I Walk Imperfectly

Forgiving the Church

Thu 07 January 2016 |

When thinking about the way that the church has dealt with its history, I tend to invoke the language of the gospel. "The church has been dishonest", I have said many times to myself, "and needs to repent of its dishonesty." I strongly believe this.

Yet despite framing the church's dishonesty in terms of transgression and repentance, I had avoided seeing the other side of those principles: forgiveness. This was brought home to me today as I was reading a review of the new book Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. From the review:

For example, one principle that particularly struck me was his discussion of how the atonement can apply to imperfect leaders, groups of people, and organizations. (pp 114, 122) Not only does it rightly point out that I am neither the judge, jury, nor executioner of our leaders – but that if I am to expect and ask for forgiveness I MUST give forgiveness to others who have caused me pain. I’m commanded to forgive everyone. This includes the Church. He used the example of only recently has the LDS Church taken responsibility and apologized for its part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the reconciliation and peace that has come individually and institutionally because of it.

Some church teachings I have found to be false or harmful. Some I still hold to be beautiful and true. Among the latter group is the belief that forgiveness is essential to me becoming the kind of person I want to be. And I have not been living up to that.

I don't mean to beat myself up here. I have had good reasons for feeling betrayed by the church that I trusted, and for resenting that betrayal. I think anger over the church's dishonesty was necessary for me. But I don't want to spend the rest of my life nursing that anger. I especially don't want that anger to drive a wedge between me and the still-believing people that I love.

If I'm going to be the kind of person I want to be, and have the kind of relationships I want to have, I need to forgive. I need to forgive the church leaders, both general authorities and local bishops, that filled me with shame as an adolescent. I need to forgive the dozens of unknown church leaders and staffers who omitted all the unflattering parts of the church's history from its lesson manuals. This means giving their intentions the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that they were doing the best they knew how.

As I think about this, a question arises. In forgiving the church, am I letting it off the hook? Does it mean that I'll stop trying to learn the whole truth? Does it mean that I'll not try to share what I've learned with others?

It can't mean that. I can forgive the church, and stop holding a grudge, but that doesn't mean that I need to go back to letting the church dictate my morality, and it doesn't mean that I can't draw boundaries around what I let the church teach my children.

Ten years ago the president of the church gave a talk entitled Forgiveness, and shared a story (which has since become a staple of church discussions of forgiveness) of a woman whose face was shattered and permanently disfigured by a frozen turkey thrown through her windshield by a teenager. Surprisingly, she helped the perpetrator get a reduced sentence. On the court date, before the trial started, he personally apologized. She embraced him, and forgave him.

I don't know if I would be able to overcome my own anger enough to forgive in those circumstances, but I know that it would make my life better. It's easy to forgive my sons when they do something wrong. It's hard to forgive someone who hurt you, and should have known better. It's especially hard when the damage was inflicted by trusted leaders, repeatedly, over a long period of time.

That said, the difficulty of forgiveness doesn't diminish its necessity.

I know that it's unlikely that the church will ever apologize for its dishonesty or the harm that it has done. I am getting to a point where I can be OK with that never happening. The church needs to repent, not because it owes that to me, but to save its own soul. I need to forgive the church, not because it deserves it, but to save myself.