Jesus Did Not Say 'Forgive and Forget'

Jesus did not say, "forgive and forget."

Yet, for twenty-three years, as a spiritual director, clergywoman and mental health director, I have heard women struggle with the advice they receive from family, friends, therapists and pastors to stop complaining, "forgive and forget," and move on. My current research shows that this well-intentioned advice is dangerous at best, and deadly at its worst.

According to the VA, at least 30% of American servicewomen (and many men) have diagnosed cases of MST -- Military Sexual Trauma -- a form of PTSD. The perpetrators are usually servicemen and commanders. In fact, there's actually a term, "Commander Rape"[1].

And, according to a recent DOJ study, at least 20% of women in US colleges/universities will be sexually assaulted while they are students [2].

And remember that, in 2009, 30 male senators refused to vote to allow Jamie Leigh Jones to sue Halliburton/KBR after its employees gang-raped her, locked her in a storage container without food or water for days, and refused to get her medical care in order to be sure she kept her mouth shut [3].

A twenty-six year old enlisted servicewoman I know filed sexual harassment charges with the support of her African-American Civil Rights Officer (male) on her military base. She told me she was shocked to hear over and over from women colleagues that they all knew sexual attacks were going on, and had experienced attacks and harassment themselves, but they would not speak up.

Why didn't they speak up? What I've heard is that many women in their 20s believe they deserve this, that they are responsible for the men's attacks. Some women want to get ahead and are afraid that a complaint will be seen as a failure to be a "team" player. They are well aware of the ways women are ostracized and punished for speaking up. But most believe they should "forgive and forget." They believe it is their burden to do this, regardless of what a perpetrator does, because this is what they have been taught in their churches and told by their families and therapists.

Why have churches and therapists forgotten that Jesus said repentance is a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness? Jesus did not say, "forgive and forget." What Jesus actually said was: "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, "I repent," forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4, NIV).

Speaking up about what happened -- rebuking the perpetrator -- is essential.

And the perpetrator must repent -- this is essential.

Jesus was not alone in requiring repentance. Jewish traditions have long required a relational response that involves both atonement and restitution. Women in other countries attest to the power of a relational approach that requires repentance. According to the women of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, "when the prerequisites for authentic reconciliation -- truth and justice, acknowledgment of the crimes committed, and punishment -- are not met, forgiveness is impossible" [4]. Likewise, in Rwanda, forgiveness, reparation, and re-integration into the community are only possible after eyewitnesses have been able to "speak out against the committed atrocities" [5] and perpetrators "admit guilt, show remorse, ask for forgiveness, and demonstrate that they regret their actions" [6]. If there is repentance, then forgiveness is possible, and relationships can be restored.

This is the goal: To restore relationships.

However, if a perpetrator refuses to repent, then the perpetrator is refusing to see the victim as a human being who has been hurt by the perpetrator's actions. By refusing to take responsibility for these actions, the perpetrator continues to view the victim as an object. This is an indicator that the perpetrator is not willing to be in a relationship of equals with the person who has been harmed.

This is an important point, because it is only when the other person becomes an object, an "it," that one person is able to harm another. This is why the "enemy" is called "redcoat," "nip," "gook" or, currently, "haji," "raghead," "camel jockey" and "sandnigger." It's also why enemies, or even opposing sports teams, are called "wusses," "pussies" and "women" -- because women are still, on some fundamental level, viewed as objects, as somehow "less than" men.

If a perpetrator refuses to take responsibility and repent, then there cannot be a relationship between equals. A victim who "forgives" at this point is staying in a situation in which s/he will continue to be viewed as an object that can be harmed without impunity by the perpetrator.

If the perpetrator will not repent, a victim's healthier response - both spiritually and psychologically -- is to mourn the relationship because it is, indeed, over. No authentic relationship between equal persons is possible. And the process of mourning is important, because mourning is the process that helps us "let go." Only after a relationship is mourned can it be "let go."

It is time to follow the advice of Jesus and encourage women to speak up about abuse and require repentance. Only then is true forgiveness and restored relationship possible.


1. Hinojosa, Maria. Rape in the Military. NOW on PBS. 2008 Web. 7 November 2009.
2. Shapiro, Joseph. Campus Rape Victims: A Struggle for Justice. NPR. 2010 Web. 24 February 2010.
3. Duff, Gordon. 30 Republican Senators Vote to Legalize Rape. Veterans Today: Military Veterans & Foreign Affairs Journal. 2009. Web. 7 November 2009.
4. Arditti, Rita. Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. p.160.
5. Report on Trials in Pilot Gacaca Courts. National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions. 2008. Web. 16 September 2008.
6. Nastasi, Lisa. (2008). Diary from Rwanda: Day Two. Divine Caroline. 2008. Web. 24 August 2008.