Justice, Forgiveness, and Trauma

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I spent the last week having conversations around the ideas of justice, forgiveness, and trauma. It was extremely enlightening and exhausting, and so I’m here trying to make some sense of it.

A theme I saw repeated many times, both in the context of Brandt Jean (Botham Jean’s younger brother) forgiving his brother’s murderer this week and in conversations related to people’s private trauma, was the repetition of the idea that justice has to do with punishment and retribution for the offender, and that forgiveness is exoneration for the offender. As though justice and forgiveness are ideas which stand in opposition, and I don’t believe they are.

However, I understand why they are seen this way because of the way that forgiveness has been weaponized as a tool of oppression against many that have suffered various types of trauma.

I would like to posit that in order for forgiveness to be possible, understanding it in a framework of justice is the only way to move forward. God’s justice is considerably different than many of us have been led to believe–as is God’s forgiveness. Understanding this is key to our mutual liberation.

The idea that God’s forgiveness can include both accusation and condemnation isn’t one that you normally hear preached on Sunday. The idea that justice is good news for the oppressed and the oppressor isn’t something we normally want to chew on.

But if we are to reclaim these vital concepts and apply them with mercy to our broken world and our broken lives, we need to understand the origins.

And the origins are rooted in shalom. As Lisa Sharon Harper says, “Shalom is the stuff of the Kingdom. It’s what the Kingdom of God looks like in context. It’s what citizenship in the Kingdom of God requires and what the Kingdom promises to those who choose God and God’s ways to peace.” (The Very Good Gospel, p. 13). And Shalom is good news. It’s the promise of what is to come when God makes all things new, and it’s a reality we can live into even as we work with our own trauma and the brokenness of the world around us.

So if we understand that justice and forgiveness has to be rooted in the thriving of everyone, then we can see how the misuse of forgiveness in particular has been weaponized in a way that is antithetical to the kingdom of God. When abused women are told to forgive and stay with their abuser, when black people are expected to forgive white aggression even as the white people walk away from trials with minimal to no sentences in response to taking of black lives, when we go to our priests and pastors with our trauma and told simply that we must forgive without an understanding that forgiveness in itself contains an accusation and a condemnation, then forgiveness has been turned into a weapon of oppression. Doing this can cut off the survivor of trauma from the freedom that real forgiveness can give to them, a freedom that involves a cry for justice all wrapped up in this concept referred to as forgiveness. (Cf. Miraslov Volf, Free of Charge, 2005).

Forgiveness is not exoneration, and justice is not retribution.

A person can be forgiven and still serve their jail sentences. In fact, I would argue in our moment, if Amber Guyger appeals her sentence, she was not actually repenting of her sin against Botham Jean. Repentance involves facing–even welcoming–the consequences of your actions as the road to redemption.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. There are two parts to this story.

One can extend the accusation that is forgiveness, the condemnation of the act that wounded you, the recognition of the impact of the actions that abused you, and in the same moment can walk away from the people who are committing wrong against you if that is possible. I’m thinking more of personal relationships in this instance, people who are traumatized by systemic racism for example cannot get away from the systems that are causing that trauma.

Forgiveness is also a path to freedom for the survivor of trauma. However, with no repentance and no consequences for the one who did the wrong, there is no requirement for reconciliation. In fact, reconciliation without repentance not only does no favors for the survivor nor the perpetrator, it actually removes the accusation and condemnation and thereby removes the requirement for repentance on the part of the perpetrator. Not only does this do no favors, it is actually wrong. And for the church or any organization or institution with power to say that forgiveness requires forgetting, or that forgiveness requires reconciliation without repentance and without consequences, is an abuse in itself. This falls into the category of spiritual abuse: an abuse that often is tied up in the traumas of so many because it served to compound and exacerbate situations that were already beyond bearing for so many.

Jesus promises that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light” and all too often the church forgets this and piles so much weight onto already broken and abused people when it should be coming alongside them and taking on the weight of their trauma and making it easier to bear. This is so opposite the actions of the wounded Savior they claim to worship that I can hardly comprehend it, and yet the first is all too often the response of those who claim the name of Christ.

Forgiveness and supremacy culture

In their new book Activist Theology, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza talks about divesting ourselves of our privileges “and from practices that support supremacy culture” and calls us to “chart a different path–one that is animated by the radical act of bridging radical differences” (p. 28). Reading this in the context of thinking about justice and forgiveness, I see a call to all of us to divest whatever privilege we have–and some of us have much more than others–and to come together to promote shalom–that mutual thriving of everyone, regardless of that person’s original “status” in society.

And in light of forgiveness first being an accusation and a condemnation, we can forgive those who participate in systemic wrongs even as we call for justice and an end to the systems of supremacy and oppression.

Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor

In his book on eschatology (or the theology of “what comes next”), Jurgen Moltmann talks about God’s creative justice at the end of all things. This justice “brings the victims justice and puts the perpetrators right.” The perpetrators “will be saved through the crucified Christ, who comes to them together with their victims” (emphasis mine). He goes on, “As the coming judge of victims and perpetrators, the risen Christ will do away with the suffering one and the burden of the other, and will bring both out of the dominion of evil into the community of God’s righteousness and justice” (p. 143).

Now I have to admit, when I first read this, it made me mad. Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor. And then it hit me, this is fabulous news because I am both oppressed, and oppressor, I am victim, and perpetrator, and there will be justice for the wrongs I have suffered and a path to repentance for the wrongs I have committed. That path, that justice, is offered through repentance and if I take it, I have the opportunity for reconciliation.

Moltmann goes on to say that the purpose of God’s judgement “is not reward or punishment, but the victory of the divine creative righteousness and justice, and this victory does not lead to heaven or hell but to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth” (p. 143).

Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor is an amazing gift! One that should give all of us hope even in the here and now.

But we must be careful to note that this ultimate judgement and justice and the reconciliation made possible by it is mediated by God through God’s judgement, and the reconciliation offered to the oppressors is only offered in the context of facing what they did. It’s not just “between them and God,” it’s between them, God, and their victims.

God’s forgiveness is a path to freedom for all of us, but reconciliation may have to wait until God makes all things new. Even then, it is predicated on the response of the oppressor.

I for one hope I will walk into the forgiveness that I need for the wrongs I have committed, and I want to start that path now–on this side of God’s great day of judgement. And in that light, I also commit to the process of releasing those who have wronged me. I hope that they also begin their own paths towards being forgiven and towards reconciliation. But there is some reconciliation that is only possible on the other side of God’s great day of judgement when God sits as mediator and advocate.

Note: If you read this when it first went live, I revised two sections after feedback. I did not mean to imply that victims had power over their oppressors salvation, but it read that way, and I apologize. That’s the opposite of the overall thrust of this piece, and it was poorly worded. Also, when I said that we could walk away from some of the ongoing impact of trauma, I meant that we could leave toxic relationships that were continuing to perpetuate that trauma. For some of us, trauma–especially childhood trauma–has changed our brains and impacted our bodies in such a way that we live with chronic illness and there’s no walking away from that. Also victims of systemic oppression such as systemic racism cannot walk away from the systems as they encompas everything. 

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