September Links Roundup: The Faults of Forgiveness, Graduating From Church, and Other Radical Ideas

I keep having to come out on this blog. As a gay-affirming Christian, as an abuse survivor, and now as something I don’t have a name for. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t fit. I’m finding God in more traditions, even as I loosen my identification with a single one. Christianity remains important to me as one avenue for connecting with God, but I have to confess that I no longer regard it as authoritative.

Don’t put me in the camp of ex-Christian rationalists, or those who proclaim that “all religions basically say the same thing” (they don’t). I believe in magic. What I no longer believe in is all-or-nothing relationships. I used to think I had to choose between tying myself in knots to accept oppressive doctrines, or being cut off from the face of God that I encounter in Christian art and worship. But I’ve discovered that all traditions contain contradictions, a very human admixture of poison and cure, so that staying within the same “brand name” (so to speak) is no guarantee that all the components will be compatible or equal in quality.

If I have a particular doctrinal sticking point these days, it’s the gospel messages of forgiveness and nonresistance to evil. Setting aside all the corruptions of religious texts and institutions, I can’t honestly call myself a follower of Jesus, because my life doesn’t line up with some of his core teaching. Not just that I find it too hard, but that I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Psychologist Sherrie Campbell’s 2014 Huffington Post piece “The 5 Faults With Forgiveness” succinctly lays out the case against the moral-religious command to forgive abuse and atrocities. (Hat tip to the Feminism and Religion blog for the link.) She distinguishes forgiveness from the healthier goal of accepting reality and having all of our feelings about it: “In acceptance the healing is about you. In forgiveness the healing is about the perpetrator.”

I especially liked her fourth point, debunking the catchphrase that “a lack of forgiveness places you in an emotional prison”. I frequently hear this from liberal spiritual folks who want to square the modern concern for personal well-being with an ancient religion that had different priorities. One benefit of having a non-authoritative relationship to Christianity is that I no longer have to twist words out of their common-sense meaning in order to salvage both the doctrine and my sanity. Campbell writes:

Much information is out there about how if we don’t forgive we will only live in an angry, hateful place, and therefore, we have no power and are, in essence, giving our perpetrators even more power. We are shamed for having the naturally occurring feelings we should have based on our circumstances, because if we have them, accept them and express them we are told we are giving the person, situation or circumstance even more power and we are only hurting ourselves. This causes self-punishment. We feel guilty or weak for feeling our natural emotions. In reality there are things in our lives which happen to us which may always trigger a bit of anger as we think about them, but to be told we are responsible for making someone else powerful with these natural feelings only makes us feel inadequate, and it forces us away from the organic grieving process. This forcing of our feelings away creates what we are trying to avoid: a constant state of anger. In trying to keep our power we end up losing our power.

Progressive evangelical Christian blogger Zach Hoag wrote this risky, heartfelt piece this past summer, about the death of his old identity as a church planter and maybe even a church member in the typical sense. “On Graduating” asks us to acknowledge that a spiritual path may be God’s best plan for us now, yet have a natural finite lifespan–an especially bold realization for someone from a Christian culture that prizes inerrancy and universal truths. I identified with Hoag’s revelation that his shame from an abusive childhood was keeping him from growing and moving on spiritually.

It’s time to accept fully the experiences that have brought me to this point. It’s time to shed fully the season, the identity, the dream that has more to do with who I am supposed to be than who I really am now. It’s time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

Lastly, I want to recommend the online theology journal The Other Journal, Issue #25, whose theme is Trauma. It’s so refreshing to find intellectually rigorous work on trauma theology that’s not behind the paywall of an academic journal. Of special note is “The Spirit’s Witness: An Interview with Shelly Rambo”. Her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining is now on my wishlist. In this piece, the Boston University professor describes being troubled by the way that traditional apologetics forced survivors’ stories into a single narrative arc:

I was aware, however, that there was this triangle of clinical practice, literary theory, and Christian theology, which I found to be a very unique way of thinking about suffering, a distinctive phenomenology of suffering. I brought it back to Christian theology, and I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics. How do we think about suffering, given the Christian plot—the story of creation, fall, and redemption? What happens when the human story and the story of our lived experience doesn’t fit the linear pattern of that Christian plot? What happens when there are certain dominant ways of telling that story which undercut many of our stories? More specifically, I came to believe that it is important to ask why certain ways of thinking about what happened on the cross come to be the one way of thinking. I brought all of the trauma readings, and all of these questions, back to Christian theology, and it led me to my doctoral work on the interdisciplinary study of trauma and to a corresponding theology of Holy Saturday…

…God’s Spirit is never separated from us, but experiences, such as trauma, can render this love—which is the central attribute of the Spirit and which still remains with us—altogether lost. Yet the pneumatology of Holy Saturday says that when all is lost the Spirit surfaces through the textured witness of those who remain. This is where the connection between God’s Spirit and the human spirit is most critical; the witnesses surface this love. Here I am pointing back to my comments about the surface of skin as significant, because I want to emphasize that this work is not just about words or language but, in very concrete terms, about tending to bodies. The theology of Holy Saturday is oriented less to those who experience trauma than to those who accompany others in this journey through the swamp. Finding one’s way in the swamp requires others who can witness it.

What I hope to emphasize about the descent into hell in the Spirit during Holy Saturday is that we have not yet known that Spirit before. And it appears distinctively here, just as the animating breath appears as the breath of life in Genesis. I highlight this distinctive vocabulary for the Spirit, which occurs in the Gospel of John, setting it apart from the Spirit of Pentecost, because it takes a different form. So I mean to demonstrate that it is not just that the Spirit appears in this part of the story but that the witness is a distinctive form of presence. The swamp, as you present it, may be a very real experience of God’s absence, yet the Spirit in hell is discerned not as pure presence but through the witness of the disciples.

And so that Spirit is always present, yet it has to get reanimated. You can go back to Ezekiel and the dry bones. You think these bones are the driest bones ever, that there is no life possible in them, but they just need to be summoned and given life again.

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