Kaya Oakes: The Failures of American Christian Forgiveness | Sojourners

Kaya Oakes: The Failures of American Christian Forgiveness

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

In May, CNN published a video of Sean “Diddy” Combs beating his then-girlfriend Cassie Ventura in 2016. The horrific video contradicted Combs’ previous denials, including in 2023 when he settled a lawsuit with Ventura without claiming responsibility.

“Mr. Combs’ decision to settle the lawsuit does not in any way undermine his flat-out denial of the claims,” lawyer Ben Brafman told NPR.

As the 2016 video spread on social media last month, Combs — now facing undeniable evidence — released a statement admitting to wrongdoing.

“I take full responsibility for my actions in that video. I was disgusted then when I did it. I’m disgusted now. I went and I sought out professional help. I got into going to therapy, going to rehab,” Combs said. “I had to ask God for his mercy and grace. I’m so sorry. But I’m committed to be a better man each and every day. I’m not asking for forgiveness. I’m truly sorry.”

Notably, Combs did not apologize to Ventura in his statement.

While Combs’ statement may not ring genuine, for Kaya Oakes, author of Not So Sorry: Abusers, False Apologies, and the Limits of Forgiveness, his decision to not ask for forgiveness was ironically “the first time [Combs] has done anything right in a long time.

“He hasn’t earned [forgiveness] yet,” Oakes told me.

Oakes is a prolific essayist, journalist, and teacher living in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. Her new book takes a journalist’s approach toward instances where unconditional forgiveness seems impossible, unwise, or downright wrong. Oakes’ book is rooted in lessons from Catholic and USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandals, the #MeToo movement, gun violence, and other harms.

“I started reporting on abuse before #MeToo, but then when #MeToo happened it became more pressing to figure out why a lot of prominent celebrities who were being accused of abuse were asking for forgiveness immediately,” Oakes told me.

She suggests that white, American Christians have weaponized forgiveness as a way to wipe the slate clean for the powerful and abusive.

But Oakes isn’t willing to give up on forgiveness, which she calls the “heart of Christian faith.”

In our interview, we discuss common perceptions of forgiveness, the relationship between forgiveness and abuse, what it means that God forgives us, and whether Christians should always try to forgive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: Before we get into premature forgiveness and earning forgiveness, what do most people think “forgiveness” is?

Kaya Oakes: In American ideas of forgiveness — which are framed by white Christian understandings a lot of the time, because the framers of the constitution and the people who began the written history that we’ve inherited were very religious — forgiveness comes from God, is channeled through us, and given to another person. And once forgiveness is given, the situation ends right there.

Americans tend to see forgiveness as a one-and-done rather than a process. We tend to think that forgiveness is the product of someone asking for it and that you always give it, every time someone asks, no matter what. And in some strains of white American Christianity, it becomes a failure when you don’t give forgiveness to someone.

Your book explores ways forgiveness can be harmful or dangerous; how do you understand forgiveness’s danger?

We can talk about abuse as the main framework here. The narrative of abuse, forgiveness, and then everyone moves on and is a better person, is such a common narrative. The danger of that is, first of all, we’re not recognizing trauma. When someone who’s been abused is asked to forgive, they have to revisit the trauma that they experienced at the hands of this abusive person or institution. That can be very dangerous.

Secondly, [forgiveness] can give people permission to keep doing what they were doing. Think about celebrities who have asked for forgiveness and have been granted back their careers, and then there’s another lawsuit, another accusation. In some ways, when people are granted forgiveness — if they haven’t done any work to earn it — they can just keep on doing whatever it is that they were doing.

When you say, “earn it,” you mean in the opinion of the victim, right? That a victim — rather than a court or a judge — determines when a perpetrator has earned forgiveness.

Absolutely. A lot of psychologists, sociologists, and theologians talk about the fact that forgiveness is really for the forgiver and not the person being forgiven. But that’s not true in a lot of our American narratives [where] forgiveness is actually for the person who did the wrong, so they can be “healed.” We’ve lost the victims in that conversation.

I oppose the death penalty. And I really like the work of Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Man Walking. One of the things she talks about is how the [people on] death row that she works with ask for forgiveness as the end point of working on themselves, understanding what they did, etc., rather than as the beginning of the conversation. I think that’s important.

