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Dean of King’s College, Cambridge: ‘Forcing victims to forgive can cause more harm’





Has the church got forgiveness all wrong? Reverend Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge, is asking the question in his new book that he will be discussing at the Cambridge Literary Festival this weekend.

Stephen proposes a new way forward for church teaching about forgiveness, which he insists is not always a helpful response to be expected from victims of serious harm.

Instead he puts forward a concept of non-vengeful unforgiveness, because sometimes it's unreasonable to expect a person who has been harmed to forgive the perpetrator, especially in cases of child abuse, murder, or other serious physical or psychological damage.

“It's quite a strong critique of the Christian and psychological enthusiasm for forgiveness that has developed over recent decades,” says Stephen.

“The book looks at this from the perspective of the the person who has been harmed and the impact that harm has on people and my overarching concern, which has driven the book and why it is an attempt to make a strong Christian, psychological and logical case for unforgiveness, is because I think that enthusiasm for forgiveness can make life worse for people who have been harmed. And that the correct spiritual and psychological approach is to encourage people to find their own space somewhere between full forgiveness and vengefulness.”

He is expecting some backlash, he admits, as the concept of forgiveness is central to much of Christian thought. But, he argues, this depends on your interpretation of the Bible and that while God may be able to forgive all, this is not to be expected of humans and it is why God’s forgiveness is needed.

“One of the ways in which I think Christianity gets forgiveness wrong is by making God's forgiveness the high standard and not recognizing that God's forgiveness is quite a different thing to human forgiveness,” says Stephen.

“When a parent forgives a child, they can say, I'm forgiving you for this and it's all over, essentially, that it doesn't matter anymore in the slightest. But in adult relationships, I think people can get to the point where they cope with what's happened to them. But it doesn't obliterate what was done in the first place. It still matters, the meaning of it is still there, and the damage of it is still there.”

He adds: “Christian leaders often say that Jesus regularly forgave people. But I don't think he did. I think what he spoke of was God's forgiveness and that was a religious challenge. But he actually wasn't in a position where he was a victim. And the only time when he spoke about forgiveness in his own right, of people who had harmed him, was his famous words on the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. Which wasn't at all saying, I forgive you. It was avoiding saying that by putting the thoughts of forgiveness into a prayer. It’s not ‘I forgive you’, but ‘may God forgive you’.”

In the book he asks the church to “appreciate the huge difference between forgiveness of the low impact harms, and unintentional harms and forgiveness after serious life changing traumatic harm.”

He also wants the church to recognise “that the priority for abusers and others who have inflicted harm should not be to seek forgiveness, but to repent… they should be working out how to put things right.”

And he wants an understanding that “remorse is largely irrelevant to victims. And apologies making a point of stressing emotion are inappropriate and unhelpful.”

Instead of expecting victims to forgive perpetrators for the sake of their own mental health, healing or for religious purposes, Stephen says: “My belief is true forgiveness can only come out of freedom. And therefore, any forms of coercion or manipulation of people into forgiveness is inappropriate.”

Reverend Stephen Cherry will be in conversation with Francis Spufford on Saturday 20 April at Cambridge Literary Festival. Book tickets: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.



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