For some child abuse survivors, forgiveness is a path to healing. For others, being pressured to forgive only makes things worse. Don’t assume that you know which is which.
(Trigger warning for child sexual abuse)
A respectful response to Rick Belden’s article, “Some Thoughts on Forgiveness”.
This isn’t really a direct reply to Mr. Belden, per se. Mostly it’s my attempt to explain why even the word “forgive” has become a trigger to me, after so many pushy people tried to push me too often. I thank him for posting his article. I still learned something from reading it. I thank him for taking the time to talk with me; and for not minding that I call him “sir” a lot. I respect him very highly.
Mr. Belden and I have talked before, he knows I both admire him and respect his wisdom. I can say that his article makes one main point I do agree with: the idea that forgiveness of abusers is impossible while they are still actively harming the victim, often from childhood into adulthood without ceasing. I agree we must often sever ties and contact to preserve our own safety and healthy boundaries.
I veer away from his article on two points:
First, I avoid religious aspects, so putting any healing work within terms of “sacred” makes me nervous. However, he later clarified that he is not invoking a religious image with the term; he meant it in a more personal way, an internal sacred of self, to oneself. (“Religion” refers to many religions, of course, but for my purposes here, I am referring to Christianity. I’ve never had a Wiccan, Buddhist, or Islamic person corner me and push their views onto my healing efforts.)
Secondly, I find I cannot seem to avoid a feeling of visceral rejection for the idea of forgiving abusers, especially child sex abusers, traffickers, incestuous abusers, rapists… Most are only sorry they got caught; I think they aren’t sorry they did it (or worse, see it as “no big deal”). To me, they don’t deserve to be forgiven. The idea of forgiving them is repugnant. They did a crime against the victim, often an egregious one, over and over, and have no remorse (also remorse can be faked to lure a lenient judge). Of course, Mr. Belden’s article begins at a point where a person has already made the decision to explore the possibilities of how forgiveness could help them. He acknowledges that this is a personal choice and not a mandate.
Still, reading his article and commenting got me thinking of how to explain what I believe, and my views on forgiveness. Having been invited to expand my comments into an article in response, I will attempt to do that.
My main problem with forgiveness (and the issues I keep encountering) is most often with people who want their (often religious) views on forgiveness to be a mandate; or at least that’s how they sound to me. Even after I have clearly stated my views and beliefs, I often get responses that completely negate what I just said, or disregard it completely, or seem not to have understood me at all. This has happened so often it has reinforced my belief that if I disagree with them, they see me as “wrong” or at best “misguided”. Married to their dogma, we all must conform. When we refuse, they end up insulting us (knowingly and intentionally or not) with their false sour grapes pity. There’s a saying in the South of the USA, that a statement of “Well bless your heart” is just a nice way to say “f**k you”. I’ve gotten many a “bless your heart” when I disagree with some religious people’s views on forgiveness.
It bears repeating here, in my opinion, that for every person who finds comfort in religious terms and concepts, there is another person who derives no value from them, or even finds them distressing. Among my abusers were people, men and women, who called themselves “good Christians”; one of them was a preacher. I’ve written about him on the GMP in “Now I Lay Me Down“, and stated some of my views on the concept of forgiving abusers here: “Until someone has experienced…” (Trigger warning on both links for discussion of child rape and abuse).
I’ve come across two excellent articles that support the idea that forgiving abusers is not needed and can actually harm the victim/survivor if they feel pressured to forgive unwillingly; or if they are willing, too soon. You can read them here: Must you forgive? – PsychologyToday.com and here: Forgiveness as a Weapon – Dianne E. Anderson
Mr. Belden does not advocate for pushing anyone before they are ready, he has made that clear. Yet often others do push, and the result can bring harm to the victim. Some regularly suggest that “If you don’t forgive your abuser/rapist/pedophile/attacker, God won’t forgive you.” For people of faith, this could be devastating. For people who avoid religion, it just sounds like another guilt trip, and for both, it sounds like textbook victim-blaming language. These pushy “you must forgive because I say so” types need to be quelled (as Mr. Belden also indicated).
I believe that I personally don’t need to forgive my abusers. Not to help me heal, or discharge self-harming anger, or for any other reason. They were the criminals, I was the victim. They should beg for my forgiveness, but they never will; they don’t care. They took pleasure in harming me and felt they had a right to do so because I was property, a sex toy for them to use. That is not a creature that can ever deserve forgiveness. Yet when I disclose this belief, others will recite to me (as if by rote) “But it’s not for them, it’s for you.” In that moment, though they mean well, I know that my words have not been heard at all. Why is this? I honestly would like to know the answer (and I realize there are as many answers as there are people).
