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Nadia Bolz-Weber on Forgiving Assholes

This isn’t the article you think you’re going to read about forgiveness.

You see, this video has crossed my Facebook news feed recently. And I feel… conflicted about it at best.

To begin with, I’m naturally inclined to distrust anyone who’s wearing a clerical collar. The church doesn’t have a stellar reputation for truth and justice–at least from where I sit. It’s complicated.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about how words mean things. And that words often take on more connotations than their dictionary definitions reveal.

So what does it mean to forgive?

forgive definition merriam webster

There’s a component of the established definition of forgiveness–as well as a broad connotation surrounding colloquial usage–that someone who owes a debt will be granted relief from payment of their debt.

To say to a perpetrator I forgive you legitimately means to erase their debt to you or to society.

It feels like saying that perpetrators shouldn’t have to face the consequences of their actions. It feels like saying that even though a crime took place, there should be no punishment. There’s a connotation that you’re wiping the slate clean. It’s like saying the offense never happened. And that’s exactly how it works in Christianity. Jesus wipes your sins away as if those sins never existed.

In this way, the idea of forgiveness has so often been used to cover over a multitude of sins.

While I left Christianity behind many years ago, I’m reminded that there’s a part of the Bible that talks about a thing called godly sorrow:

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done…. — 2 Corinthians 7:11

When someone demonstrates sincere sorrow, their debt may legitimately be erased by the injured party. When someone is accepting of the consequences of their actions, the injured party may opt to forgive the debt created by the offender. Sometimes, knowing that an offender is is truly sorry for their words or actions is enough for us to just let it go.

But we need not forgive in order to make others around us feel more comfortable. We need not forgive in order to avoid conflict. It’s not for others to tell us that we should forgive. If you weren’t the injured party, don’t take that authority upon yourself. You have no right.

Then, however, there’s part of the definition of forgiveness that talks about ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.

How we feel matters. “Releasing” or “detaching” from your own feelings of anger, rage, resentment and more–sure. Those emotions will eat you alive, if you let them. They can crowd out room for healthier emotions and goals and motivations.

Part of releasing those painful emotions around transgression and forgiveness goes beyond just ourselves.

Broadly speaking, our social contract here in the Western world involves us giving away a percentage of our own power in order to empower ostensibly fair and neutral authorities who we believe we can trust to enforce the law, decide and enact punishments, and generally act in the best interests of both individuals and society.

The social contract here in the U.S. is shredded–and, in fact, has always been. On some level, that social contract is also an illusion–and it always has  been.

For example, the idea that slavery was ever acceptable and legal in the U.S. You can’t say that “all men are created equal” and then decide that men with darker skin only count as 3/5 of a person. You can’t say that “all men are created equal” but then force some of those men (and women and children too) into unwilling servitude.

You can’t say that “all men (which, at times, can be a poetic way of referring to ‘everyone’) are created equal” and then decide that non-men are inferior at best, chattel at worst.

Is it possible, or even wise, to extend “forgiveness”–meaning, to erase that person’s debt to us or to society–when we cannot trust our authorities to do the right thing? Has it ever been possible or wise for us to do that? 

Every time those we’ve placed in authority fail to act wisely and justly and fairly, the contract gets shredded again. The rest of us are responsible for a portion of that shredding, too, when we don’t hold our authorities accountable to the standard of wise, just, and fair.

What if every person on the planet who was protesting something were to “forgive” those who are perpetrating atrocities on people and, indeed, the planet itself? What if we were to forgive a debt or a transgression but the person or entity who transgressed did not change what they’re doing? That is a recipe for guaranteed destruction. 

So no. I’m not going to do that.

I don’t forgive assholes. 

Instead of forgiveness, we need authorities we can trust. We need liberty and justice for all. We need these things to help us release our feelings of rage and vengeance and our thirst for justice.

How can we forgive–how can we fail to hold someone accountable for their words and actions–if we can’t trust our authorities to impartially and unemotionally carry the burden of justice in our names?

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