In my latest post titled Seeing Christ in The Dark I primarily reflected on how to live within and through the reality of evil in light of God's reality. One of my basic claims was that evil does not have meaning in itself, but does in the context of God's reality. God's reality fundamentally transforms our perceptions of the world and the evil around us. In this vein, I reflected on how the biblical world formed me through and in the midst of physical and psychological violence.
Now I turn to the topic of resisting evil within God's world. I approach this topic not from a triumphalist vantage point, but from the reality of having been crushed, unheard, and slandered to the extent that in my young heart I could not picture anything different in this life. But I also come as a beautiful work in progress by the crucified Christ who walks twisted paths with me. His life vivifies the present and, in him, anything is possible including the idealism this engenders.
Because God is with us, I encourage everyone to stand against evil to the degree they are able and be committed to suffering the consequences of it. And there most undoubtedly will be consequences. I also advocate a do or die attitude when it comes to standing up for yourseld and others making you a more formidable opponent. I like to think of it through the metaphor of my time in Judo class. In Judo practice you get slammed into the ground at high speeds constantly and you must keep getting up. Sometimes there is a sort of victory or defiance even in being committed to getting up when others would bury you or the person you wish to defend.
However, a word of caution. "Resistance" can also take a variety of forms depending on one's place in the world. I have been in situations where I have had to simply exist in a social system or situations where I was constantly beaten down without any hope of coming out of it for years. The future was dark and bleak except for God entering into my situation and forming me in the process. I have also been in situations where I could overtly go against the grain. The Bible acknowledges both of these realities giving different directions on how to live in each (More on this in later posts). My general advice is to navigate the world skillfully (wisdom) and take a stand whenever you can and it makes sense to, committing yourself to the repercussions whether in the form of social ostracization, extreme stress or physical punishment.
Additionally, for some, the conviction that one must resist evil may be functionally squelched in favor of a disposition where one always gives the benefit of the doubt to others--no matter what they actually do or who they hurt! This way of thinking tends towards putting huge burdens on victims to come around to the perpetrator's way of seeing things and tends to deny reality or sweep it under the rug (can't we all just get along?). Or, on the other end of the spectrum resistance is all-encompassing without space for other kingdom values. Whenever one feels slighted they think they must resist without mitigating it with the idea of turning the other cheek, not seeking revenge or even considering they themselves might be mistaken. As a general rule, I do my best not to assume malicious intent. If I see troubling patterns I take note but do not jump to conclusions.
Now that I have introduced the general topic of discussion: resisting evil, I now turn (out of necessity) to that nagging imperative ever present in the evangelical consciousness when it comes to victims of crimes and slights alike--forgiveness. They may not know you well, but they know you must have a problem with it. What follows will be a consideration of what forgiveness is not, is and how one can resist evil by resisting shallow conceptions of it and by truly practicing it!
I. The Dark Side of Forgiveness (Narrowly Defined)
A. "Forgiveness" = Letting It Go?
Forgiveness, narrowly defined, is often weaponized against victims and those wronged. It is a tool that functions (whether intended or not) to silence and retain the status quo. It may not even truly be forgiveness the "teacher" is requiring of the person. In my direct experience, "forgiveness" equated with "letting it go" is often used as a tool to silence victims and often enables or embolden evil behavior (i.e. one can do whatever they want and be guaranteed the victim and everyone else's cooperation afterward). It also functions to prolong a victim's suffering and piles on unnecessary guilt. There must be something wrong with me because I am still devastated and angry.
Back when I was healing from physical abuse and warped perceptions, everyone would ask me over and over again if I had forgiven X. They assumed without evidence that: 1) I needed to forgive, 2) my primary need was to forgive, 3) I had this primary moral responsibility/burden because I was violated. They also assumed that because said abusive person and I had a highly shallow and distant relationship that it was evidence of my lack of forgiveness rather years of realization that said the person would continue to harm me and no meaningful relationship was possible. Somehow though, it was my "responsibility," having been abused over many years, to continually try and initiate unhealthy relationships.
