Forgiving Josh Harris


Many of us who grew up in evangelical purity culture had lives built on faulty scaffolding that crumbled years ago. We rebuilt our lives from scratch. We had to deconstruct—sometimes by burning the whole thing down—before we could see what was worth keeping (if anything) and constructing a new scaffolding upon which to hang our new lives.

I've learned that life post-cult is not easy. There are no easy answers. I've had to learn to think for myself. The process of recovery was (and still is) untidy, gangly, misguided. Like a toddler learning to walk, I've fallen down time and again. My journey has taken more twists and turns than I imagined. And I've made mistakes. Many mistakes. I've even hurt other people in the process of trying to heal. I'm grateful to the friends and companions who gave me grace in these strange, middle places, this wilderness of relearning.

And now, I desire to repay the kindnesses granted to me by extending that same compassion toward Josh Harris.

A quick background: a little over a year ago, Josh and I interacted on Twitter. He apologized for the ways his book hurt me. The conversation picked up some attention and pretty soon, Slate magazine wrote an article about how Josh was "kind of maybe sorry" about his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Then Josh read my first book "Girl at The End of the World." Then we had several long, deep conversations about his book and why what he wrote hurt so many people.

I haven't written about these interactions because I wanted to give it time. But recently, Josh gave a TED Talk about what happened, citing me as the person who started the whole thing for him. So, I figured now is a good time to talk about it.

What I see in Josh is someone who is trying to do better.

And I just can’t fault him for that. It's a helluva lot more than ANY religious leader I’ve ever called out has done. To be honest, it's healing to see someone take a measure of responsibility and accountability for what they perpetuated—even if their process isn't perfect. Even if, in the process of making things right, they make more mistakes. 

I think it’s easier for me to extend compassion because I’ve had the privilege of speaking with Josh personally. I heard his contrition and believe it was genuine. I now count Josh as a friend. Yes, we were on opposite sides of the experience of his theology but we both suffered because of it.

All that said, I've had reservations about Josh's "Apology Tour," so to speak. I'm a bit worried about how his documentary will turn out—will it really be about helping victims or will it be about Josh Harris? And while I'm grateful our initial Twitter conversation got this whole thing rolling for Josh, I know it's much harder to do the real work of change in real life than just offering a public apology on social media.

But still, he's trying to change and he's challenging himself to change. That counts for something in my book. I thought Josh had a lot of good things to say in his TED Talk, even though I felt a bit uncomfortable with how much of the talk focused on his personal journey of admitting wrong vs. what those of us who were hurt needed to hear; i.e. what, specifically, was wrong with what he wrote and how it was wrong and why he believes differently now.

Those of us who were hurt don't really need to hear another religious leader talk about their journey. To right the wrongs, Josh will have to de-center himself and his story. Frankly, he'll have to stop doing things like talking about himself on stage. 

I know that may sound harsh. Listen to me: I forgive Josh but that doesn't mean I need to make him feel better. Soothing Josh's feelings is not my job. He messed up and his book messed people up. There's no changing that. We bear in ourselves the wounds of his misguided and harmful theology. His book was a mega-hit bestseller in our strange, little world of evangelicalism. It's going to take a lot of work to undo that damage.

I can certainly accept his apology; mainly because I want to be the kind of person who accepts apologies. That's just me. I want to be the kind of person who gives others a second chance. Goodness knows I've needed second, third, gazillion chances.

Here's what I know: recovery work is damn difficult and nobody does it perfectly.

In my recovery and advocacy, I've made mistakes, too. I do my best to stay informed and educated. But I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to disappoint people. I don't expect people to try and make me feel better. Other people's opinion of me is none of my business. But at the same time, I hope there is still space for me. I think there's something beautiful about offering grace to the person who doesn't deserve it.

We don't owe Josh our forgiveness and he doesn't "deserve" our forgiveness. But here's something I hope we consider: there never will be a perfect apology. 

The wounds we've sustained are far too deep and too lasting for any human apology to mend. There will never be an apology which will make everything ok. In my own experience, only God can heal those deepest wounds. 

I also want to remember that Josh was a victim of his own theology and childhood abuse. This is a hurt person who, in turn, hurt others—he just did it on a grander scale than most of us will ever have access to. 

I can have compassion on Josh because I see someone who—though his experience was one of fame, recognition, validation and worldwide "success"—still suffered deeply as a result of his own fear-based theology.

When the fame faded, when the lights went down, when the applause stopped—I'm guessing he got to experience the vacuum of emptiness and loneliness that many of us had already experienced as the direct result of what he was doing onstage. 

Josh will have to rebuild his life just like we did. He will have to deconstruct and resurrect a new scaffolding to hang his life on. He's really just at the very beginning. I guess what I'm saying is: I'm willing to give him time.

I'm tired of being angry. Anger served me well at the beginning of my recovery journey. But anger is an exhausting emotion. It takes a lot of energy to sustain anger. My anger just doesn't serve me anymore. Perhaps this is why I'm willing to give Josh a second chance. I've healed from a lot of the damage caused by fundamentalism and evangelicalism. From this vantage point, it's probably easier to extend forgiveness because I don't need him to make it right for me. I already did the work.

I just hope he doesn't give up. The road ahead isn't going to be easy. But the Josh I got to know over the phone and via lots of messages isn't going to give up. It's going to take time—if I had to guess, at least ten years—but I think he'll keep going. I hope he does. I hope he earns our forgiveness. I hope he's able to forgive himself. I hope he gets to experience life on the abundant side of grace. I hope we remain friends.

Elizabeth Esther15 Comments