As you mentioned, a lot of psychologists talk about forgiveness being a process happening internally, for the person who has been harmed, that can help them heal. As a Christian, that makes me wonder what it means that God forgives us.

And how do we know [God has forgiven us]? In the language of American white evangelical culture, a lot of the time you’ll hear [something like], “I know God has forgiven me,” when it’s someone like, Jerry Falwell Jr., or the whole laundry list of disgraced pastors. How do they know that God has forgiven them?

The idea is that they actually have conversations with Jesus and God [in their prayer lives]. Many of us, in our prayer lives, we’re not so lucky — we’re just guessing.

I trained in Ignatian spiritual direction, which is the Jesuits, Pope Francis’ religious order. In that [spiritual direction], you help people to pay attention to what we call “consolation” or “desolation.” Consolation is being aware that you are doing the right thing or making the right choice because you feel a sense of being consoled or feel or you made the right choice. Desolation, of course, is the opposite.

I think when people say, “God forgave me, and I know that.” They base it more on this idea that they did “the right thing” and that they can move on with their lives … it’s a little narcissistic in some ways. How do you know God has forgiven you if you haven’t really reflected on it?

You were the one to reveal for me how often men accused of abuse or found to be abusers will quickly convert to Christianity, sometimes even as the allegations are coming to light. And boy, is that a trend that I have been unable to stop seeing.

It’s happening right now with Russell Brand.

You’ve talked about white, American Christianity as particularly having harmful forms of forgiveness. Are there other iterations of Christian faith that have practiced forgiveness better?

I think our Anabaptist friends have a much more community-based [practice]. The restorative justice movement came out of Mennonite practices. In those [practices] it’s often more about bringing the person who did wrong into accountability with the community.

Howard Zehr, who wrote one of the first books on restorative justice, is a Mennonite. Quakers have some forms of [restorative justice]. It’s about looking at forgiveness as a collective process.

Now, the problem there is it can also be abused, like in the case of John Howard Yoder, who was a Mennonite scholar who taught at [the University of] Notre Dame. Yoder was abusing his grad students and other Mennonite women. His Mennonite elders were so focused on bringing him back into the community that they forgot to talk to the women that he’d abused, who were also Mennonites. So that’s the exception there.

But the model of forgiveness being about healing the community is one that, to me, feels closer to what you see in the New Testament.

When we harm people, what should we do? If we shouldn’t immediately ask for forgiveness, what do we do instead?

One thing I think we collectively fail at is acknowledging the harm that we’ve done individually and collectively. We jump straight to “forgive me” [instead of] starting with, “I hurt you,” or, “My organization hurt you; my church hurt you; what do you need?”

Sometimes it’s not forgiveness that the harmed person needs. Sometimes it’s distance, time, therapy, a gift card to Trader Joe’s so that they don’t have to pay for their groceries, DoorDash for the night so they don’t have to make dinner.

In the end of the book, I leaned a lot on the work of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg in her book On Repentance and Repair. Those two words are really key here. To ask somebody forgiveness, first of all, we have to acknowledge and show that we’re going to work on ourselves. That’s what’s missing from [a lot of] celebrity apologies. They’ll say, “I’m going to go away for a while and work on myself,” in this kind of vague way. In the Catholic church it’s, “We’re going to go do prayer and penance.” That’s very nonspecific.

If it’s something like child abuse, are they going to actually get counseling? Are they going to be separated from children?

[When we harm people] in our individual relationships, I think it’s really important to say what happened. Tell me what you think happened. Tell me how you feel, and start with that and work backwards. What am I going to do to improve myself, so I don’t do that again, to you or anybody else?

Have you ever been surprised by forgiveness? Granting or receiving.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the last year. I was diagnosed with breast cancer last September. I just finished the “triathlon” — I had surgery, chemo[therapy], and radiation. It’s funny, when I started to write about [the cancer], out of the woodwork came people I dated 30 years ago. My instinct was, “Eff off, I don’t want to talk to you. What are you doing here in my life [when] we haven’t spoken [in decades]?”

But then, I would read their emails and it was this really sincere desire that I get better and that I survive. [These were] people I hadn’t actively thought about for decades, who had done really gnarly things to me and other people I knew. To say, “I’m going to let this go now” — and I don’t know if that’s forgiveness — because they got in touch in a way I didn’t request, but that came with a layer of concern for me and my being, rather than just trying to feel better about themselves. That was pretty meaningful.

