Today’s guest post is from Rachael.
I was sexually abused as a child and later raped as a teenager and again as an adult. All of these horrific experiences were at the hands of LDS priesthood holders. Of course, those who did these things were sinning and were not true representatives of Christ or His priesthood. It was relatively easy for me to separate out in my mind these evil men from what I knew God wanted. But it was much harder for me to figure out how to make sense of the good men, bishops and stake presidents, who counseled me to forgive, to bury the past, to not hold my perpetrators legally responsible. Because I believed that these men were representatives of God, I believed them when they told me that it was God’s will that I let my rapists (and abusers) off the hook. And so I did. I earnestly practiced the forgiveness that I was taught to practice, burying any hint of anger the moment it tried to rise up in me, and consequently, I believe, that buried emotion took on a life of its own, to the detriment of my health.
Five, count them, five separate priesthood leaders counseled forgiveness as opposed to holding my perpetrators legally responsible. Perhaps I was just extremely unlucky, continually losing at leadership roulette; perhaps I just kept running up against those very rare exceptions to the rule. But, after talking with other LDS women with similar stories, and after reading some of the stories found here, I can’t help but wonder if these things are not more common in our church culture than most of us realize.
Thankfully, President Monson has said of child abuse, “Let the offender be brought to justice, to accountability, for his actions and receive professional treatment to curtail such wicked and devilish conduct.” While an ideal statement from the church would be broader in scope (to include rape and domestic violence) and less passive in tone (are we just supposed to let an offender be brought to justice or are we supposed to actively seek justice?), I view this statement as an important acknowledgement that forgiveness does not necessarily preclude civil or criminal justice.
I would like to pose two questions for you to ponder as you read what follows of my post, and in the comment section below: When is forgiveness not forgiveness, but denial? And what is the relationship of justice to mercy in these contexts of sexual or domestic violence?
When is forgiveness not forgiveness, but denial? After encountering so many stories of women being told by their priesthood leaders to forgive and not seek justice, I began to suspect that maybe denial, and not forgiveness, was the true motivation in many of these cases. Denial can take many forms, including disbelieving or partially blaming victims, minimizing the frequency or seriousness of offenses, encouraging abused spouses to stay and make it work, pushing survivors to forgive (and forget) too soon, or encouraging survivors to not report their rape or abuse.
Why would a priesthood leader, or any member of the church for that matter, be in denial about sexual assault or abuse? Perhaps he or she wants to protect the church as an institution, and believes that a survivor seeking criminal justice will only bring the church negative publicity. Perhaps a member wants to believe that our LDS culture is a safer place for his or her family than the rest of the world, and thus wants to minimize the severity of the problem. Perhaps he or she sees the victim as a partial cause of the problem in order to maintain the illusion that such horrific things are preventable. Perhaps a leader believes that families should stay together, even if this means that an abuser remains in the home.
Or perhaps priesthood leaders and other members see more of themselves in the perpetrators than the abused. On this last point, researchers have found that due to the psychological phenomenon of defensive attribution, male subjects are more likely to empathize with male rapists and thus assign less blame to those rapists, while simultaneously assigning more blame to female rape victims.
I have seen evidence of this within our own culture where too many commentors seem overly concerned that justice, rather than mercy, be served to sexual assault survivors who violate BYU honor code rules. Further, it is often suggested that if a victim of assault had only followed the rules to begin with, the rape would not have occurred. Some have even committed themselves to the absurd suggestion that if BYU rules were always followed by female students, rape would never happen at BYU. And yet, I can’t help but think that some of these same commentors, if such were called to be judges in Israel, might also be among those inclined to argue for forgiveness and mercy towards perpetrators of sexual and physical violence, particularly in those cases where the perpetrator is also male. In other words, where we place blame and demand justice, and conversely where we call for mercy, might have more to do with implicit bias and our ability to empathize with those of our own gender, than with principle.
We must be vigilant to distinguish denial from forgiveness because, where denial seeks to bury, to minimize, to ignore, to pretend as if these assaults never occurred, forgiveness can never do such things. Forgiveness is the flip side, but also the fruits, of repentance. While it is possible to forgive a person who has never repented, we must remember that in such cases, ultimately, the price of justice must be paid. Repentance is the act of acknowledging our wrongs, of acknowledging and feeling sorry for the damage that we have done, of paying restitution for our crimes. No one who is in denial about one’s own sins has ever successfully repented.
