Why Are Christians So Bad at Forgiveness? | Sojourners

Why Are Christians So Bad at Forgiveness?

Chanequa Walker-Barnes. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners

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.

I remember the moment I became wholly dissatisfied with Christian conceptions of forgiveness.

While walking into church for a Sunday morning class on the Lord’s Prayer, I realized that I did not know how to “forgive others” as God had forgiven me.

Defining forgiveness as “moving past and forgetting harm” was vague and hard to fathom. I had repeatedly seen the powerful weaponize the instruction to “forgive” against the oppressed and abused: Black people told to “forgive” the U.S. for chattel slavery; women told to “forgive” husbands who abused them; survivors of sexual violence told to “forgive” the church. Surely, this was not the forgiveness Jesus instructed. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that “forgive” was still a command for Christians to follow.

Womanist theologian and clinical psychologist Chanequa Walker-Barnes has thought quite a bit about forgiveness. As a professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Columbia Theological Seminary, she’s seen people wrestle with scripture’s call to forgive those who have done them great harm. And as a clinician, she knows that forgiveness (and its opposite: unforgiveness) is not something we “just decide,” but are an ongoing process, partially connected to our biology, neurochemistry, and trauma history.

In addition to her books on misogynoir, racial reconciliation, and self-care, Walker-Barnes wrote a five-part series on forgiveness for her Substack. She addressed the harmful myths of forgiveness and sketched out a path for better conceptions of forgiving.

I spoke with Walker-Barnes about integrating clinical knowledge of forgiveness/unforgiveness with our Christian responsibilities, what it means that God forgives us, and the political implications of forgiveness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: We’re all people who have needed forgiving and had to forgive, but where does your professional interest in studying forgiveness begin?

Chanequa Walker-Barnes: You would think that being a clinical psychologist, especially one who was trained to work with marriages and families, I had started then, but it didn’t really happen until I was in seminary. I entered [forgiveness] initially through the lens of racial reconciliation.

As I was working and learning in that field, I kept hearing people talk about forgiveness, but it seemed to me they were talking about an interpersonal understanding of forgiveness, and they were trying to apply it to systemic reconciliation. That was when I really began to ask, “Okay, what is forgiveness actually?”

Can you offer a definition of forgiveness to help frame our conversation?

I talk about forgiveness as an internal process that is directed outwardly. It’s directed toward another person, and it is the process of letting go of the hostility that we have toward a person that we perceive as having wronged us.

Most people do think of forgiveness as interpersonal — something that I do or provide for somebody else — rather than an internal process. What changes when we think of forgiveness as internal rather than interpersonal?

People often think forgiveness has to be contingent upon something the wrongdoer does — they have to repent, we have to reconcile, we have to restore the relationship, and they have to change. That keeps our emotional process held hostage to another person’s issues. Forgiveness is a way of taking our power back and saying, “I have my own feeling that needs to be done.” Part of that [feeling] is my image of the other person, which is separate from the wrongdoer’s process. That’s even separate from the relationship. One thing understanding forgiveness as an internal process does is empower us to take control of that process.

The “process” part also implies forgiveness is something that takes time. [Understanding forgiveness as internal] allows us to free ourselves and allow that time. Even if the other person has changed or expressed an apology and shown signs of repentance, we may not be ready to forgive yet.

If forgiveness is a process, does that mean that we never get to close the book on forgiving somebody? Is it a perpetual, ongoing process?

It’s a little bit of both, and it depends on the circumstances. Really, it depends on our personalities and experiences — the harm and the nature of it, how important it was to us, whether the harm [damaged] our sense of self, and the degree of harm — those all impact our capacity to forgive and the process of forgiveness. Some things take a longer time to forgive.

