Forgiving the Victim

Personally, I am a big fan of forgiveness. I believe that there is no such thing as a transgression so great that it cannot be forgiven. In fact, it’s Elul, the month in the Hebrew calendar not only known to lovers of crossword puzzles, but the month leading up to both Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — and Yom Kippur — a day which promises that whatever we have done, forgiveness and atonement are always possible.

That same tradition, however, also teaches that while anything can be forgiven, we don’t always equate forgiveness with forgetfulness, recognizing that forgiveness is not always the same as atonement. The former reflects a letting go of the hurt and anger caused by a bad act, while the latter implies a reunified or reconciled relationship as seen in the word: at-one-ment.

-Brad Hirschfield
“Forgiving Todd Akin”
The Washington Post

Everyone’s terrified. No one knows what they want to work on. Everyone has something that they find hard. Because this stuff IS really hard. If they aren’t anxious or nervous, they are compensating, and pretending. Never walk into a room and expect that you are the smartest person in it, because you probably aren’t. Don’t let that scare you, let it feed you.

-Joe Hanson
“Impostor Syndrome Grad School”
It’s OK To Be Smart

The month of Elul is all about repentance and forgiveness. I recently read a statement on Facebook made by a Jewish gentlemen who said, “If I have hurt anyone, or said anything that was offensive to any of my friends, I ask your forgiveness before Yom Kippur just as I forgive all who have offended me.” That pretty much captures the heart of Elul and the hearts of anyone who desires to forgive and be forgiven.

But it’s not that easy. I read the article about Todd Akin a day or so ago and am presenting it as an example of how difficult it can be to forgive someone, even if you believe they are sincere in their repentance.

Just in case you don’t know who Todd Akin is or why he is asking for forgiveness, here’s another portion of Mr. Hirschfield’s opinion piece:

Missouri Rep. Todd Akin has vowed to stay in his race for the Senate despite calls from leaders in every wing of his party that he abandon the campaign, and despite comments from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who found Akin’s ideas about “legitimate rape” and the “fact” that “forcibly raped” women are biologically protected from getting pregnant, to be indefensible.

Mr. Akin has inspired more than a little outrage from people in general and women in specific. The idea that a woman can be raped and if it is “really” rape, that her body will shut down certain processes so she cannot become pregnant is just plain crazy. It’s a deep insult to any rape victim and particularly any rape victim who has become pregnant by her assailant. I can’t even begin to imagine what Mr. Akin was thinking when he made that astonishing statement.

I don’t know if this is true in Mr. Akin’s case, but I have encountered more than a few people who behaved in an abrasive, hostile, bullying, condescending, or otherwise unpleasant manner, not because they ever wanted to victimize other people, but because they felt they were defending themselves.

Let me explain.

At some point or another, we’ve all been hurt. Almost invariably, we’ve experienced hurt in childhood. It’s almost impossible for a child to avoid pain all of the time. They’re so dependent on the adults around them; their parents, other close relatives, their teachers, and if raised in a religious home, their clergy. Any one of these adults, in a thoughtless or careless moment, could scare or otherwise traumatize a small child.

Of course, if it is a single, random event and otherwise, you are a child being raised in a supportive, protective home, having one uncle or teacher yell at you isn’t’ going to scar you for life. But if the trauma is repeated or chronic, and if the child is raised in an insecure environment, it’s not so easy to overcome. There are also acute traumatic events like a severe illness or injury that can result in a child feeling insecure and victimized, even if no one is at fault. A child may perceive a long hospital stay with many invasive medical procedures as punishing, even when it’s absolutely necessary. The child can blame his parents for leaving him there, forcing him to be “hurt” by needles, being alone in the dark in a strange place.

There are a lot of things that can feel hurtful to a child.

Children have no power in their lives. They depend almost entirely on the adults around them for protection. However, as those children become adults, it becomes different. The parents have less and less of a role in protecting the child and helping him to cope, and the person who is now an adult must take personal responsibility for how they react and manage their victimization (which can be a real or a perceived betrayal).

Many people find ways to adapt and overcome a childhood trauma or victimization. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m certainly not minimizing the pain and anguish people have gone through. I am saying there is hope, but each of us must realize that we can’t place all the responsibility to overcome on our environment or even on the people and events that have hurt us. We must take charge of the process ourselves; we must make ourselves responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

But what happens when someone is still struggling with their sense of victimization? What happens when your first impression of a person is their hostility, their abrasive attitude, how they bully other people? You probably don’t think they’re a victim. You’re more likely to think they’re an aggressor or even a perpetrator who victimizes others.

