Monday, June 7, 2010


The concept of "forgiveness" is well known, even if not well used. Most people know what forgiveness is although we rarely see it practiced, at least not by countries in their international relations, and certainly not by the competing political parties within this country. When forgiveness is offered someone for a hideous offense it becomes front page news, as in the story of the Amish forgiving the man who executed five Amish girls at the Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania on Oct. 2, 2006. In the June 5, 2010 edition of Shaping Families we have the story of a family whose daughter was murdered and their process toward forgiveness. Like the story of the Amish victims, this one is also very remarkable.

Even though the concept of forgiveness is well known, there are many mistaken ideas about forgiveness. We may think we know what forgiveness is, but it's just as important to know what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is NOT forgetting. Often the offense is so repulsive, as in sexual, physical, or psychological abuse, that we don't want to talk about it and we wish the victim would be quiet and just forgive and forget. That attitude does a grave injustice to the victim who will have to talk about the abuse in order to recover, a process that may take years. People who have been abused, or lost loved ones have had their lives irreversibly changed by the experience. Expecting them to forget, is expecting them to deny their own history and the different person they've become as a result of the abuse or loss.

Forgiveness is NOT excusing the abuse. The abusive behavior still demands a response. In some cases it has to be publicized to warn and thereby protect others. The victim has a right to expect the abusive behavior to be addressed, if illegal, by the authorities, and if legal as in workplace bullying (which can be as emotionally harmful and injurious as rape or torture), by the employer and the community.

One who forgives does NOT necessarily refuse to address the abuse. The victims or victims, especially in cases of abuse are often dismissed by others who don't want to hear any more. In my own experience I was diagnosed with PTSD after being bullied by a co-worker consistently for over two years at my former employer St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. After repeated reports of the problem and bullying to management, which resulted in no change, management told me to "just move on," and "let's act like adults" and also to just forget about it and "focus on my family and my job." A psychologist I was referred to by my employer for treatment of the PTSD hastily dismissed me after only half a session by telling me to "write about the experience but don't think about it." It was clear that his dismissal was permanent. Only later did I find out that he was also an employee of St. Alphonsus. Needless to say these responses did nothing to solve the problem and only aggravated the PTSD injury.

People injured by any kind of abuse, or those who lose loved ones to acts of criminal violence, need someone who will listen to them. The story on Shaping Families of the parents who lost their daughter demonstrates the extensive process people who have been victimized must endure. Talking about the trauma that caused the injury or the loss, is necessary for their recovery. The list above is incomplete. It's important to know what forgiveness is not, as well as what it is. We cross paths every day with people who are hurting as a result of abuse or because they lost a loved one to an act of violence. Telling them to "forgive and forget," 'just move on," or "don't think about it," is not helpful. Listening to their story, even for just a few minutes, can make a big difference, and help them move toward a state of real forgiveness.

Leonard Nolt

For more information on forgiveness check: "Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches" by Carolyn Heggen, especially pages 126-133; "Caring Enough to Forgive" by David Augsburger, and also FORGIVENESS/RECONCILIATION on this blog.