Power and Forgiveness

Hester Prynne, famous literary example of a victim bearing the consequences of official sexual misconduct

I have been thinking a lot about sexual misconduct lately. Maybe that is because it has been dramatically in the news, with the arrest of the Director of the International Monetary Fund on charges related to sexual assault, the revelations about the clandestine sexual activities of the Governor of California, and the impending investigation of whether a former Senator from North Carolina used political contributions to his presidential campaign to cover up a potentially embarrassing, illicit sexual relationship. Or maybe it is because I had a conversation some time ago with a colleague who is writing a dissertation on clergy sexual misconduct, and who said that in the course of his conversations on the topic, he hears new stories about that phenomenon every week. Or maybe it is because I have been reading Rev. Dr. Traci C. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics, which calls for making the connections between universal moral and ethical thinking and particular cases in which that thinking has to be tested out, at the same time that I have heard friends of mine make comments about our Christian need to forgive, or to let bygones be bygones and move on.

The juxtapositions have led me to think that:

(1) the dramatic national and international news illustrates something pervasive and systemic rather than representing a few isolated aberrations — that is, once again, “the personal is political”;
(2) our global and local responses all somehow fall short of the actual justice and healing needed by the concrete people involved in these events — including the members of the affected communities;
(3) the shortfall has something to do with our efforts to ignore the problem of power in the world that keeps on churning out these events; and
(4) we are confused about the specific relationships between remorse, apology, repentance, restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, and kindness.

People do talk about power in the dramatic international and national sexual misconduct cases. People quote Henry “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” Kissinger, and shake their heads over “men in power,” as if the phenomenon we are observing here is confined to an elite stratum. When viewed from a social distance, we may be able to recognize the dynamics of power that operate within and through the dynamics of desire, “attraction” or “chemistry” or “need” or “love,” that we associate with sexual or sexualized relationships. We may even notice that the aphrodisiac effect of power seems to operate on the more powerful when regarding the less powerful, to produce desire and a sense of permission or entitlement, as much as or more than it operates on the powerless.

People seem rather less quick to recognize the operation of power in the local congregational or institutional cases. So a friend, talking to me recently about a situation that had arisen in her own congregation, was quick to dismiss the seriousness of the off-limits behavior “as long as this was consensual, between two adults; I just don’t see the problem.” A quick glance at the resources at the FaithTrust Institute would remind us that power is so much at work when a communal authority engages in a secret sexual relationship with a member of the group, and is so much unequal, that meaningful consent cannot really be given. But It seems uncomfortable for us to acknowledge that our own immediate day-to-day world is shaped by such lines and dynamics of power, all the way into our most intimate contexts. It is more comfortable for us to think of “power” as something that other people – that is, people with real power, far away – have, rather than something that people near and dear to us, including we ourselves, actually have, and actually use in varying ways and to varying degrees. When the context is closer and more personal, we are prefer to draw on a different inventory of explanations and responses: personal failings (“none of us is perfect”), or pressures (“he has that high-stress job”), or personalities, period (“she had some serious issues”).

Holding the two categories of situation apart in this way allows us to ignore the systemic features that make the international, national, and local events instances of a common world. In that world, in which our own lives participate, power often takes the form of, manifests itself as, the assertion or appropriation of permission to ignore or transgress boundaries that limit access to women’s bodies. This is especially true when those boundaries are asserted by women themselves. Why it does that is an interesting question, that would lead us into a long exploration of how we recognize and acknowledge power, what enables us to perceive it, and how we understand it to be distrubuted, or produced, in the interactions across various boundaries. For now, however, it seems enough to note that whether it is showing up in the news, or the local grapevine, cases of sexual misconduct are typically cases of the abuse of power.

Knowing this ought to make us somewhat more cautious than we sometimes are in our enthusiasm for quick and radical forgiveness as a Christian practice. The dynamics of power shape the context in which forgiveness is being sought, can be granted, and may be productive of healing. Oliver Hallich notes that forgiveness is a “three-place predicate: someone forgives someone for having done something,” and Traci C. West would, I believe, remind us that those three places are always constitutive of and embedded in particular circumstances, making “forgiveness” a situationally specific, rather than an abstract universal, good. The specifics in a situation in which someone is being asked or expected to do something like forgive someone for something like sexual misconduct, which is an exercise of power to begin with, also involve power.

Forgiveness involves power from the beginning, of course. The paradigmatic forgiveness scenario for Christians is the forgiveness God grants human beings. It is probably not necessary to review the power differential in that scenario, and who has more of it, along with justice and mercy. Some human contexts — like that of a child confessing to drinking the grape juice that is now staining the living room carpet — match that scenario’s dimension of power more closely than others. In a case in which someone in power has abused the position, and then seeks forgiveness and restoration, the question is complicated by whether that seeking is a renunciation of the power abused or is, in effect, a further exercise of that power, and therefore the seeking of a pseudo-forgiveness in which abused and abusive power relations are not realigned, but reinforced.

That is, when a victim of sexual assault or abusive relationship is enjoined to forgive her assailant, the question is whether she is in a sufficiently empowered position to do so. She may be — she may have received the assailant’s repentance, some effort at restoration or repair of the harm done, she may have had her story and her experience validated by admission or confession, and she may have experienced healing from the harms done. All of these processes have the effect of empowering the victim, relative to the perpetrator, to the point where she can genuinely, as a way of letting go and moving on for herself, grant that forgiveness.

But she may not be. In that case, insistent counsel to forgive amounts to coercion. It becomes a practice of siding with the more powerful against the less powerful, and a further exercise of entitlement thinking. Genuine forgiveness dissolves some or all of the consequences of an act, as being no longer necessary. Forgiveness is sometimes sought from the victims of sexual assault or abuse under circumstances that demonstrate that those powerful enough to engage in that behavior in the first place are also to be exempted from experiencing its consequences. What is being sought is less forgiveness, than renunciation of the demand for justice in the face of injustice supported by power. The form of forgiveness is appropriated, and made to serve ends that have little to do with healing or grace.

Similarly, the members of communities may be enjoined to extend forgiveness and the “forgetfulness” of silence before the damage done to their relationships and their understanding of the world has been repaired. Here, too, this amounts to seeking or insisting on a pseudo-forgiveness from a position of power, expecting the powerless to bear the consequences of the rupture. In the case of the community, the consequences turn out to be impaired capacities for trust, relationship, and communication, along with a debilitating confusion about the meaning of justice, mercy, and kindness.

None of this is to suggest that we should think less of forgiveness in general. It is, rather, to acknowledge that the conditions for granting the genuine forgiveness that heals and restores may be austere and demanding. And to insist that there are circumstances in which these conditions cannot be ignored or evaded without emptying forgiveness of its meaning and value. It is, in fact, to argue for preserving the meaning and value of forgiveness, by refusing to accept those substitutes that travel under its name, and obstruct the transformation of which forgiveness is both the promise and the fruit.

This entry was posted in Theology & Other Thoughts and tagged , , , , , by Ha_Qohelet. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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