Karen Ingala-Smith, Desmond Tutu and Forgiveness

After writing this blog critiquing Archbishop Tutu’s article about forgiveness, I thought it may be valuable to respond to the specific things Karen Ingala-Smith says within her blog about his article. So here goes…

 

“But is it for the child to forgive the abusive parent? What does it mean for a boy child to forgive his father for violence towards his mother, essentially for a man to forgive another man for violence against women?”

 

I think Karen raises a really interesting point here. I read Tutu’s article as a forgiveness of his father for the trauma that it caused him, rather than absolving his father’s sins on behalf of his mother. Perhaps this is one of the differences in mine and Karen’s views of forgiveness. I would see the forgiveness I offered to someone as only related to their actions towards me, the hurt they caused other people, perhaps even within the actions towards me, would need to be forgiven by the other people that have been hurt. My forgiveness doesn’t absolve the offender’s sin, it is a decision for me to no longer wish that person harm. It doesn’t even remove the consequences of their choices, it is about the attitude with which I approach them.

 

“In a feminist analysis that identifies patriarchal society, religion has been shaped to protect men’s oppression of women.”

 

Karen and I may hold similar views on many things but it is here that our ideas diverge. I understand completely why she sees religion as an institution designed to maintain patriarchal systems of power. My experience as a church goer for my entire twenty nine years of life has proved over and over that religion is a patriarchal institution. But my faith and experience of God is not of a patriarchal entity desiring to control and subjugate me; it is of a truly liberating character that seeks to enable me to be more than I could have ever imagined. I don’t believe this understanding of faith can come outside of an experience with the Divine and so do not blame Karen for her strongly held conviction of this. However, perhaps her views are a wakeup call to the church. Gender justice is not a secondary issue if people reject all aspects of faith because of the Church’s investment of patriarchal structures.

 

“Apparently, in the bible there are two types of forgiveness: God’s pardoning of the sins of ‘his’ subjects, and the obligation of those subjects to pardon others.”

 

I struggle with the idea of forgiveness as an “obligation” and this is not my experience of faith. The times I have forgiven others has not been out of obligation. In fact it was when forgiveness felt like an obligation that I fell into a state of denial, pretending that if I just tried hard enough, I could make my ex-husband’s treatment of me not hurtful. It was as I felt the bitterness of hatred towards him that I decided I no longer wanted his treatment of me to define anything about me, including my feelings towards him that forgiveness became a reality for me.

 

“Being able to do so is so important that a believer’s eternal destiny is dependent upon it. Refusing to forgive is a sin. Forgiveness then is a selfish, not a selfless act.”

 

In Matthew 6 Jesus does states that unless we forgive one another, God won’t forgive us. We also find that in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus prefaces His teaching on forgiveness by saying we must hold to account those who sin against us. None of these verses can be taken in isolation. I personally have never forgiven because I believe it will save me for eternity.

 

“… when talking about violence, [forgiveness] is an act that absolves the abuser of their responsibility…I disagree. We are more than the product of our experiences. We have consciousness, we make choices, we can see if our behaviour is harmful or hurtful to another. Abusers are always responsible for their abuse. If someone’s ‘god’ , or indeed another believer, can absolve someone for the choices that they make, their responsibility is erased.”

 

I totally agree with Karen here. Tutu’s assertion that forgiveness removes the responsibility of an abuser is not my understanding of Scripture. Surely the Christian faith is rooted in a belief of free will? No matter what leads up to our actions, our choices are just that, choices. The consequences and responsibility for abuse and violence are not eradicated in forgiveness, it is the ability for that offence to define us that is removed. If someone cuts off my legs, it does not matter how strongly I forgive them, I still have no legs. My experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean I know I am free, but if I choose to kill someone tomorrow, I will still have to deal with the consequences of that choice, as will everyone affected by that murder. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24,

 

““I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial.

“I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive.

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

 

“By reducing male violence against women to an individual relationship, one in which someone who is neither perpetrator nor primary victim can bestow forgiveness, we are ignoring, condoning – forgiving – the wider impact of men’s violence upon women, upon all women above and beyond that individual relationship.”

 

All I can say to this is yes, yes and yes! We must be careful whenever talking of forgiveness that our message does not condone or justify behaviour. We must always consider how our words and actions impact the vulnerable and the hurting, and recognise the principalities and powers that we are fighting against; in this case the spiritual power of patriarchy.

 

“We cannot allow a person to say that this is okay, that this is forgiven, but it appears that religion encourages us to do just that. Indeed, male violence against women can be forgiven by god. That’s just a little bit convenient for patriarchy.”

 

Again I agree, we cannot allow forgiveness to blind us to the reality of patriarchy. We must not let forgiveness become a weapon of abuse, which for many women it has. The teaching on forgiveness disabled me from making good choices, it enabled an abuser to totally destroy me and it is doing the same to far too many people each and every day. We have a responsibility to ensure our communications, teaching and theology do not collude with or enable abuse. We must critique the systems which perpetuate and enable abuse to continue. This is a prophetic work and I believe that Karen Ingala-Smith and other radical feminists are doing this work while the church very often colludes with the systems of oppression Jesus came to set us free from. I applaud them for their work and thank them for their courage.

 

“In the UK, the mainstream is very quick to identify ‘other’ religions as oppressive to women but this is equally true of Christianity. Religion reinforces and upholds patriarchy, forgiveness is just another of its tools. We do not need to forgive male violence against women unless we want men to continue to dominate women.”

 

To some extent, I agree with this. I have seen religion uphold patriarchy, I have experienced forgiveness as a tool of patriarchy and it makes me weep, because that is not the whole story. I have spent most of the day deeply distressed at the reality of being an outcast. I don’t fit in the Christian world, with its 1950s housewives, its black and white clarity, its collusion with the Powers. And I don’t fit in the feminist world because I live for Jesus. I will unapologetically give my whole life to an awesome God whom most of the feminist world understand to be an oppressive construct propping up patriarchy, and yet it is in Her that I have found liberation and freedom. And I weep that those who are doing the work of the Kingdom cannot see the truth of that very Kingdom and that those who think they are part of the Kingdom are in fact working to prop up the Powers that seek to destroy the Kingdom.

 

What better way for the Powers to win, than convince those who love Jesus that the tools given for liberation be turned into weapons to destroy the Kingdom?

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