Forgiveness and Power

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on July 29, 2013.

Over the course of my life I have been instructed to forgive so many times. Ironically, the people who were telling me to forgive were also the people who spent a good deal of time telling me that in reality there was nothing to forgive, or that no wrong doing had occurred. Technically I think this means I am off the hook anyways. But in reality, there was wrong doing from people in my life who were supposed to protect me.

I now believe that forgiveness is a religious concept. I believe it was created to control people who have been wronged, by investing them with an equal amount of responsibility for the relationship, so that if they do not choose to forgive and rebuild, they have at least half the blame. After all, if you are a person in power, you can do anything. All you need to do is make sure the recipient of wrong doing feels guilt if they do not choose to trust you again.

I think this can come in so handy for rogue religious leaders and fathers in isolated families. A fear can be fostered over decades that the recipient needs to be open to the idea of allowing similar offences over and over again in the name of forgiveness. The recipient can be handled as many times as needed to allow the cycle to continue.

There is definitely something to gain if you are already in a position of power. The person in power is already in a position to justify their own actions based on whatever act of god or man put them in power in the first place. I am speaking of power in the small scale, but when a person is in this type of power position, it is easy for them to lose sight of their own place in the world. They can become the king of their own little castle, as it were. They need the concept of forgiveness to exist, so that when they violate the rights of those they control, they can keep that control by inflicting guilt on the recipient.

I do think that there is some freedom in moving forward, which is often confused with forgiveness. It is a totally different concept in my opinion. In my opinion, moving forward is more about recognizing that those who violate your rights are choosing to do so, and have no reason to change in a vacuum. A recipient of wrong doing does not incur responsibility, but if they are going to take any kind of action, ending the ability of the person in power to retain the cycle of control is not a bad idea.

Sometimes the only way to break the cycle is to end the relationship. People often seem so horrified by this idea, but why should someone stick around and allow their rights to be violated over and over again in the name of a religious concept that only benefits the wrong-doer? If someone has been traumatized by their own parents, the options are not simply to stick around and try to maintain the relationship or else live in a cess-pool of bitterness and hurt. There is a whole other option out there. You can walk away. You can choose to surround yourself with people who are not interested in violating your rights. When you walk away, you can leave the hurt there too, because you are leaving the source. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, but everyone has a right to live their own lives, regardless of wrong doing in the past. This takes time but no one has to submit themselves to a proven risk.


  • I partially agree with you. Forgiving someone and trying to rebuild a relationship with them when they are still trying to manipulate and control you is definitely not a good strategy.

    However, I always looked at forgiveness as something I did for myself more than for the other person — it helps me to get rid of resentment, which is something I don’t have the time or energy for. Plus, you can forgive someone without letting them back in your life.

    I would think that spelling out exactly how they wronged you and that you forgive them could be very empowering. If they don’t think they were in the wrong, oh well! You cleared your side of the street.

  • I think a lot of stuff would be better if we used different words for “choosing to stop spending emotional energy on your abuser because you are now actually recovered enough / safe enough / supported enough that it’s helpful to you to do so” versus “wiping out your abuser’s debt to you so that no one feels uncomfortable”.

    Both those things get called forgiveness, but they are completely different. One is a cause for celebration, and the other is really harmful.

  • Nice to see another who shares my feelings on forgiveness. I had to cut my “father” out of my life because he did nothing but harm to me physically, mentally, and emotionally. People who have no idea what he put me through tell me to forgive and let him in my life but the thing is I have been the happiest in my life since cutting him out!!!

  • You article is great. May I suggest you read Unpacking Forgiveness by Pastor Chris Brauns? I think you would be surprisingly delighted by his view and research into Biblical forgiveness.

  • Lois Brown Loar

    NO NO NO NO NO! Forgiveness does not have to include trust of the offender! That’s just wrong, it’s not in the Bible. Yes, SOMETIMES there can be reconciliation, but not with out the repentance(CHANGE) of the perpetrator of harm and it cannot happen quickly to be real.

    Forgiveness is the “letting go” of he victim. The ability to “move on” and choose to walk away from resentment, setting one’s self free to not dwell on the painful past and learn to love life today.

    Reconciliation can’t happen without it, but is not a requirement for forgiveness to be real. One might even feel “love” for the abusive parent, but recognize that it is not necessary to have a relationship with them.
    IF(and I suspect this is a rare occurrence), the abuser apologizes…truly acknowledges his/her wrongdoing….and does not repeat the offenses and even then, trust must be rebuilt. Without that WORK on the part of the perpetrator, forgiveness has happened, but reconciliation is not necessary.

    To suggest that forgiveness = trust isn’t in the scriptures, unless one is misreading them.

  • Lois Brown Loar

    That idea of “forgiveness” and reconciliation is part of the unbiblical stuff Bill Gothard twisted scripture in. I don’t know about other patriarchists, but if they followed Gothards misuse of scriptures, then that is entirely possible.

  • I heard this on a news story; it was a quote from a 9/11 victim’s family member–“Holding onto a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die”. I believe you can walk away from someone and still forgive. Forgiveness, to me, is giving up my right to retribution. This was a really thought provoking post, and I enjoyed it immensely. I always like to see others’ views on this sensitive topic.

  • Thank you for writing about these topics. I found your blog while looking for people who are writing about the phenomenon of “religion” shielding or “covering for” neurocognitive dysfunction or mental illness.

  • I’m glad to read of someone else whose experience with forgiveness I could relate to wholeheartedly. It’s my view that forgiveness is earned, not owed; and that sometimes ‘letting go’ is not as important as standing up to those who hurt us and telling them that what they have done is unforgivable. There’s so much pressure of victims to let go and move on. As I have transitioned into activism I realize that for me to stop being harmed by what has happened to me, I need to stand up and tell my story in spite of how many people would prefer I shut up, sit down, ‘forgive,’ and ‘move on’ — “they chalk it up to my anger, and never to their own fear” as Ani DiFranco says.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It touched me deeply and helped me find validation of my own feelings and experiences. There are so many things that, when forced, are tools of control, coercion, and abuse — forgiveness, trust, love, hugs, smiles, and silence.

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