Forgiveness in the Epoch of Me Too
The predator was revealed in a post on social media, written by a woman, circulated by women. Years ago, he and I were members of a loosely connected group of writers; not really friends, just acquaintances working on opposite sides of the country. The internet shrinks our worlds, however, and we emailed and chatted enough for me to get uncomfortable with things he suggested a number of times. Nothing like violence, nothing like sustained harassment or stalking, but an ongoing irritation, like a night mosquito.
The post, written by a woman he’d been involved with, revealed worse: physically and emotionally abusive patterns of behavior with different women that went on for years. They were always younger, always emerging in their careers. Some of the names of women who reported interactions with him were familiar: the web of relationships was tightly woven. It made it easier for him to find someone to move on to. Apparently he’d sobered up, yet the pattern still seemed to be happening. So I did what we do these days when we find out a man in our lives is problematic: I activated the whisper network and shared the information with a few women, and severed digital connections with him.
A few days later, a Facebook message. I’d hurt his feelings and disappointed him by terminating our relationship. He was working on his “spiritual life,” which I knew involved Catholicism because we’d talked about Thomas Merton. He was sober now, and what had happened, had happened while he was drinking, and “everyone knew” he was a wreck at that point. Could I forgive him?
I considered this for a few weeks. It seemed the Christian thing to do, the ethical move of a good person. Plenty of men had done much worse to me, from my childhood and into my adulthood. Many of them had also asked for forgiveness. And then I discovered that the agonized note he had sent was a form message. He’d sent the exact same note to friends, male and female, one by one, as they dropped him.
We are in a peak moment right now when it comes to men asking women for forgiveness. And in each case, before any of the violations make it to court–which they rarely do–the forgiveness is meted out not by the judicial system, with its mythologies of checks and balances, but by the person who was violated. The onus for forgiving, over and over again, is laid at the feet of the victim. What are these men really asking women to do? To absolve them and clear their consciences, so they can move on. Meanwhile, the women are left behind to grapple with the repercussions of the abuse.
Sexual harassment and sexual violence tend to occur in a serial manner, one violation after another, on an on, until someone has enough of the silencing and speaks out. Then come the apologies, so many apologies, riddled with “but” and “however” and “although I recall things differently.” Since the Me Too floodgates opened, we have had little in the way of a national conversation about what it would mean to forgive men for harassment, abuse, or rape. But we have also had to read a series of apologies. Many do not explicitly ask for forgiveness, but they do acknowledge the damage they have done. And in that, even in our secular era, there is an implied request for repentance and absolution. The man asks to be cleansed of his sins because he is so very sorry for committing them.
Just a month ago, the novelist Sherman Alexie began his apology by acknowledging that he had “harmed other people.” Victims had described a series of verbal and physical incidents, mostly between younger female writers and the powerful, older writer, sometimes involving Alexie threatening to damage their literary careers. But Alexie then spent three paragraphs disparaging one of his accusers, whose tweets had opened the floodgates for others, finally saying that he had made “poor decisions,” but that he had never threatened anyone’s career, which would be “completely out of character.” Multiple women contradicted this statement. Did he earn their forgiveness by dismissing their claims?
After being accused by multiple women of masturbating in front of them, the comic Louis C.K. admitted that what they said was true. “There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for,” he wrote. “And I have to reconcile it with who I am.” C.K. at least shouldered his responsibility, and acknowledged the damage he’d done. And while what C.K. did was truly odious, there are also horrifying monsters on the continuum of harassment and abuse, serial violators of bodies and minds. The monsters would also like to be forgiven.
Larry Nassar, the Michigan State doctor to the USA women’s gymnastics teams, was sentenced in January of this year for sexually assaulting a series of girls and women over the course of more than a decade. At least 150 women and girls have come forward; Nassar pleaded guilty to assaulting seven of them. In his written statement, Nassar said that their words had shaken him “to the core” and that he would carry those words for the rest of his days. He also said that an acceptable apology was “impossible to write and convey.” Nassar, too, was asking for absolution. He was admitting to his sins, which makes sense, because by all accounts, he is a faithful Catholic.