To be forgiven of harming another person, we must go through an inflammatory period where we feel and acknowledge the weight of our sins. The temptation is to soothe that inflammation, to pretend like what we did was really not that bad, or to revert back to denying that a sin even took place at all; but if we are to obtain forgiveness, we must resist that urge. Just as inflammation is a healing response, so too is godly sorrow within the repentance process. When priesthood leaders or members seek to minimize or bury these injustices on behalf of abusers, they are, in effect, depriving individuals of the opportunity to take personal responsibility for these grievous sins. Such actions stunt the repentance/forgiveness process and can lead to further violence and victimization at the hands of these perpetrators who have never yet been held fully accountable for their sins, and so may yet repeat their sins. Forgiveness can never be confused with denial. There is too much at stake.
And now for my second question: What is the ideal relationship between justice and mercy? Or put another way, what would Jesus do—what would He want us to do in these cases? I can sympathize with the belief that forgiving the perpetrator of violence is something that Jesus would always ultimately do; but my concept of forgiveness now diverges importantly from what my priesthood leaders’ conception of forgiveness was. I do not believe that forgiveness entails letting the perpetrator off the hook, burying the past, pretending like it never happened, or disregarding criminal justice. I believe that God will hold these perpetrators of sexual and physical violence accountable in the next life. The oft-quoted scripture in Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones,” gives us a sense of what God’s justice will look like.
Further, I believe that if Christ were here on the earth today (with the same social and legal structures in place as there are now), Christ would minister to the abused, the raped, the violated, and that ministry would never look like minimizing or burying what happened, but would instead encourage survivors to seek justice where such justice would a) hold perpetrators of violence accountable for their action(s) and b) get perpetrators rehabilitative help, or at the very least, keep them off the streets, thus protecting future victims from harm.
Does the idea of Christ helping rape and abuse victims to seek justice make you uncomfortable? I have to admit, it makes me a bit uncomfortable as well. In our culture, we have internalized this view of Christlike forgiveness as one that entails turning the other cheek; of giving our coat to the one who sues us for our cloak. It is this kind of radical forgiveness that some priesthood leaders probably have in mind when they encourage rape and abuse victims to forgive immediately and not involve the law. But it is one thing for a person to choose to sacrifice themselves on the altar of radical forgiveness; it’s another thing entirely to be willing to sacrifice others on this altar. When I was sexually abused as a child, I told my parents, and they, in consultation with my bishop decided to forgive my abuser and not hold him legally accountable (nor did he receive any church discipline). That same man went on to abuse thirteen other girls—girls like me who also had their lives torn apart unnecessarily. Christ would not want that. We can’t afford to pretend like this sort of cover up is the Christ-like thing to do.
While it may be tempting to believe that there is no real harm to survivors of abuse and assault in engaging in the sort of forgiveness that lets perpetrators of abuse off the hook, there is actually a great deal of further harm that takes place, psychologically speaking, to such survivors when justice is disregarded. When we say, “Forgive the abuser, don’t hold him accountable,” what a survivor hears is that her pain is not worthy of validation, that she is not worthy of being protected from harm. The survivor of abuse or assault is often dismayed to realize that she now faces the potentially lifelong, excruciating consequences of another’s evil actions, while the protected perpetrator of those evil actions will likely go on to lead a life (relatively) free of any consequences. I know from personal experience that the shame and self-doubt these minimizing messages elicit only serve to add to a survivor’s trauma.
There is so much good that we, within the LDS community, can do for survivors of assault and abuse. We can love them, we can nurture them, we can offer them a safe place for healing. We can support them in seeking and obtaining justice. It is my hope that we can prayerfully examine our conceptions of forgiveness, mercy, and justice as they apply to perpetrators and victims of assault and abuse, that we can acknowledge personal or cultural tendencies that lead to victim blaming and covering up of injustices, that we can eschew denial in place of true repentance and appropriate forgiveness, that we can become more aware of the implicit biases that might influence our attributions of blame, and that we can ultimately become more like our Savior in our approach to alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable among us.