These words make my teeth buzz like the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. I can vividly recall my sister and myself, as children, saying these words through clenched teeth. Not only were we Christians, we were the minister’s daughters. We had no choice. The only other words I hated as much: “I’m sorry,” also forced through clenched teeth.
Oddly enough I cannot recall my older brother being told to ask my forgiveness when he and his friend pummeled me. That fell into the category of: “you egged them on.” My mother did used to say of my brother, mournfully and anxiously: “he doesn’t know his own strength.” Which meant: it isn’t his fault that he hurt you. But my sister and I were supposed to be nice to each other.
I also cannot remember my late father the minister ever asking forgiveness for any of his excesses and abuses, except possibly once when I was sixteen. He was very drunk and pulled me into a rare, excruciating, and seemingly interminable embrace as he whimpered: “I love you so much,” which I doubted given his customary behavior towards me.
As for God’s forgiveness, during Morning Prayer (three Sundays out of four) we declared: “we have left undone those things we ought to have done and we have done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” On Holy Communion Sunday, the confession was more dramatic. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word and deed, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” In both versions, God was implored to forgive us for the sake of “thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” I did not believe for a minute that God the Father forgave us for any reason and least of all because his Son had died for us.
As an interfaith minister and counselor, I’ve worked with people who have suffered extreme abuse (rape, incest, physical violence.) Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method: Healing. To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding. I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless. That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness.
Some wounds are a mere accidental scratch, some go to the core of our being and may take a lifetime to heal. We can choose to tend our wounds, regardless of whether or not the one who wounded us did so knowingly or unconsciously, regardless of whether that person is sorry or not, regardless of whether that person is alive or dead. The harm done to us often renders us powerless. Healing can restore our agency. Healing as forgiveness is not so much a moral imperative as a practical one. It is a process, one that can and sometimes must include acknowledgment of anger. If we do not judge anger as a shameful negative emotion (indicative of moral failure), in most cases anger will pass when it has served its purpose.
My parents are both dead. There was enough healing on all sides for them to die in some kind of peace and for me to be left in peace. Healing continues as my understanding of their lives and wounds deepens with time. At sixty, I am writing a mystery novel that includes characters based on them. I can only hope that whatever harm I have done to my own children will also heal. For harm inflicted by the institution of the church on an impressionable child, virtually re-writing the New Testament from an imaginative (and rather sassy) point of view has been profoundly healing for me. Some readers tell me that Maeve’s story has helped to heal their wounds, too. Healing in any form has a ripple effect, outwards as well as backward and forward in time.
On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day observed, I want to acknowledge the reality of collective harm and the need for collective healing. Our nation, whatever its virtues, was founded on two systemic evils: genocide and slavery. Women won the vote less than a century ago. Many individuals and communities in the United States still struggle for basic human rights not to mention those our nation has harmed in the global community—and the harm we as a species have done to the earth itself. The seeking or granting of collective forgiveness is subject matter for another post. (Take the topic and run, bloggers.) In this larger context, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of harm. May we unclench our teeth, roll up our sleeves and turn our attention to healing our shared wounds.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.