It’s one thing when someone approaches us in a humble and sorrowful way, explains to us why they behaved in a hurtful manner, resolves to correct their error, and asks for our forgiveness. It becomes very easy and compelling to forgive them. We want to forgive them. All their barriers are down. They’re vulnerable. If we have a shred of pity within us, we’ll forgive them without hesitation.

It’s another thing entirely to know a person is probably a victim but they do not accept any responsibility for their abusive behaviors and they definitely don’t ask for forgiveness. It’s very hard to get past their barriers when they continue to blame others, not just those who really victimized them, but entire people groups or institutions for how they feel. It would be like blaming all Christians everywhere and calling the church evil because one Christian person or even one rather sketchy Christian church hurt you, even if they hurt you very badly.

If you’re a Christian and you’re continually being blamed by a person who was hurt by “religion” or “Christianity” and you know their aggressive actions are just the mask they use to conceal a very hurt and vulnerable person, can you still forgive them?

Remember, when you tell them you forgive them, they will likely say they’ve done nothing requiring forgiveness and blame you for the whole thing.

Forgiveness is one thing. Reconciliation is something else. But then, Mr. Hirschfield has more to say on the subject.

The desire to be forgiven is only the beginning of the lengthy process of atonement, and it takes much more than an ad campaign, however sincere it may be, to get there.

I am all for forgiving those who genuinely seek forgiveness, but part of that search must include a clear understanding by the wrongdoer of the nature of the misdeed.

I don’t believe that anybody should be judged by their worst deeds or dumbest words alone. Who among us could pass that test? And I do believe in second chances, even hundreds of them…

Confusing forgiveness with forgetfulness and trying to short circuit the process of genuine atonement demeans a sacred concept. So by all means, people should open themselves to forgiving Todd Akin, but that has little or nothing to do with supporting his candidacy for the Senate.

We can and should learn to forgive people who have insulted, hurt, and victimized us, but that doesn’t mean continuing to allow them to hurt us because it’s what they think they need to do to make their own pain feel better. A battered wife may learn to forgive her abusive husband in time, but that doesn’t mean she still shouldn’t divorce him and gain sole custody of their children for her protection and her children’s. You can forgive and still protect yourself from further abuse. You can realize that your abuser is a victim too, but it may never be safe to attempt any form of reconciliation with them, to allow yourself to be around them, to even talk, email, text, or communicate with them in any way.

Once the victim becomes the victimizer in any form whatsoever, while we can forgive them, it will still be difficult or impossible to be around them. Unless they seek help and accept personal responsibility for their actions and for repairing the damage within them, even though they never caused the pain in the first place, how can we say that our forgiving them means we should let them keep hurting us, even in very “minor” ways like name-calling or blaming?

Also, as Mr. Hirschfield said, forgiveness and atonement are a long process. Sometimes it can take years. Just saying, “I forgive you” doesn’t mean you really did. You may have to learn to see past the hurt he did to you before you’re ready to accept that your abuser is a victim, too.

ForgivenessJoe Hanson essentially said that you can let your insecurities control you or you can learn to control them. He wasn’t talking about being a victim, but I think his advice is sound and applies here. Part of what’s supposed to go on during Elul is that we’re supposed to examine our behavior and see where it’s fallen short of God’s standards. This must include our “righteous” behavior when we felt we were “confronting evil” or “protecting ourselves by being proactive.” Were we being unfair? Were we blaming people who never hurt us? Are we projecting our own pain, anger, and suppressed rage onto others?

Are we perpetuating our own victimization and feeling self-righteous by continuing to attack and blame people who had nothing to do with the original cause of our pain?

What if our so-called “righteousness” is just a disguise and we’ve really become the monster we are still afraid of in the dark?

We can never go back in time and prevent the damage that was done to us. We can however, take responsibility for who we are today, seek God, seek help through various therapeutic means, and rise up out of the ashes of our yesterday to become a better, more truly righteous, and forgiving person tomorrow.

Forgive.

If I have hurt anyone, or said anything that was offensive to anyone, I ask your forgiveness before Yom Kippur just as I forgive all who have offended me.

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