Many say to forgive doesn’t mean to condone or absolve, etc. The problem is many, if not most, people do believe forgive means condone/absolve. If I believe to forgive an abuser means to condone/absolve them, no amount of “it’s for you, not them” is going to change my mind. It’s only going to make me feel unheard. If the goal is to help, the first step is to help the abused to feel heard, not to push your dogma on them, no matter how well-meaning you are. Also, “forgive” is a very religious concept for many, whether they are Christian or not. Please remember, “God heals” language, for me, is an abuse trigger. If that is something I have told somebody else, why is their first response so often more talk about their religious beliefs? May I make peace by apologizing on behalf of survivors for whom religious dogma is an abuse trigger? Will that make those people feel better? Will that make the dogma cease while we try to have the courage to ask for help, or ask for somebody to listen to us? (Not that I have any authority to speak for other survivors, but I have heard the same complaint from many of them.)
It is not my goal to “insult” anybody’s religion or imply it is “bad”. I’m merely trying to state my views, my beliefs – which were created in response to abusers who were religious and used it to abuse me. Some survivors of child sexual abuse were raped by Catholic priests, who brought them into their holy places and sodomized them with altar candles. Religious people who are innocent, kind, and revere their priests may have a hard time accepting that, but it has happened, and does happen. So how does it help (if you want to help) to tell that survivor that religion isn’t “bad”? It is true that some evil pedophile priests or preachers, or “godly people” exist. It is also true that non-evil priests, preachers and godly people exist. The one truth does not negate the other.
In my experience, most people reject the concept of human evil. If an “everyman” can be capable of child rape, then that means any person could be capable of it. Calling evil people, men and women abusers, mentally ill or unable to help themselves due to (fill in the blank here, the excuses are many) gives people a false sense of security. “Well that person is crazy, I’m nothing like that” seems to be a common assessment. Mass murder, rape, serial murder, child abuse, human trafficking, incest, cannibalism – you name the taboo, they all elicit this response in most of society. To me, this is why religious good people seem so uncomfortable with the idea of other religious people being pedophiles, rapists, murderers. Few today can refuse to believe that there are pedophile priests, teachers, preachers, coaches, parents, etc. because the news media has been more open to talking about those events. Yet those decent people are so eager to point out that “God isn’t like that” or “That’s not a real preacher/teacher/coach” they end up stumbling right over the words a survivor of abuse is trying to share with them.
For any victim to even consider forgiveness of abusers, I believe the child sexual abuser would first have to be remorseful and sorry deep down and realize they committed a horrid crime on a defenseless child. Then they would have to willingly seek out their punishment. The sad fact is, almost none of them would, and no prison term can be enough because it can’t give that victim back their undamaged wholeness. The damage of that abuse is a life sentence, yet few abusers will ever suffer as much. So how could the abusers ever deserve to be forgiven? Especially when they gloat and reminisce and count the days until they can get their next victim? That type of abuser is why so many of us cannot forgive, even if somebody tells us “it’s for you, not them”.
I don’t deny that some survivors have said that forgiving for their own sake (often with the abuser never knowing about it) has helped them. I hope for their sake it was their willing choice to do so and not a response to pressure from others or from a church. Yet when they tell me this helped them, I take them at their word. However, this does not mean this will help or work for me. We all take different medicines for a headache or muscle aches, for colds, the flu, etc. Some things that work for me may not work for you, or vice versa. Why is this so hard to grasp in the context of methods for healing extreme injury and abuse damage? Using that example, if I say a pill for headache never works for me, but it does work for you, does it make sense to pressure me to try what I know doesn’t work for me, solely because you believe so strongly that since it helped you, I “must” try it to be helped? What if it is penicillin and I am allergic to it? Yet over and over, I must have this endless circular conversation with others; as if they have a stake in conforming me to their views. Often, when they realize they are not successful, they dismiss me or say they will pray for me, before they leave the discussion with a muttered, “Well bless your heart.” They don’t look back to see the triggered mess I have been reduced to by their selfish insistence that only their views are right, and I am left to pick up the pieces alone.