Now, did I reply to all of those emails? No. But I’m telling you in case they [read] this: You guys are off the hook; it’s fine.

That was a real surprise, that people I hadn’t spoken to for so long were still thinking about me, and that they wanted to acknowledge that they had made my life difficult at some point.

Societally, I worry that some people think that compensation for harm can wipe the slate clean. As if we could solve racism in the U.S. with a cash payment, or that an abuser can right wrongs by covering their victim’s fees and compensating them. I worry we’re losing sight of the need for repentance, change, and then reconciliation. Do you think there’s a tension between restitution being the main goal and reconciliation being a main goal?

Yeah. You’re in D. C. so you know this has been a big conversation at Georgetown [University] because the Jesuits had promised that anybody who could prove they were a descendant of a person whose family was enslaved by the religious order would get free tuition. [The university promised to give preferential admissions consideration to descendants, and started a fund for descendants that provides scholarship money]. Georgetown is quite an expensive school, so that’s a big deal.

They promised this, and then nothing happened. Black descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits said, “We don’t just want free tuition — that’s nice, but can we have conversations about [continuing] systemic racism? Can we have a conversation about the history of your religious order and what happened? Can we have some one-on-one conversations?” And so, they’ve begun to have some public facing dialogues.

[Reparations] are just the beginning. We haven’t even managed to get around to reparations yet. What happens after that, and to have something that’s closer to actual healing, there has to be more acknowledgement.

In your understanding is there anything unique about what Christians are called to do in forgiveness?

I’ve tried to make it clear in the book, and in other things that I’ve written: I’m not against forgiveness. I don’t think we should all be just like telling each other to go away. One genius of Christianity, on the whole, is that the religion is based on forgiveness.

The genesis of the life of Christ is that God sends Jesus to heal the broken world and to forgive so that we can be forgiven of original sin. And we don’t have to get into whether [original sin] actually exists or not.

But if we assume that we’re all born flawed — which we are — our life’s work is trying to repair those flaws. And we make [our flaws] worse a lot of the time by our choices and our behavior. As a Catholic, a lot of the rituals, like Holy Week, are very focused on forgiveness. On Holy Thursday, there’s a ritual where people wash each other’s feet. Not everybody likes doing it, but that gesture is very humbling. I had to wash a 90-year-old priest’s feet once and it was really quite an experience of role reversal that I never expected to encounter.

It’s a gesture of forgiveness and humility. Does it lead to internal change? That’s up to the individual. But yeah, Christianity is a religion of forgiveness — let’s not get that wrong. It’s absolutely the baseline.

Are we always doing it right? Are we doing it in a fair way? Are we doing it in a way that centers victims? No.

So, you do think Christians have to try to forgive people? Understanding that it’s a process, not a one-time event, that it doesn’t absolve the responsibility to reparation, you think we have to try?

I think we should try, but when someone is unrepentant or when they’re not asking for forgiveness, or when they are granted it and they abuse it, at that point I’m not sure we really owe it to them anymore.

Whether or not someone should be forgiven if they’re unrepentant depends on whether forgiveness is absolving someone of responsibility for their wrong or if forgiveness is a letting go of anger — or something else entirely. When society talks about forgiveness, we’re talking about so many different things at once.

And lumping it all together is dangerous, in some ways, because then we don’t slow down to consider the individual processes that happen internally. [Asking for forgiveness] just becomes an external gesture of saying you’re sorry without a lot of internal reflection, repentance, repair, and processing.

You’re right that we have “forgivenesses” and they all get blanketed together. We just don’t have very good language, because we rely on this one word to mean so many different things.

Rachael Denhollander, when she was abused by Larry Nassar, [she was interviewed by] Christianity Today, and she said [forgiving Larry Nassar] “does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.” She was so frustrated by that hijacking of the definition of “forgiveness” meaning she’s OK with him or she thinks he just made a mistake.

[Denhollander told Christianity Today: “I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice.”]

Our language is sloppy and lazy. I’m as much at fault for that as anyone else. In some ways, my book is just a call for us to have better terminologies for forgiveness. What do we mean when we say this thing or ask for forgiveness? And how does that change when it’s the Southern Baptist Convention, your next-door neighbor, or your spouse? Those are different kinds of forgiveness.