Who Deserves Forgiveness?

Last week I posted a commentary on Vayechi, the final Torah portion in Genesis, entitled How Trust Can Be Restored. It opened with a question, or two actually: “The news stream today is filled with stories of abuse and betrayal, and we might wonder whether deeds like this can ever be forgiven. And even if they are, can the perpetrators ever be trusted again?”

Because I didn’t answer these questions directly, I realize that this might have created the impression that victims of the sort of sexual harassment and abuse that have been demanding our attention lately just need to forgive and move on. And worse, that the onus of forgiving and restoring trust is on the victim. That’s not at all what I intended, so allow me to provide a few points of clarification:

  1. Forgiveness can never be demanded or coerced—especially not by the perpetrator or anyone advocating for him/her. This ban includes those who are advising or counseling the victim—they are not to pressure the victim to forgive in any way. It must be a free choice.
  2. If one chooses to forgive, he or she is personally dropping the charges against the perpetrator, not declaring him innocent or excusing or minimizing the behavior.
  3. Dropping the charges in this specific sense does not preclude taking appropriate action. If a relative abused you as a child, make sure that he or she doesn’t get the opportunity to abuse someone else. If you were sexually harassed at work, report that to the proper authorities. Forgiving does not leave you powerless.
  4. You don’t forgive to benefit the perpetrator, but to benefit yourself and your own well-being. The perpetrator’s sins can bind the victim emotionally and spiritually; forgiveness breaks that tie. This is especially relevant when the perpetrator is unrepentant or unavailable . . . or dead.
  5. Forgiveness takes power away from the perpetrator and gives it to the victim, who is now no longer the victim. Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects says that by forgiving, we “become a hero instead of a victim in the story [we] tell.”
  6. Forgiveness in itself does not restore trust or relationship. That’s the point of the original post I’m commenting on. We can choose to forgive freely and unconditionally, but trust must be earned and proven. I can forgive the offender, but he or she will have to earn the trust that’s been destroyed, if any kind of relationship is to be restored—and often that’s just not possible.
  7. Forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of the gravest offenses, is a process, not a once-and-for-all event.

Even the worst deeds of abuse and betrayal can be forgiven by the victim, who might choose to do so, not to benefit the perpetrator, but for his or her own benefit. So, to answer the question of my title, “Who Deserves Forgiveness?” the former-victims do, because when they forgive they regain power and freedom from the offender.

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