I’m not even sure I agree with forgiveness of self as a victim, but then my past abuse has me rather tangled and mixed up. As a boy growing up in a child sex ring run by pedophiles, forced to endure rape, and forced to harm other children so they can make their disgusting child porn films and photos, my fight against shame and guilt is horrifying at times. Yes I was a child, they threatened death to me and my mother, threatened to kill other children, if I didn’t obey. My therapist and my family and friends remind me that I was a victim, and guilt and shame are not deserved. Intellectually, I know that. Yet the idea “Forgive yourself to release shame and guilt because you had no control, you were a child” sounds logical… until the nightmares start again and shame and guilt try to crush me. I wrestle with that one in therapy every week; but to forgive my abusers? I never will. They don’t deserve it. I just want to heal as best I can and develop coping skills to continue to survive the rest of the damage I live with every day. When others bring their dogged dogma to me and try to “guilt me” into forgiving abusers, because they don’t seem happy unless I do? Because it fits their worldview, and I must conform? That doesn’t help me. Often, it leaves me feeling suicidal.
The most important thing that most articles on forgiveness neglect to address is that forgiving abusers is a choice a person can avoid if it isn’t the right choice for them. Worse, many articles deny that it is a choice at all, attempting to force, cajole, intimidate or guilt a victim into forgiving abusers solely because we all must conform to their (usually religious) views of “what is right”. To me, “what is right” is to not rent your five year old son’s body to pedophiles for money. I feel that anybody who leaps over the facts of what was done to a person and pushes them to forgive is just another form of abuser. Mr. Belden spoke in an added comment that there are many degrees of wounding, and that is truth. While I can forgive a man for stealing my money or bumping into me on the street, I cannot forgive the people who raped me as a child.
I agree with Dr. Susannah in the comments on Mr. Belden’s story, that so many people misunderstand or misinform the concept of forgiveness and their doing so causes harm. I believe people (in my experience especially the religious) need to be educated on how their pushing of their dogma can harm others. There have been survivors pushed into thoughts of suicide over somebody telling them they “have to” forgive their rapist. Then again, in the wait for religious zealots to be reasonable and see other viewpoints or understand a victim’s pain, I don’t plan to hold my breath.
I appreciate the sentiment of those well-meaning souls who are trying to help. Yet sometimes others who really believe in the concept of “forgiving abusers is for your own peace, not for them, it doesn’t absolve them” are the quickest to not hear it when somebody says they don’t agree and see no value in that concept. I reject “forgive abusers” on all levels, for any reasons. I ask that others please respect my choice. I have a therapist and medications, a great support system of family and friends who understand my past and my views, and they all help me. I’ll find my own way to heal, without religion, and without forgiving the monsters who derailed my entire life and mutilated my body with their sick and selfish criminal cruelty.
The main thing for me is that the degrees of wounding needs to be taken into account, as Mr. Belden stated. There is a scale, so to speak. Somebody taking your parking space is clearly far away on that scale from a pedophile (or many of them) raping you as a toddler. It isn’t about playing some foolish game of “my wound is deeper/worse than yours” either. The scale would be for personal reflection, and for others to respect that forgiving the parking space thief is not the same process/choice as the prospect (rejected or explored) of forgiving the child rapists. No person should ever tell another “I had it worse than you, so I have more right to be hurt/angry/depressed etc.”. I don’t think that way. Fact is, a child groped once can be just as scarred and in need of healing for years (if not their whole life) as a child who was raped. It’s not a comparison game. Yet when I have years of child rape in my past, it is offensive and makes me defensive to have a stranger blinded by their religion insist to me that I “have to” forgive pedophiles or I’m in violation of some personal code of theirs. (This has happened to me often.)
What right does any soul have, for any reason, to tell another how to heal? We want to help, it comes naturally to many. We bring our viewpoints, convictions and beliefs with us when we try to help; but if helping is really the goal, then hearing the other person is vital. Avoid insisting that your way is best (or the only way) as this is more often harmful than helpful, especially if you don’t know the person’s history. Believe me, being told “I was abused sexually as a boy” is not the whole story. The triggers are in the details.
Mr. Belden’s article is about an interior-work based on the choice to do that work having already been made. He says nothing about pushing others to do that work. I feel a need exists (quite often) to remind well-meaning and kind folks who want to help, that no matter how kind and helpful their words seem to be to them, if the person they are trying to help feels unheard or pushed, their efforts may well be met with either defensiveness or despair. Child rape isn’t a stolen parking space, and one person’s beliefs on how to heal may not be what a victim of rape needs to hear. Mostly, victims/survivors just need to be heard. General advice to all: Don’t talk more than you are willing to listen. Don’t spend the time while they trust enough to bare their pain to you, figuring out what you plan to say next. Just listen; that’s what really helps. Afterward, gently suggesting they consider seeking professional help to assist them in healing is a great thing to say next.
Photo—Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr