Intentions, Repentance, and Free Speech: Ruby Woo Day 1

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Let me tell you, folks, getting here feels like a major accomplishment. I don’t know what it all was, but this week has been a major struggle. I had anxiety and panic-type flares for lack of a better term. And I’m super tired from getting everything ready to leave, and then plane, uber, hotel, straight into a meeting with no buffer because I was the last to arrive tonight, so I’m sort of wide open with the help of an IPA from the hotel bar. But now I’m tucked in and in yoga pants and I’m decompressing.

The trip leaders/facilitators lead us through a community-building exercise that started with a community safety agreement, which was fabulous. We were asked to imagine a person that we felt comfortable confessing to when we had messed up/sinned. And then in a word or phrase we shared aspects of what we thought of when we thought of that person. This sparked conversation about what we wanted to see in community throughout the trip and got us to go deeper faster I guess for lack of a better term in the sense that we have a lot of intense ground to cover in a short time and we needed a framework to help us get there.

We talked about intention vs. impact and which do we hold or can we hold them both or do we center impact. This is important in a multi-racial space because white folks often like to center intention when they do something that causes harm as though saying, “well, I didn’t mean too…” is some kind of get out of jail free card. This dovetails with a discussion I was having earlier this week regarding people treating repentance as a get out of jail free card, much like some do with the concept of free speech as though that means there should be no consequences for anything people say, when in reality free speech means you don’t get jailed for what you say, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get fired from your job or experience other personal consequences.

In Christian tradition, true repentance should be about facing and even welcoming the consequences of one’s actions as a path to make things right again. Repentance was never meant to be a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

In the same way, some people–especially white folks in the context of talking about race–seem to think that as long as their intentions aren’t specifically harmful we should be granted a free pass on the harm that they caused. I’ve also personally experienced this with men thinking that if they didn’t intend harm, they should get a pass on the impact that they caused to women, and it doesn’t work like that either.

Intentions do matter. It’s ever so much worse if the intent is to actually cause harm and there’s not room for repentance or reconciliation in that case.

My main takeaway tonight was that if our intent is truly good, then we should welcome our neighbors telling us about the impact of our actions and be able to learn from that experience and change our actions, instead of centering our intentions in the conversation. By nature of someone telling you how they impacted them, they assumed good intentions, or they wouldn’t have bothered.

Un-becoming and other dark nights of the soul

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Sometimes in order to become, to move to the next stage, to emerge as what we were truly intended to be, an unraveling, an un-becoming, a dark night of the soul perhaps is needed for growth to occur.

I recently saw a statistic that millenials are the first generation who don’t count themselves majority Christian in America. That’s right, the number has fallen to 49% of that generation identifying as “Christian” when asked. A few folks online posted this statistic with mournful comments, but a few different things immediately popped into my head upon seeing this.

The first is, why do some who call themselves Christians like to set up an “us vs. the world” persecution complex when Christians have literally had the majority in this country for, well, all the way since colonization. And no, I don’t need you to remind me that some of those same Christians don’t count Roman Catholics, or Orthodox, or heck, even us radical Episcopalians as “true Christians” but when more than half the population technically shares the same label, then it’s hard to say that this so-called persecution is a thing.

The second thing that popped into my head was just “good.” Good, let it unravel. Good, let the un-becoming commence. We may have to collectively experience a dark night of the soul to get to the next stage of our life together in community, but that’s okay, that can be a good thing.

Perhaps the caterpillar to butterfly analogy is way over done, but it still holds here. A caterpillar has to become literal mush, liquifying itself on the way to becoming a butterfly. And if one doesn’t trust the process, I can see how that would be terrifying, but I believe that a period of everything slowly becoming mush is just what’s called for right about now.

Why can I say this? Well, let’s just say, I’ve been doing this on a personal level for a while now, this dark night of the soul, this un-becoming, this questioning, and I don’t see wings yet, but I’m starting to get the sense that there’s a whole new way of being waiting on the other side of this cocoon.

Optimistic? Only because I’ve started to see the daylight after much darkness, and I’m not being unsympathetic to anyone’s personal or collective dark nights. They are painful, and messy, and absolutely no fun. But I’ve yet to find an alternative to working through them. What I’ve gotten out of them so far was a sense that God wasn’t letting go of me, no matter how angry I was at God, or the church, or my fellow humans who call themselves Christians. Sometimes that was the only thing I felt like I knew, except for the emerging realization that God can handle our questions, our anger, our doubt, and everything else. It’s generally other people that get uncomfortable when we express these types of sentiments.

But we need to get more comfortable with holding space for our own doubt as well as the doubt of those around us. A belief that cannot be questioned is not a belief worth holding, and from what I’ve seen the questions lead to growth.

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.