This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

When this reflection is relevant, it is excruciating. There is no way around it. No words of explanation, however accurate or practical, will make it more comfortable. Put yourself in these situations:

  • You realize your spouse has been abusing the children and now need to call Child Protective Services.
  • You dated a popular guy in the college ministry at your church. He raped you. Now you need to call the police.
  • You discover that church’s financial officer has been embezzling church funds. Now you need to file a criminal report.
  • You watch a med tech be careless in how he/she fills prescriptions at the hospital or pharmacy. You need to talk to the ethical board.
  • You realize your son or daughter has been stealing their grandparent’s pain medicine and selling it to other students at school. You need to call the principal.

These kinds of moments tear at our souls. We know there is a right thing to do. We don’t want to do it. In our discomfort and dismay, we look for other options. Forgiveness is often the “break glass in case of emergency” concept that is appealed to stall the process. After all, “It might be unforgiving if I did what needs to be done. I mean, I wouldn’t want someone to call and report me.”

Read through that previous paragraph again. It doesn’t make logical sense. But, unfortunately, it makes emotional sense. When we don’t feel good about doing what needs to be done, we can convince ourselves that this kind of thought process is coherent.

Let’s track the thought process step-by-step. We’ll walk through it using first person pronouns (i.e., I, me, my) to help it feel more like the critical moments of decision.

  1. I learn of awful actions by someone I know and care about.
  2. I feel some flavor of awful (i.e., angry, despondent, sick, betrayed, etc.). At this point, I am thinking of the people harmed.
  3. I realize what needs to be done. I realize many lives will change if I do.
  4. I feel intensely worse. I’m not just aware. I must make choices. My focal point begins to shift to the impact on the person who did wrong.
  5. Reasoning begins to mix with emotion. I realize my actions will have huge consequences.
  6. I focus on the outcome of my choice to act. I begin to consider doing nothing.
  7. I feel less “involved” in the situation if I take the more passive road.
  8. My conscience beats me up for considering the possibility of doing nothing.
  9. Forgiveness emerges as a Christian theme that makes passivity seem virtuous.
  10. I choose to protect the wrong doer instead of the vulnerable under the guise of forgiveness.

Do you see the “fog of war” beginning to settle in between numbers five and eight? Numbers one through three make sense. A shift begins at number four. Numbers nine and ten are the outcomes that make the news as scandals frequently – “person does profoundly bad things and those near him/her do nothing.” We never thought we would be the person doing numbers nine and ten, especially not in the name Jesus.

How does that happen? The key shift points are number four and number seven.

When we only hear of a tragedy, we tend to identify with the victim. We think about what it would be like to be the person who was harmed. At point four in this journey, because we are a participant, we begin to identify with the wrong doer. Our actions affect them. We will have to explain our actions. So the question we asks changes from, “How would I want this situation handled if I were the vulnerable one(s)?,” to, “How would I want this handled if I were the guilty one?”

That shift changes everything!

The shift in question at number four leads to the change in conscience at number seven. In most situations, we interpret an unpleasant reaction by our conscience as an indication that what we are considering is wrong. We think about lying. Our conscience flares. We reconsider.

In this case, our conscience goes off for both choices – speaking up and staying silent. We succumb to the “safest” logic (safe measured by a sense of self-protection), “If you don’t know what you should do, it is better to do nothing.” In some situations, this logic works. If you’re unclear which of two items to purchase, it is usually wiser to wait. Keep your money until you’re certain.

But this is a different kind of choice. Doing nothing isn’t the equivalent of saving your money. Doing nothing leaves the vulnerable exposed. Trauma specialist Judith Herman, speaking to instances of abuse, says:

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asked is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, ask the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, encouragement, and remembering.”[1]

This dynamic is true whenever the actions of one person endangers a more vulnerable person.

Instinctively, we know this. That is why our conscience will not release us to the passive option. That is why the ninth point in our progression is so important. We misuse the Christian concept of forgiveness to con our conscience into silence.

We categorize our passivity as the gracious, forgiving, or Christlike response to the sin of the wrong doer. We trick our conscience to affirm our endangerment of vulnerable people as a virtue. All it takes is a flip of the question for the façade to fade.

  • What if you were the child being abused?
  • What if you were the next girl this guy asked on a date?
  • What if you were one of the church member giving in faith?
  • What if you were the next person in line at the pharmacy?
  • What if you were the parent of a student buying pills at school?

When we identify with the vulnerable instead of the more personal (i.e., our friend, spouse, child, etc.) the notion of being passive towards sin no longer seems gracious or forgiving. It is revealed for what it truly is – dangerous and cowardly.

We categorize our passivity as the gracious, forgiving response to the sin of the wrong doer. We trick our conscience to affirm the endangerment of vulnerable people. Click To Tweet

So, we ask, “How do we convince ourselves of this?” There is one more distortion that often happens at point ten. We insert the word “innocent” in place of “vulnerable” and our theology tells us that no one is really innocent. We are all sinners.

It is true. We are all sinners. But it is not true that innocent and vulnerable are suitable synonyms in this sentence. We are just as sinful as the drunk driver who kills another driver in a wreck. But we are also more vulnerable when we drive on the road not knowing which drivers are sober and which are intoxicated. Our need for forgiveness does not cancel out our vulnerability on the road.

In this light of this reflection, it seems right to conclude with Micah 6:8, “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” That is the point of this reflection.

We obey this passage by noting the order of the verbs: (1) do justice, (2) love kindness, and (3) walk humbly. When justice for the vulnerable needs to be done, that is our first commitment. There is no contradiction between doing justice and loving kindness, even when our discomfort in doing justice would tempt us to think otherwise. We walk humbly knowing we are better than no one in the situation. It is just that, based on the information we have, we have a unique role to protect.

We can acknowledge that there is an emotional tension between forgiveness and protecting the vulnerable. But we must realize that this tension is only in our emotions (i.e., we feel torn), not in our sense of duty or what is right.

There is no contradiction between doing justice and loving kindness, even when our discomfort in doing justice would tempt us to think otherwise. Click To Tweet

Questions for Reflection

  1. Can you think of a situation where the concept of forgiveness was used to justify passivity towards protecting the vulnerable? How well does the ten-step progression of thought capture what happened in that situation?
  2. How would you help someone who felt torn about protecting the vulnerable because the action they needed to take felt punitive (i.e., unforgiving) towards the wrong doer?

[1] Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery, pages 7-8.