hurt our reputation in the world? Won’t the world see us “bickering” with one another and be put off by Christianity?

But confronting bullying and abuse is not “bickering.” It’s the right thing to do. It’s standing in solidarity with the very people Jesus taught us to prioritize—the suffering, the marginalized, the vulnerable. When it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?" We don’t protect our witness to the world by hiding abuse. We protect our witness by exposing it, confronting it, stopping it. Defending the defenseless is an essential (and biblical) part of our calling as followers of Jesus. We don't just abandon it when the bully happens to be a Christian. 

How do you think gay and lesbian people feel when a prominent Christian consistently uses crude, homophobic slurs to describe them and then see no other Christians standing up for them? How do you think people respond when they see yet another article in the paper about a church that prioritized protecting its reputation over protecting children who were being abused?  As Christians, our first impulse should be to protect and defend the powerless, not the powerful, and yet too often, the reverse is the case. 

“The greatest failure of the church/Christian organizations when it comes to responding to abuse is institutional self-protection,” explains Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.). “Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation.   What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of ‘protecting the name of Christ.’ Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection.” 

 [See also, “How (Not) To Respond to Abuse Allegations” and “On Being Divisive”]

4.  Forgiveness and grace do not preclude justice or demand superficial reconciliation 

Desmond Tutu, who is a bit of an expert on forgiveness, wrote,  “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

It’s hard not to see the vague and generalized public apologies that have become a part of our cultural discourse as anything but attempts at superficial reconciliation. And when outsiders demand that those who experienced the full force of those wrongs simply accept public apologies and forgive, it only makes things worse. While forgiveness can certainly happen without repentance and mutual trust, I’m not so sure that reconciliation can happen, or should be demanded, without repentance and mutual trust. And true healing is messy, meandering, and hard, not something that can happen with a press release or that can be dictated by outside observers. 

Similarly, forgiveness does not preclude justice, truth-telling, and accountability. Far too many churches prefer to handle conflict and even abuse “in house,” often glossing over the suffering of the victims in an effort to jump ahead to forgiveness and reconciliation without holding abusers/bullies accountable for their actions. We saw this play out tragically in the case of Sovereign Grace Ministries, where church leaders failed to report the abuse of children to the authorities and so most of the victims were denied justice, or saw justice severely delayed. 

Zach Hoag wrote a fine piece on this not long ago, arguing that “the gospel is not antithetical to justice, as some superficial presentations have insisted. Instead, the gospel is a holistic work of restoration that includes grace and forgiveness from God for even the vilest actions – but always, only received in the midst of a genuine process of repentance and change, all while consequences and boundaries are enforced to protect innocent people.”

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, he vowed to forgive.  He did not, however, vow to stop talking about injustice. 

***

In conclusion, Christians must find a way to teach radical forgiveness, undeserved grace, and restorative reconciliation without perpetuating and excusing bullying and abuse. It breaks my heart to think that a word meant to be so sweet and so powerful to followers of Jesus—grace—will forever be regarded by some of the most vulnerable among us with shame and fear because we failed to act wisely and with courage. 

For more on this, check out our Into the Light series on abuse in the Church, G.R.A.C.E., and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. 

What other points are worth considering in this conversation, and what resources would you add? 

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