"Have you forgiven him or her" is almost a knee jerk response in Evangelical circles. It is almost as though people can't help themselves. Even if they are savvy or compassionate enough to not make it the first thing that comes out of their mouth, it must come up! Now that I am 30 years old I know the drill. If something horrible happens to me I know to expect the following: 1) Someone will imply or directly tell me of my need to forgive, 2) I will have had it coming somehow even if the group denounces the action against me and 3) If I go against the grain or challenge the initial action it is very possible everyone else will turn on me for it. It is like walking through the airport at this point. You are in line, you see it coming and you start taking off your shoes, but not socks, take your laptop out of the bag and put it in its separate bin...etc. Basically, know what to expect and have a plan of attack.
If you are victimized, recognize this knee jerk response for what it is and move past it. Meaning, take a breath and understand it is their insecurity or weakness, not a reflection of your issues. If Jesus himself stood before them with holes in his hands and feet they would have asked him if he forgave his tormentors! If you are able, challenge it. If not, be polite, but do not internalize it. Having dealt with this evangelical characterization since childhood, I always know it will come up anytime I am significantly wronged or anytime I share my testimony involving abuse and am quite comfortable confronting it. It gets very easy over the years and usually the other person really just never thought of it from another angle before. They may not even know what to do when you calmly explain to them that you disagree with their definition of forgiveness and merely need to protect yourself from person X and harbor no ill will towards them.
Really, no one likes drama and in the aftermath, unfortunately, it is the victim alone who is often left to pick up the scattered pieces of themselves. When someone shares they have been raped, abused or bullied it causes tension and people do not always know what to do since something has occurred outside of acceptable limits creating disequilibrium. The victim who is still processing and navigating it is often treated as an additional and current disruption since the event already happened in the 30-second "past." And yet, they are living more vividly in the present than everyone else out of no choice of their own. Why can't the victim just "let it go?"
My advice from years of Bible study and personal encounters: Identify the reflex for jumping to "forgiveness" for what it is: Victim blaming. They see you or the person hurt as problematic or in need of moral guidance because they can't or do not wish to deal with the reality of what happened. Sometimes it is merely because they equate being "over something" with forgiveness and if you are angry, sad or unreconciled then you must not have forgiven and must need them to point it out to you. Sometimes they cannot imagine that one can go through what you did and easily pardon. Or perhaps cannot comprehend a full pardon within the tension of respecting oneself as loved by God and refusing to put yourself in harm's way again.
B. Resist their Paradigm
If you can, politely resist the requirement to forgive from the outside and all it entails (unless of course you have gone through an extended healing process and are still embittered and entertain vengeful thoughts). However, know that what you are doing is going against a narrative that says: because you were wronged, you have a moral responsibility and/or culpability. You are not responsible for having a good relationship with perpetrators and restitution is their job, not yours. Some of this surfaces in cases where women get severely battered by husbands (maybe their nose gets broken). They divorce him and yet are seen as the marriage covenant breakers rather than formalizing a covenant already broken (in the OT a woman whose life is threatened by neglect by her husband has grounds for a divorce). They are thought to be the ones in the wrong and are often told to go back and submit to the abuse or that they are obligated to get the relationship back on track--all couched in the rhetoric of forgiveness and wifely duty.
In the end, sometimes you may suffer more consequences by resisting their knee jerk reaction to assign you additional responsibility. Everyone in a group may try and gather around and pressure you to be in a relationship with an abuser and if you struggle with an anxiety disorder it means you may end up having to relive the moment some more because people keep bringing it up. Or, you could have to have your character smeared because you are now also "unforgiving and bitter." Maybe everyone will pity you because you do not recognize the error of your ways.
