Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Seventy Times Seven: Abuse and the Frustratingly Extravagant Call to Forgive

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Seventy Times Seven: Abuse and the Frustratingly Extravagant Call to Forgive

Article excerpt

Abstract: Jesus called his disciples to forgive without limit. But in situations of abuse an emphasis on immediate forgiveness of abusers, on enemy love, and on reconciliation ignores the fact that forgiveness is an unfolding psychological and spiritual process, that it includes a significant decision not to retaliate, and that it is a generous moral act that may be separated from feelings of forgiveness and from interpersonal reconciliation. In walking with both the injured and those who injure, the church has a role in fostering restorative justice. This includes the offer of healing relationships and resources to those who have been abused and the initiation of relationships that call offenders to account with a view toward their repentance and restoration. Within the framework of restorative justice, the offering and receiving of divine and human forgiveness has deeper integrity.

If God were not forgiving, heaven would be empty.

-Zimbabwean proverb

That's the theological bottom line: all of us fall short in the light of a just and holy God, but the God known through the long biblical story is also a forgiving God. But as true--and profoundly true--as this bottom line conviction is, it ignores the complicated, practical fine print. Exactly what does this conviction mean for those who have been abused, for abusers, and for the families, friends, and churches who are called to love both?

As contemporary theologians have been quick to point out, affirming a God who forgives does not mean we should offer cheap forgiveness to those who violate others. It does not mean we are free to blame those who have been abused for their inability to forgive the people who violated them. Rather, it means that appeal to divine justice in relation to abuse must always be tempered by the divine offer of forgiveness and call to transformation. It means that in our appeal to God's forgiveness we must remember that God's restorative justice includes the pain of taking responsibility for our wrong actions as well as the invitation to live differently. Affirming trust in a God who both judges and forgives also means humility of spirit: we recognize that it is not we but God who can truly judge the human soul.

Further, holding fast to both divine justice and forgiveness may call for different responses from those who violate others, from those who are violated by others, and from Christian friends who stand alongside both. This suggests that we need a more nuanced Christian theology and practice of forgiveness than we often assume. (1)


Theological convictions, if they are to shimmer in our souls, must be able to withstand the messiness of life, including the realities that color the lives of those whom the Bible refers to both literally and symbolically as "widows and orphans," "the poor," "the exiled," or "the least of these." A Christian theology of forgiveness that speaks to people who have been violated must attend to the bodily experience and particular feelings that emerge when one has been bullied, beaten, abandoned, sexually assaulted, or abused. Consider just this one story of a high school student getting ready to leave for college, a young woman who as a child had been sexually abused by a churchgoing neighbor. (2)

When she saw him turning the corner from the alley onto Main Street her stomach dribbled down between her knees. She moved deliberately but slowly so as not to have seemed to have noticed him. She positioned her back in his direction, stared intently at the items in the shop window, and held her breath, hoping she would disappear among those walking the street. She would have to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. She did not want to talk to him. Perhaps he didn't want to talk to her either. It was a short hope, slapped by his voice at her shoulder.

"Ann, may I talk with you a minute." She didn't want to hear his voice. …

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