Working with victims of abuse and survivors of trauma and also being one myself, the most difficult thing, by far, that I have encountered in church settings from the Mormon brand of Christians, is the focus on forgiveness that is pushed and peddled as the remedy to our pain.
Forgiveness is not a remedy for trauma. Boundaries are.
The Atonement is not the antidote for abuse. Safety is.
Let me explain.
We often hear talks about forgiveness. We have lessons on forgiveness. But when is the last time you learned about forgiveness AND learned about boundaries at the same time? The principle of forgiveness should never be taught without the essential principles of accountability, boundaries, and safety. But somehow, these paramount principles that empower those who have been wronged to work towards forgiveness of those who have wronged them are not covered regularly in the forgiveness paradigms or the Atonement repertoire.
The Principle Of Forgiveness Is Weaponized In Abusive Situations
In fact, let’s take a look at what it says in the Gospel Topics under Forgiveness. This passage is directly pulled from the text under the subheading of “Forgiving Others.” It reads:
“In addition to seeking forgiveness for our own sins, we must be willing to forgive others. The Lord said: “Ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:9–10).
In the everyday circumstances of life, we will surely be wronged by other people—sometimes innocently and sometimes intentionally. It is easy to become bitter or angry or vengeful in such situations, but this is not the Lord’s way. The Savior counseled, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He set the perfect example of forgiveness when He was on the cross. Referring to the Roman soldiers who had crucified Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; see footnote c).
We should pray for strength to forgive those who have wronged us, and we should abandon feelings of anger, bitterness, or revenge. We should also look for the good in others rather than focusing on their faults and magnifying their weaknesses. God will be the judge of others’ harmful actions” (Gospel Topics, Forgiveness).
Nothing inherently wrong with the material here, except for it’s omission of a key component: SAFETY. Safety should always be first priority in any situation, especially in following the teachings and adhering to the principle of forgiveness. Specifically, this language of forgiveness without safety and boundaries can and is so easily weaponized in situations of abuse against victims who are experiencing unsafe and unhealthy circumstances of repeated debasement or intentional maltreatment.
Forgiveness Should Never Be Taught Without Safety
Forgiveness should never be taught or framed as a necessary requirement for healing in situations of abuse, profound mistreatment, or exploitation. Instead, a clear and distinctive caveat should be made that in abusive situations in which a person has been victimized and traumatized, the requirement for forgiveness is absolved from the victim’s burden and the primary focus should be on safety and healing, however and whenever that may come organically to the victim. We simply cannot have forgiveness without boundaries and vice versa. Safety, not forgiveness, should be first priority in situations that are unsafe.
Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, an organization that helps women find safety in situations of abuse and has served a near total of 700,000 women, states,
“If a crime is being committed in the case of physical or sexual abuse, it is important that victims report this to proper authorities first and foremost. Many times, victims feel that they want to seek assistance from the church leaders because of cultural norms and they assume their church leader is a safe person they can see as a first point of contact. But so often, we hear of women being told to forgive in situations of abuse and encouraged to stay in these abusive and unsafe situations. Being let down by church leaders especially in situations where physical and emotional safety are being violated is traumatizing for victims. There is a reasonable expectation of safety and protection that members have when they seek guidance from their spiritual leader. It can be spiritually abusive when that expectation of safety and protection is not upheld by religious leaders in which they have placed their trust in. This spiritual abuse compounds the trauma that victims already feel, often adding a devastating layer to the damaging effects they experience” (Dear Clergy: It’s Time To Stop Enabling Abuse).
You may be asking yourself, is this really a problem? Of course everyone knows that safety is a priority, right? My answer to that is: We may think that everyone knows and understands that safety is a priority, but how can we make sure they know if we are not teaching this? It is a problem, but one we can address.
How Can We Help Trauma Survivors To Feel Safe?
We can supplement the narratives and lessons on forgiveness with language and teachings about boundaries and safety. Take this lesson in the Primary 1 Manual for children, entitled “I Can Forgive Others”:
“Hold up a copy of the Bible. Explain that in the Bible, Jesus told us to be forgiving. One of Jesus’ apostles asked him about forgiving others (see Matthew 18:21–22). Jesus told him that we should always be forgiving. Explain that the Bible also tells us that Jesus was forgiving.
Display picture 1-59, The Crucifixion. Explain that the soldiers were very cruel to Jesus. They beat him and spit on him. The soldiers drove nails through Jesus’ hands and feet and hung him on a cross to die. Explain that Jesus forgave the soldiers. He wasn’t angry with the soldiers for what they had done to him. (Be careful not to be too dramatic as you tell this story. Some children may be very sensitive to the idea of people hurting Jesus.)
Turn to Luke 23:34 and tell the children what Jesus said when he prayed to Heavenly Father just before he died: “Father, forgive them.” Have the children repeat this phrase aloud a few times” (Primary Manual 1, Lesson 30: I Can Forgive Others).
This lesson should and could easily include a teaching about personal safety for children. We should be careful to not normalize the notion that abusive situations in which they are being physically harmed (or otherwise harmed) need to be suffered needlessly. We can teach children about setting boundaries and safety. Ethically, we must teach this, especially to the vulnerable and impressionable within our flock. We can use role playing activities to help kids be empowered to set their own boundaries and say “Stop,” “No,” and “Don’t do that” when they feel uncomfortable about something or someone. We can emphasis that no one expects us to suffer physical harm in order to abide by gospel standards. Jesus wants us to say, “No” when someone hurts us on purpose.
Seeking Accountability Can Be A Healthy Step For Victims Of Abuse
Here is another quote from the lesson entitled, “Forgiving Others With All Our Hearts,” found in an adult instructional manual:
“A common error is the idea that the offender must apologize and humble himself to the dust before forgiveness is required. Certainly, the one who does the injury should totally make his adjustment, but as for the offended one, he must forgive the offender regardless of the attitude of the other. Sometimes men get satisfactions from seeing the other party on his knees and groveling in the dust, but that is not the gospel way” (Forgiving Others With All Our Hearts, From the Life of Spencer W. Kimball).
Nothing inherently wrong here either, except that this language can be and often is weaponized within the church culture in situations where a victim wants restitution and seeks accountability for the abuses they suffered. Many times, I hear accounts of victims being shamed and guilted for wanting restitution and seeking justice. A survivor wanting their abuser to be held accountable is not something that comes out of anger or bitterness. It is something that comes from healing in a healthy way and knowing and realizing their own divine worth. It is not something that is satisfying or spiteful for a victim but something that is a stepping stone along the path of healing and peace.
What Are Boundaries And How Can They Help?
We must emphasize that in situations of abuse, forgiveness should not be the goal. Safety should be. There should never the expectation for anyone to stay in an unsafe or unhealthy situation. We can teach this principle of safety by teaching about boundaries. Boundaries provide a plan for people to know what to do in an unsafe situation. Boundaries can help provide clarity. Boundaries can be carefully predetermined, or they can come up naturally as a predictable consequence. Boundaries are not things to be said. They are actions to keep a person safe. They do not need to be stated in order to take action. A good way to think about boundaries is to complete these sentences:
- I do not feel safe when ____________.
- In order to feel safe, I will ____________.
Boundaries are not a way to control another person. Rather, boundaries help the person who is victimized or abused to find safety. We must include teaching on boundaries when we teach about forgiveness.
One recent talk that I did appreciate is Elder Holland’s, “The Ministry of Reconciliation”, given in the spring 2018 session of General Conference. He does include a paragraph highlighting the need for healthy boundaries in situations of abuse and trauma:
“It is, however, important for some of you living in real anguish to note what He did not say. He did not say, “You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.” Nor did He say, “In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.” But notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing.” (The Ministry of Reconciliation, Jeffrey R. Holland, April 2018)
We need more talks like this and every talk or lesson on forgiveness should be like this, with a clear directive that forgiving does not mean forgetting and staying in an unhealthy situation.
Teaching Forgiveness In A Trauma-Informed Way
If we want to teach the principle of forgiveness within the constructs of the gospel, we can change the way we frame it to make it healthier for survivors of abuse. Viewing forgiveness as something that allows the victim to release themselves from the burden of a situation that they have no fault for at all can be particularly helpful in healing work. It can also create a trauma-informed atmosphere for survivors to feel safe at church to talk or share about their trauma without fear of judgement from others. Forgiving should never be conflated with forgetting in situations of abuse.
In the book, “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud, he states,
“Nothing clarifies boundaries more than forgiveness. To forgive someone means to let him off the hook, or to cancel the debt he owes you. When you refuse to forgive someone, you still want something from that person. It keeps you tied to him forever.
Refusing to forgive a family member is one of the main reasons people are stuck for years, unable to separate from their dysfunctional families. They still want something from them. It is much better to receive grace from God, who has something to give, and to forgive those who have no money to pay their debt with. This ends your suffering, because it ends the wish for repayment that is never forthcoming, and that makes your heart sick, because there’s no hope.
If you do not forgive, you are demanding something your offender does not choose to give. Even if it is only a confession of what he did, this ties him to you and ruins boundaries. Let the dysfunctional family you came from go. Cut it loose, and you will be free,” (Boundaries, by Henry Cloud).
Each year, we have a total of 52 weekly lessons in several different ward auxiliaries, approximately 150 sacrament talks, 52 weekly youth activities, and many other church enrichment events. Surely, we can spare at least one of these opportunities to include teachings on safety and boundaries to help all of those within our midst, especially victims of abuse, to understand that they deserve healing and peace.