Maybe you have already forgiven the other person? Maybe you need to process the evil first so that it is named before you can forgive it? Maybe you are in flight or fight and just need to survive in the moment? At the end of the day, It's really not mostly anyone's business. If you know you are in an unsafe context and there are no resources to protect you, you have a decision to make: do you say anything?
Whatever you chose, do not let "forgiveness" be weaponized. Challenge the paradigm outwardly if you are able. Or, at the very least, understand that forgiveness is your God-given birth right and is not to be equated with your silence, a fake smile, cheap substitute for healing or zen state of non-caring. Also, I recommend expecting and being ready for someone to bring up the issue of forgiveness. It will happen. It happened to me just recently after I almost finished this post. I was beginning to think no one was going to bring it up and was genuinely surprised. NOPE.
If you notice someone doing this to someone else, I suggest politely saying something like: "I understand you mean well [name], but there is no reason to think she struggles with forgiveness." Then quickly transition to acknowledging what the person wronged brought up and engage them on the subject matter rather than this other person's speculation about their character. If you can help redirect the conversation back where it should be, you will have resisted a victim blaming tendency and put the focus back where it needs to be: naming the sin and recovery for the one wronged. Of course, if the person wronged goes back to the issue of forgiveness that is a good thing and their choice.
Finally, resist and do not accept apologies that are not genuine if you can survive without them. Sometimes people demand that you pretend their sin was other than it was in the form of apology. When you listen closely and their apology it may sound a lot like "you had it coming because of X," or "there are many different interpretations...I'm sorry you felt that way...etc." Don't do it! Don't accept the apology! We are taught as young children to reply, "I forgive you" when a playmate is insincere. I have heard many sincere and insincere apologies in life. I have stopped accepting insincere ones. Why? I belong to Christ and for their sake and recognizing my own value in God alone, I will not pretend. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend. Stand up straight and see them for who they are. The Bible has a lot to say on loving your enemies and praying for those who curse you even being overly generous towards them! Also be generous with the truth.
II. The Bright Side of Forgiveness: Forgiveness in God's World
Concretely, forgiveness is recognizing the sin, but not taking vengeance against the person(s) who did you wrong or harbor extended bitterness towards them. For example, there is a good friend of mine whose job was coveted by a wealthy coworker who conspired to get her fired and almost succeeded. He managed to turn all her other co-workers against her even a friend who became fixated on somehow finding "equal responsibility" since two people were involved. He even charmed those above her for a while. In the end, she managed out on top (sort of). She is still recovering from the horrific event, but God's reality is evident in her life because she had the opportunity on multiple occasions to sabotage one of the people who smeared her and she didn't--even as that person was still actively trying to sabotage her! That is God at work. Forgiveness does not equal "letting it go" or healing or reconciling, or trusting (except in God), but in acknowledging sin without holding it against the person. These other things may or may not follow from forgiveness along with time and a safe context.
Forgiveness may be given and then need to be given again if the other person wrongs you again or you find yourself falling back into patterns of bitterness or vengeful thoughts. In time, forgiveness, depending on the wrong and level of sanctification, may just become a state of being coming out of the overflow of your love for God and all he has done for you 70x7 regardless of a sincere apology. Jesus declared "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." God offered forgiveness to all of us through Jesus on the cross (while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly) while we rebelled against him...and yet we do not all accept the offer.
Desire goodwill, but do not be deluded. Where possible reflect God's society by being reconciled, and where impossible protect yourself and navigate your unique setting with wisdom identifying those who will continue to harm you and those who won't. For those who won't let God's kingdom reality be evident through you, hold no grudges as you protect yourself. Be patient with yourself when you do not show proper deference, but strive towards it none-the-less. Still, forgiveness does not bow the knee, it pardons on a personal level (not institutional/legal). In everyday life, this means avoiding trash talking those who have trash talked you wherever possible. It means acting generously towards those that wronged you whether it is in defending them when they need to be defended (and are in the right), or it means not taking those opportunities that present themselves to act in kind (doing so is a sin against God). It also means ignoring many small slights and giving freely where it does not involve funding their sin further.