And there are times where we’ve forgiven something, we’ve worked through those negative feelings, we’ve worked at transforming them, but then we go through a life transition, crisis, or developmental stage and those negative feelings may rearise. That happens a lot with people who suffered some sort of abuse as children. You might work through the harm that you suffered as a kid and then you become a parent, and your child is the same age as [when you were abused], and suddenly you find — though you’re not necessarily back at the exact same place — that hostility comes up again. People often give themselves a hard time about that. “What is that about? I thought I had forgiven that. Something must be wrong with me.” But no, it’s just sometimes different developmental transitions or life circumstances recapitulate those feelings, and we have to work through them again, though usually not as much the next time around. Usually each go round, it’s less and less.

How does clinical research affect how we should read the Bible’s instruction to forgive?

Christians often have a “forgive and forget” attitude. That is part of how I started talking about forgiveness clinically, because I would have clients often who would say, “I’m supposed to forgive and forget.” And, being a psychologist, I would think, “You can’t.” Unless you have a brain lesion or some other type of traumatic brain injury, you’re not going to forget, and that’s not what forgiveness is. But a lot of Christians have the mentality that forgiveness is this “one and done” thing.

We’re starting to learn from the psychological sciences that forgiveness/unforgiveness are partially wired in personality and neurochemistry. There are many things that impact forgiveness. If we have experienced trauma that we have not yet integrated, stress emotions and chemicals are still circulating in our body and our stress response is still highly activated. Those same chemicals make it difficult to reach a point of forgiveness.

There’s really innovative research showing that unforgiveness is a stress reaction. The first thing trauma survivors need to do is tend to their own healing, then work on forgiveness after that. Quite frankly, sometimes forgiveness is not the appropriate response after trauma.

Fear, stress, and anger are signals that our body gives us that something is wrong. If somebody has harmed us, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting that person might be harmful — especially if they’re unrepentant, a predator, or abusive in any way. Forgiveness can be dangerous if it leads us to re-engage in relationship prematurely with somebody who is likely to harm us again.

If forgiveness is an internal process, what does it mean to be forgiven by God?

So, this is getting into theories of atonement and salvation. I think when we are forgiven by God, it means something very similar. The hostility, the enmity between us and God is removed. But for us to be forgiven by God does not necessarily mean a get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of consequences. We might still deal with consequences, and I’m not even necessarily talking about punishment from God.

Part of the question for forgiveness is whether we think there are limits to God’s forgiveness. And that’s a theological question, right? If we think there are limits to God’s forgiveness, then hell as eternal punishment makes sense. If we think there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, then we have to wrestle with this doctrine of eternal hell and damnation. Because that’s essentially what hell represents.

For many of us, our understanding of forgiveness is going to be tied to our understanding of God.

Does forgiveness require us to forgo our desire to punish, even while we may encourage consequences?

I think so. And forgiveness can set us on the path toward reparative justice rather than retaliation — which is often at the root of our legal system.

If someone breaks in and steals our things, we might be able to forgive them, empathize with them, and forgive them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to face some legal penalties because of what they’ve done. They’ve transgressed not just against us personally, but against the laws of the state, so the state is going to punish them. A reparative justice framework will help us get beyond the need for punishment. What [a reparative framework wants] is for that person to express remorse, repent, repair the harm that they have done, and be prevented from doing it again.

If we’re about forgiveness and ultimately aiming for reconciliation and beloved community, then what we want is for people to be able to participate in relationships and society as individuals who won’t harm others. To the degree that we aren’t able to forgive, we tend to be more punishment-oriented, as opposed to just wanting consequences for actions.

I think one of the things I hear you saying is that forgiveness as an internal process is part of how we acknowledge and put ourselves at rest with the fact that we have been wronged, especially if we still want to be in relationship with the person who’s wronged us. And that it’s a way of, hopefully, cutting off cycles of violence.

Yes, it really is. Though again, forgiveness doesn’t change the other person, but it at least changes our side of this relationship. Particularly if it is someone that we want, or need, to continue to be in relationship with, forgiveness can change our approach to them. It doesn’t necessarily make us see them as all good. Sometimes my process of forgiveness has involved becoming very honest with myself about who the person is and what they are likely to do. And to say, “This is who they are, they are likely to make this mistake again, even if it’s unintentional. Am I able to continue being in relationship with them without holding them and holding myself bound to hostility about that mistake?”

