When my oldest son was nine years old, he made a shocking declaration. In the middle of a conversation he looked at me and calmly stated “Mommy, I don’t think I’m a Christian.” Needless to say, I was confused. For the entirety of his life we had actively participated in church. I had so many things I wanted to say and ask; but instead, I simply asked, “Why not?” His answer was quite sophisticated, “Well, being a Christian means being like Jesus and I don’t think I can do that. When Jesus was crucified he asked God to forgive the people who were killing him. I know I can’t do that. I can’t forgive someone who is hurting me or my family, so I’m not a Christian.”
Makes sense, right? I thought so.
When I think about those who have left the church because they have been hurt by the church, I return to that conversation with my son from five years ago. We like to think people leave the church simply because they are angry. Often it is because they have been hurt and they simply cannot find a way to be like Christ and forgive under the most painful circumstances. So, they walk away from the church, while others walk away from Christianity all together.
People make up the church
I sat with my son’s response for a while before continuing what became a beautiful and complex conversation. It was about his walk with Christ, but it was also about forgiveness. He could have turned to several events in the Bible to express why he did not think he was a Christian, but he turned to Jesus’ crucifixion. And when considering forgiveness of the church I too turn to the crucifixion story. It is the event in which Jesus, while experiencing his darkest and most painful time, requests forgiveness for the church.
People make up the church. It would be simple to read that Jesus was requesting forgiveness for the people who were torturing him in that moment. But think about it, they were not the only ones responsible
for his torture. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied ever knowing him…not once, but three times! And let’s not forget that it was the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, who led the charge for Jesus’ arrest and ultimately his crucifixion. Jesus experienced the ultimate church betrayal by those in his emerging movement and those of the established religion.
If you take time to listen to people who are struggling with forgiving the church, most likely they will mention people who, individually or collectively, form the church. Some may compare them to Judas or Peter, or mention church leadership – people – as the cause of their pain. While the acts of betrayal may not be the same as those in the Bible, the hurt is just as deep. And the forgiveness is just as hard. How does one forgive those who have told you that you are not worthy of God’s love because of who or how you love? How does one forgive those who have shunned you because you had a child outside of marriage? How does one forgive those who deny you the opportunity to operate in your gifts within the church because you are a woman? How does one forgive oppression and racism by those who pray at the altar on Sunday, but spew racial slurs on Monday?
Turn people over to God
While my son’s experience of hurt may have been limited to being called a name, his struggle with forgiveness is valid. I reminded him that God knows we struggle with various things, including forgiveness. I explained that one of Jesus’ tasks on earth was to serve as an example and show us how to do things like forgive the unforgivable. In that moment on the cross, Jesus in his humanness, looked to God to do the unimaginable. Jesus did not say “I forgive you.” Instead, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).
Certainly, Jesus was referring to the men who were torturing and ridiculing him, but I believe he was also asking God to forgive Judas, Peter, the Pharisees, and all the others who participated in his demise and who refused to accept him as the Messiah. Jesus turned them over to God. It is in this way that we can be like Christ. When the church - the people who are supposed to share, and show the love of Christ - are the people who have hurt us, we turn them over to God.
The church as a loving community
Dr. Sandra Wilson has a book titled Hurt People, Hurt People. It is this phrase that helps me forgive. The people who represent the church are imperfect people (just like you and me). Their fears, insecurities, and pain causes them to hurt others. It is unfortunate that they choose to use the institution of the church to cause pain instead of giving life, but that is not a reflection of God or the church as a whole.
I know several people who have left the Christian church for a variety of reasons. They have prayed, cried, and asked God to forgive those who hurt them. However, they just could not stay in the church. That is understandable, but need it be the answer? Might we find loving community within safe boundaries? As you pray for God to forgive others, I encourage you to also pray that God lead you to a faith community that is supportive, loving, and affirming. There are faith communities that will love you until you can forgive the church yourself. Jesus stood for love, kindness, and equality. There are church communities of people who practice these principles and love and affirm all people.
I have had my own struggles with forgiving the church. Let’s be honest, as an institution the modern church is not always in line with the vision set forth by Jesus to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). Instead, there is racism, sexism, classism, and other “isms.” I have witnessed the Bible used as a form of control from the pulpit. I have witnessed people use God as a tool of fear as opposed to love. But the thing that gives me hope during it all is God’s healing grace: healing for those who hurt and those who have been hurt. It is through God’s grace that God forgives me even when I don’t know I needed it.
Because grace is continuous, this same grace that is extended to me is extended to everyone. Even when I struggle to forgive, God does. It is also this same grace that motivates me to remain in the Christian church and the United Methodist Church. God’s grace healed me from hurt and made me a more loving, kind, and affirming person. If God could do that for me, God can do that for anyone. Even the entire Christian church!
My son is 14 years old now and although he still struggles with forgiving people who hurt him, he understands that while we are working to be like Christ, we are far from perfect. He continues to ask questions about God, Jesus, the church, and faith. But he also confidently declares he is a Christian.
Angela Johnson currently serves as Communications Coordinator for the Emory University Office of Spiritual and Religious Life. She lives in Atlanta with her two sons, who have affectionately named her “Mommy Deacon,” as she pursues ordination as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with friends when she isn’t serving as chauffeur and chef to her sons.