III. The God of the Impossible
I love C.S. Lewis' description of this reality in The Great Divorce. In it, one could take a bus ride from hell into heaven, but without guarantee, one will like it or want to stay. In it, a man is indignant because he discovers in heaven his loved one and the murderer of that loved one getting on as the best of friends without any care. In heaven, it is a natural relationship, but truly bizarre from other vantage points. I love this description because it portrays our future (not necessarily present). I believe we can reflect this reality just a little bit by letting the love that God has kindled in us continue to grow so that our heart leans fully in this direction towards this future. Lean towards this reality, but do not pretend this reality. Life is a series of tears and broken pieces and sometimes there must be a crucifixion before the resurrection.
God is indeed the God of the impossible. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Because God has not held our wrong doing over our heads but has shown us his abundant love we can certainly show this towards others. Sometimes we are wronged significantly, and yet sometimes the other person acknowledges it fully, are horrified by their actions and pledge to never do it again. Recognize the manifestation of the Spirit wherever He is, even eagerly go looking for Him like someone in love. Know that We could easily be in this situation ourselves of needing forgiveness. This is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to move forward and restart new. This is one of those good things God has prepared ahead of time for you. Take it and be delighted with it! Do not feel superior because it is a gift from God to you. See Christ in them and be compelled with joy to be a small part of God's work in the world, being thankful. Act as though the wrong has never occurred where possible.
And sometimes all you can do is also refrain from evil. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend.
IV. Forgiveness Is Stepping Out In Faith
To forgive is to be vulnerable within the context of God's power. But in order to forgive one must oppose evil. Evil must be named for what it is and sometimes pardoned by one from a lowly position (the wronged). It means standing squarely against the powers of darkness, sanitized narratives, and those who believe violence requires violence and insults demand insults. It recognizes God's reality in the person doing evil and their potential in Christ. Often it means, though all appearance to the contrary, that you know God is present and at work reconciling the world. You can be a small part of it and represent his good will to others. This snatches power away from the perpetrator, evil within and from without and looks up to the Lord. It is the process of walking (as though a baby taking her first steps) through the waves and saying, "God, I am undividedly yours." It is being still in the midst of turmoil and acknowledging God is God.
Evil persists where it is not illuminated and exposed for what it is. In Ephesians, we are called children of the light. Be in close relationship with God and you just may be put in situations to expose evil. Evil that is exposed by the light, becomes light and this is a testament to God's power when you can expose it. Don't be surprised either if God acts on your behalf either! Once the night before I was compelled to pray for a situation by the Spirit and was told to step out in faith when I saw the icon of Peter meeting Jesus on the water. Bewildered I wrote in my journal: "I guess I will know what that means when the time comes???" The next day I had to make a difficult choice and saw it. It's enough to say events took a drastic turn.
In line with my post on Seeing Christ in the Dark, I conceive of forgiveness and exposing evil as part of walking through evil, not in pushing it mentally away or ignoring its twisted reality or danger. It is our duty as believers to resist evil at every turn, illuminating it and exposing it for what it is according to our capacity. This is a worshipful endeavor that is part of our vocational calling to love and holiness representing God on earth. In this vein, forgiveness itself (though not exclusively) can also be an act of resistance against the powers that be. We belong to a different social and political system called the Kingdom of God that is breaking into our present and as such our priorities and dispositions must at times go against our context. They want us to be silent? We won't. They want us to take vengeance or turn the tables of power to our benefit? We refuse. As heirs of God's kingdom and image bearers representing God on earth we get to walk in forgiveness manifesting God's reality.
Forgiveness is a kingdom reality embedded in the reality of the transformative work of Christ in, around and through us. The world may require vengence or complacency, but we can step out in faith, joining Christ on the water despite the danger because we know who he is and who we are in him.
Until next time.
Still, watch your back!