Aren’t Christians Supposed to Forgive Rather Than Demand Justice?

The #MeToo movement has highlighted women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive rather than demand justice?

In the aftermath of abuse, it’s important to note three different things at play: forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice. God in grace has opened a way for us to become free again after someone has tied us into a knot through harassment or assault. Forgiveness is a transaction between God and humanity. When we cancel the debt of anger we legitimately feel against someone who has violated us, our own debt of sin is paid for anew by Christ’s sacrifice. In the same way we allow the person who hurt us to be dealt with by God through our forgiveness, so God will deal with us, which is why we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

It is important to be clear about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness does not involve the accused; it is an act between a person and God.  Reconciliation, however, involves two (or more) people. If the person who is accused minimizes or denies that his or her actions created harm, true reconciliation cannot happen. 

Reconciliation also does not mean that either punitive or restorative justice can be bypassed. Punitive justice is appropriate when harm is not acknowledged. Restorative justice focuses on concrete steps that an accused person might need to take to facilitate healing the harm done. For example, the accused may be asked to pay for counseling for the person who is harmed or for other costs incurred, such as the loss of employment income. Reconciliation does not necessarily mean a close relationship; it may simply mean acceptance of casual contact at public events in church or community.

In any case, when coercive power, sexualized or otherwise, disrupts the life of a community, healing can be facilitated more quickly if the pursuit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and punitive or restorative justice are based on a clear understanding of each of those terms.

About the Author

Judy Cook is a family therapist and a member of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ontario.

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Comments

Thanks, Judy, for this article that attempts to give clarity in resolving abusive relationships.  The introduction to this article says, “#MeToo movement has highlighted women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault.”  You also conclude by saying, “In any case, when coercive power, sexualized or otherwise...”  I’m assuming that this article has a primary focus on sexual abuse but may also include other forms of abuse.  In dealing with such abuse, you draw our attention to three things: forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.  As I see it, you have redefined these terms in a way that seems unnatural and somewhat difficult to understand or apply.
For instance, you suggest that forgiveness is not between the accused and the accuser, but between the accuser and God. You are putting a religious spin on your definition that makes little sense.  According to any dictionary forgiveness is: to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.), absolve; or to grant pardon to (a person); or to cancel an indebtedness or liability.  According to the dictionary forgiveness involves the accuser and the accused.  And so to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12) means in the same way that God has forgiven us (canceling our debt) so we are to cancel the debt that is owed by another.  Forgiveness takes place between the accused and the accuser. The Bible never says forgiveness is easy but it’s necessary.
As to reconciliation, you assumed the accusations of the accuser are valid.  Therefore the accused may be asked to pay for whatever it takes for the accused to find healing.  But of course, it has to be first established that the accusations of the accuser are true.  The person accused is guilty only if proven or shown beyond doubt that he/she is guilty of wrongdoing. We still believe in innocence until proven guilty. So the accused may legitimately deny the accusations of the accuser. It is not always the accused that is guilty.  In fact the accuser may be guilty of making false accusations.
As to justice (restorative) you say, “Restorative justice focuses on concrete steps that an accused person might need to take to facilitate healing the harm done.”  I think it might be more accurate to say, “Restorative justice focuses on concrete steps that a guilty person (whether the accused or accuser) might need to take to facilitate healing the harm done. Again it seems this author is assuming guilt based on the mere accusation of abuse.
I think we all want to resolve abusive relationships, especially within the church.  Let’s be fair to both the accuser and the accused in dealing with these difficult situations.  And may we remember we are handling these situations before a God who knows and sees all.

I concur with Roger's comments.  I furrowed my brow quite deeply at the suggestion that "forgiveness" has nothing to do with e the wrongdoer (accused).

The phrase that immediately came to my mind was the one also quoted in this article,"forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," but I apparently read that differently than this author.

Might the author of the article further explain the claim that forgiveness has nothing to do with the wrongdoer?

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