Nassar was a catechist and Eucharistic minister at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church in East Lansing, Michigan. The diocese confirmed that Nassar had completed the mandated “safe environment” training for parishioners who work with children, and it appears he was involved in catechesis with children up until 2016, a year after he was fired by USA gymnastics, after the first wave of victims had come forward. The AP reported in February that a bill inspired by the Nassar scandal that “would retroactively extend the amount of time child victims of sexual abuse have to sue their abusers” was “drawing concerns from the Catholic church,” which worried about the financial implications of giving victims extended time to come forward. The church Nassar belongs to was shattered by abuse, but in this situation, it appears its greatest concern is not the well-being of its victims.
Christians would like to pretend that we understand what forgiveness means. We march into confessionals to be forgiven. We ask our brothers and sisters to forgive us every Sunday. We have Lent and Advent, entire liturgical seasons focused on penitence. Jesus’s own words about forgiveness from Luke are drilled into us in our catechesis: “even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” It is Holy Week as I write this, just a few days from Good Friday, when Jesus pleads with God to forgive his killers “who know not what they do.”
Abusers will emphasize this: they knew not what they did. “I was drunk. I understood the situation differently. I assumed it was consensual. My recollection is different than hers.” And in the context of situations like Larry Nassar’s, Christ’s emphasis on forgiving no matter how many times someone sins against us is nearly impossible to comprehend. Many of those girls were too young to understand they were being sexually violated. They took years to come forward because it took years for them to understand that what happened to them was deeply sick and wrong.
So too does this idea that forgiveness on the part of the victims should be automatic fail in the Catholic church’s own history. At the height of the Boston scandal, Cardinal Law stated that he apologized and begged forgiveness from those “who have suffered from my shortcomings and my mistakes.” Law’s funeral in December of last year, held in the Vatican and in the thick of rising numbers of Me Too accusations, contained no mention of his years of cover-ups of abuse. The presiding cardinal, Angelo Sondano, mentioned only that Law had dedicated his life to the church, but added that “each of us can sometimes be lacking in our mission.” Pope Francis, to the chagrin of many, delivered the benediction over Law’s coffin. A month later, the pope flew to Chile, where he begged forgiveness for the church’s history of abuse under Bishop Barrios, and then, almost immediately, turned around and accused the victims of “calumny.”
The Catholic church wears a Janus face when it comes to forgiveness. It looks to a future where, ideally, abuse has ended and there is nothing to forgive. But it also looks to a past where protecting the institution, its finances and its leadership led to years of silencing, which damaged victims even further. This same Janus face has revealed itself in entertainment, politics, sports, universities, and workplaces, as the sins of harassment and abuse continue to be aired. On the one side, we see a future where abuse and harassment might happen less often thanks to those who have come forward. On the other: millennia of silencing, skepticism, and doubt.
In researching this essay, I found surprisingly little written in Catholic theology about sexual harassment, abuse, or forgiveness. Even after Boston, even after the Magdalene Laundries, after commission after commission, not much has been written about what forgiving abusers might mean. Much more has been written about this by female Protestant theologians, and particularly by female Protestant ethicists from denominations where women have been ordained for some time.
Perhaps having women in leadership positions means that this reckoning with abuse and forgiveness is able to be more of an open conversation. Perhaps, too, those women, many from the first generations to be ordained, had to deal with harassment and systemic misogyny themselves. Perhaps women in their congregations who’d been uncomfortable talking to male pastors about domestic and sexual violence were finally able to open up to these female religious leaders. And perhaps it’s just how pervasive this problem is across every religious denomination, in every part of the country, and in nearly every workplace. An ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that over half of American women have been sexually harassed, particularly in work environments. The dominant numbers of these women described their emotional state as angry or humiliated. These are not emotional states that easily lead to forgiveness.
In an essay entitled “Love Your Enemy: Sex, Power and Christian Ethics,” Katie Lebaqz writes that the problem of expecting forgiveness is that it fails to understand that abused women “need to operate out of a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion.’” In this mindset, forgiveness can appear to “ignore the role-conditioning or status of men and women in this culture.” Lebaqz writes that forgiveness means “loving your enemy,” not losing “the self or the self’s perspective, for this contradicts the value of survival.” Another part of the problem is that we conceive forgiveness as a kind of sentimentality, when in fact it is an issue of justice, both in recognizing injustice and in redressing it. In Lebaqz’s understanding, forgiveness means that “the enemy remains the enemy,” but victims can “seek a relationship with that group that is a relationship free of injustice.”
For Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, the problem of forgiveness is tied up in the notion of universal sin, which she wrote about in Sojourners in February of this year. In the Christian tradition, Jones writes, sin and sinfulness “pervades all of life.” In terms of male sexual violence, this universal sin “names how some are guilty of perpetrating grave harms, while others bear the direct effects of this sin on their victimized, traumatized bodies and minds.” For Jones, the challenge for Christians is both admitting that the “war against women is real, ongoing, and church-sanctioned,” and understanding that God “rejects this violence as sin and evil and stands beside all those who suffer from it and who fight against it.”
In 1976, Marie Fortune* founded the Faith Trust Institute, which works to help religious leaders address issues of sexual and domestic violence. The Institute is still in operation today, working with interfaith clergy and lay people. In an essay entitled “Preaching Forgiveness?” Fortune frames the issue by first defining what forgiveness is not. According to her, forgiveness is not “condoning or pardoning harmful behavior, which is a sin,” or “healing the wound lightly.” Forgiveness is not “always possible,” and not “an expectation of any degree of future relationship with the person who caused the harm.”
One Catholic theologian who has written on forgiveness and the sexual abuse of women is M. Shawn Copeland of Boston College. In her book Enfleshing Freedom, Copeland, she discusses forgiveness through the lens of slavery, which “rendered black women’s bodies objects of property, of production, of reproduction, of sexual violence.” These women could not forgive their slave masters because “a human subject cannot consent to any treatment or condition that is intended to usurp the transcendental end or purpose for which human beings are divinely created.” For black Christian women in particular, Copeland emphasizes, it is Jesus who does the forgiving on their behalf, because Jesus “does not forget poor, dark, and despised bodies.” He gave his body “in fidelity to the baileia tou theou, the reign of God, which opposes the reign of sin” And he gave his body “for these, for all, for us.” But the understanding that Jesus who does the forgiving is a selective reading. Crucified, Jesus does not look down and forgive those who killed him; his death itself is the forgiveness. The forgiveness is enfleshed in the suffering victim, but the forgiveness must also come from a higher authority.
In this Me Too epoch, that higher authority might be God, but it might also be a slow, gradual shift in the structure of institutions that have smothered the voices of victims. And part of that shift might mean helping men to understand that their requests for forgiveness are a part of their patriarchal privilege. Those who have harassed and abused are allowed to be absolved, and to move on. Sometimes they even move on into positions of great power, as Cardinal Law’s move to Rome after Boston, or the last presidential election, demonstrated.
But perhaps it is time that women stopped forgiving men. Maybe it is not our job to forgive them. While working on this essay, I thought of the work of Sister Helen Prejean. Her decades of work to end the death penalty in America might make one assume she believes death-row inmates should all be forgiven. But this is not the case. Rather, when Prejean describes looking into the eyes of killers and seeing their humanity, she is bringing them to a kind of reconciliation with themselves, with the “transcendental end for which human beings are created,” as Copeland writes. Women do not have to forgive those who rape, abuse, and harass us, because in those acts, in their reduction of our humanity, they deny us a fully lived life. But we can see abusers as sinful, broken, and flawed–and as our fellow human beings.
I never wrote back to my former friend who asked for my forgiveness. But if I had, I would have said this. I do not forgive what he did, but I do not wish him ill: I hope he repairs what is broken about himself, if only so that no more women are hurt by him. I do not forgive the men who’ve grabbed me, pushed me around, groped me, leered at me, made suggestive comments or demanded my body, attention, and time. Nor can I even remember at this point who all of them were; there have been so many over these decades of my life. I do not forgive them, but I do not want them to hurt as much as they hurt any woman, do not want them to feel the guilt, rage, self-blame and self-loathing that so many women feel. Maybe this lack of forgiveness makes me less Christ-like. Maybe it makes me a bad Christian. Or maybe it makes me just as human as these men who hurt women. Just like them, I am capable of inflicting pain. I choose instead to bend my life to avoid doing that as often as possible. This is not forgiveness. But it is what most of us can do, if we try.
Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.