Does Jesus ask us to accept empty apologies? Some thoughts on what it means to forgive our abusers.

There's been some talk about what it means for Christians to forgive our abusers--particularly those who abuse us in the name of God. Yesterday, Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service wrote an article called "I accept Mark Driscoll's apology..and you should, too." In it he encouraged everyone to accept Mark's most recent public apology because:

When Christians have grown so bitter toward someone that we can’t even accept their apologies, something has gone seriously wrong. If Driscoll had ignored these comments, his critics would have excoriated him for his silence. But when he says he is sorry, they criticize him still. We must refuse to create lose-lose situations for each other where one is damned if they apologize and damned if they don’t.

Let me be clear: Accepting Driscoll’s apology does not mean we excuse his reprehensible actions in the past, fail to call him to better behavior in the present, or ignore future abuses if (or when) they occur.

I absolutely agree that Jesus calls us to forgive. Indeed, as Merritt states, Jesus was "obliterating the ceiling on Christian forgiveness." Merritt's message urges us toward a posture of openheartedness and to refrain from becoming abusive toward abusers. I fully support this. I know how easy it is for my sense of "righteous indignation" to morph into full-blown rage. There really is no justification for me to indulge in vicious, snide or vitriolic attacks--especially against other Christians.

That said, as someone who experienced decades of spiritual abuse, I really think it's important for the broader Christian community to actively stand up for those being harmed by religious authorities. To this end, there are a couple of things that trouble me about Jonathan Merritt's piece:

  1. It isn't our place, as outsiders, to accept apologies on behalf of those who are being directly harmed by Driscoll. That's like an outsider coming to me and saying, "Hey, I forgive your grandfather for abusing you in his cult! You should, too!" Wait. What?! Outsiders have no place accepting apologies or forgiving an abuser on my behalf. That's MY job. Outsiders do have jobs to perform; ie. provide support and safe places, help spread awareness--but telling everyone to "accept apologies" is not one of those jobs.
  2. By urging people to "accept" Driscoll's apology, Merritt places the onus on the victim instead of on the abuser. The underlying idea, here, is that victims of abuse are supposed to Keeping Doing Things; ie. accept apologies, be supportive, not get angry, remain positive...and furthermore, do all this before the abuser stops the abuse. Is this what Jesus meant when He told us to forgive? I don't think so. Forgiveness means I hold no resentment toward the person who hurt me. Forgiveness means I have no more desire for revenge. It DOESN'T mean I tolerate more abuse. It DOESN'T mean I must "accept" empty apologies. Accepting an apology is predicated upon the recognition that something has CHANGED. In Driscoll's case, the apologies seem empty because he says he's sorry and then proceeds to behave in the exact same way.

Forgiveness means I have no more resentment or the desire for revenge. It DOESN'T mean I tolerate more abuse. It DOESN'T mean I must "accept" empty apologies.

If this were the first time Driscoll had apologized, I'd be all on board with "accepting" apologies and giving him time to demonstrate changed behavior.

However, Driscoll has apologized multiple times and then proceeded to engage in the exact same abusive behavior.

So, just as it is not our place to tell insiders of Mars Hill Church what to do about their pastor, it is not our place to tell them to "accept" this latest apology.

Indeed, to insist they "should" accept this latest apology is to ask they participate in a false repentance.

True repentance is an expression of verbal regret coupled with matching actions. Saying "I'm sorry" when there is no fruit of repentance is an empty apology. It is a lie. A true apology must have matching behavior to back it up, to make it real.

Yes, members of Mars Hill Church can forgive Mark--within their own hearts. They can let go of resentment and the desire for revenge. They can pray for his repentance. They can advocate change and call for accountability. And from what I can tell, that is happening.

But outsiders like Merritt and I ought not accept apologies on their behalf. And we ought not insist they accept apologies that are empty. 

Let me provide an example of what forgiving my abusers looked like for me.

I forgave my cult-founding grandparents for the many ways in which they abused me. I let go of resentment and the desire for revenge. I committed them to God and prayed for their repentance.

I did NOT, however, continue a relationship with them. I did not DO anything else--accept apologies, continue conversations or otherwise tolerate their continued abuses. Why? Because there was no repentance. There was no changed behavior.

And in order for me to "accept" an apology--it needs to be real. A real apology is backed up by amending action. Yes, I can forgive--for the sake of my own soul. But a restored relationship can only happen when amending action has been taken by those who hurt me.

Yes, an apology is a good start. But it is only a start. More action is needed if the apology is to be true repentance.