This gets to what I think many people find tricky about forgiveness — even as you define it — because those natural consequences don’t always come quickly, and sometimes they never come at all. The question I am constantly circling is: What does forgiveness mean for the person being forgiven? You wrote that we don’t have to communicate to someone that we have forgiven them. Honestly, I find that a little hard to square. Why can it be good to not communicate to somebody that we’ve forgiven them?

Because our forgiveness of someone doesn’t necessarily change who they are, especially if the harm that they did isn’t just a one-time mistake, but comes from intentional, willful, even repetitive behavior. There are times where even raising the issue with the person could subject us to other harm.

It’s also part of empowering the person forgiving. There are people who will never see the harm that they’ve done, won’t own up to it, and even if they had the opportunity would not confess that action. It is for us to decide: What can we really get out of this process? What do we really need? To what degree do we empower ourselves to seek the healing that we need? And that doesn’t necessarily mean being in relationship with the other person again.

You wrote that forgiveness is not an obligation, but it is necessary for maintaining relationships. How does that affect our reading of Jesus’ instruction to forgive 70 times seven times?

I really like Everett Worthington’s distinction between “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.” He unpacks “deciding to forgive” from “reaching the point of forgiveness.” The two are part of the same process, but often one happens before the other.

Part of what my Christian identity calls me to do is to decide to forgive and to be committed to the process of forgiving others as often as I possibly can. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I will always reach whole and complete forgiveness — that’s part of my humanity. The question is: Have I intentionally worked on developing a forgiving disposition?

When I find myself still holding negative thoughts about someone, then I try to empathize with them. I try to see this from their perspective. Can I understand what circumstances might have led them to doing what they did? That helps me to see the humanity and release hostility. That’s the way I read those verses. It’s not that I’m off the hook, but the way that I’m on the hook is different than what we often think of it as.

Pretty soon after someone’s harmed me, I can make the decision to forgive. And I know it may take me some time, and I’m not going to rush it.

Would it be fair to say that, as Christians, Jesus is calling us toward decisional forgiveness? And then the emotional forgiveness is a process that Jesus calls us to commit to?

I think so. That’s one way I read the “77 times” or “70 times seven,” depending on your translation. I read it as Jesus tipping his hat to the fact that forgiveness is repetitive. It is cyclical. It takes time. We’ve often treated forgiveness as if it’s supposed to be a magic wand that restores everything. But even Jesus is saying, “You might have to forgive him again and again.”

It occurs to me that the question matters too, because the question is, “How many times should I forgive my brother?” Which contextually implies a deep relationship.

Scripture, from the very beginning, shows us that relationships are hard. And part of relationship is to forgive over and over.

Why is it important to recognize our own capacity to become a transgressor in response to being transgressed against?

What is happening with Israel and Palestine is an example of the traumatized becoming traumatizers who create other traumatizers in this vicious cycle. The people of Israel, who have this historic, horrific oppression and trauma, form this new political entity, a nation, out of that. And out of that desire to protect themselves, they end up harming other people. Then those people, who, after decades of experiencing this harm, lash out against the people who are harming them in horrific ways. And lots of people are harmed and killed in the process.

It can happen where we get so angry that we begin to lash out. The lashing out happens as an understandable, natural response to harm and is sometimes part of the process of healing. Anger, being able to express your anger and pain, is part of healing. I’m hesitant to criticize the anger, what I’m more worried about is when we become stuck in that moment, and then our understanding of the solution is rooted in our trauma and in our anger and unforgiveness … [Then we] aim for solutions that don’t actually rectify the original problem; they just play it out in a new way.

We saw this in Rwanda, between the Hutus and the Tutsis, right? One group in power when under colonization, the colonizers leave, and you have this switch [in oppressed and oppressors]. We’ve seen this over and over where, as a collective, people are not working through their own trauma, and when they have access to power or weapons, they end up replicating the trauma.

Individually and collectively, we need to find ways of figuring out how to move forward without seeing the other as enemy.

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