Forgiveness is one of the most important concepts in Christianity, and to my mind, one of the most misunderstood. I’ve mentioned before that my church service features a number of “lay” preachers (ie. non-clergy), which means that we get a somewhat different perspective on a lot of things. A few months ago, a close friend of mine preached on social justice and included the statement that Jesus does, in fact, want us to be doormats.
I was bothered at the time and I’m bothered now by that terminology. My friend used the point that Christ allowed himself to be humiliated, beaten and crucified as evidence to support this statement, which he wanted to issue as counterpoint to Christians who justify their resentment or anger at others by saying that “God doesn’t want me to be a doormat”. I told him at the time that the statement he used is one that I frequently hear from women who are in the process of extricating themselves from abusive relationships, and that it’s an extremely important phase of asserting oneself, requiring constant strength in the face of a lot of people questioning and doubting and pushing you back. The church has too frequently been a source of that pushback, and while I know this friend and this church well enough to know that they would never say anything like that, I feel like some people in the progressive church community feel that we’ve done enough to counter those messages, that everyone understands that we don’t really feel that way. Which is essentially wishful thinking on our part, partially a genuine wish to get beyond that hateful stuff onto something far more positive, partially a tendency to bury our heads in the sand and forget the truly hateful things that are still said and done in the name of our faith. It’s preaching to the in-group that already understands that, pushing us higher, but as I told my friend at the time, he has no idea when the day might come that a new woman in the process of getting the strength to leave might walk in to our church, and he has no idea when someone we’ve known a long time might start finding the strength to speak about ongoing abuse using cryptic terms designed to test the water of how she’ll be received.
We are called to forgive. Forgiveness, for me, has been a process of being raised beyond the hurt and anger that was trapping me. One of my friends has a good description of the word ‘resentment’ as ‘unresolved emotion’, emotion that gets ‘sent’ through you over and over, cycling and festering and growing and continuing to make you feel it. Forgiveness breaks that.
My friend (the preaching one) was, to some extent, referring to the theory of non-violent resistance and “turning the other cheek”, which involves, in part, allowing your oppressors to abuse you while you refuse to respond in kind. It represents a radical misunderstanding of the concept to refer to this as “being a doormat”, because contrary to popular perception, non-violent resistance is not a passive act. It is resistance. The point is not just that you and your God and your conscience know that you’re the “better” party, the point is to draw attention to the dynamics of oppression and control, to gain the support of previously neutral parties. You have to counter the message that your oppressed group has earned violent treatment, that the dominant power needs to use violence in order to keep them under control for their own sake or in retaliation for violence that they started. It is a public demonstration of how power and control work, especially since refusing to react makes the oppressor realize he is losing control, he can no longer break you, you will no longer lay down and submit quietly, and he raises the level of violence accordingly.
It is a declaration of the fact that, while you may not be able to stop him from abusing you, you can choose not to be reduced by it. It’s a refusal to be a doormat. A “doormat” is stomped on, damaged and dirtied by being used. Christ was the opposite. Christ was raised by it, created something larger out of it, took the damage that was being done to him and used it to repair. There’s more to it than that, and the concept of martyrdom needs to be evaluated itself, but the semantics of doormatting vs. resistance are pretty significant to me.
Forgiveness brings another layer into the question, which is why there exists a Part 2 to come, on some day in the near future when it feels like emerging from my brain.