the dangers of redemption


During grad school, I enrolled in a class called Poetics. Over the course of that semester, we struggled with questions like “what separates literature from fiction?” or “how could we identify what makes some literature great?” or “is the existence of the literary canon legitimate?”. And while grappling with all of those questions, a common theme sprung up in a lot of our discussions: the idea of redemption. Many of us, myself included, began to sense that –perhaps– part of what makes great literature great is this idea that the author has written a work that redeems a part of the human experience. This idea had almost nothing to do with happy endings, of someone getting “saved,” or the insertion of “Christian” morality into literature. It had more to do with this nebulous sense that the author and the readers reclaimed something; that they took something small, ordinary, human, and transformed it into beauty, or love, or majesty. I had trouble logically grasping the concept, but could sense the transcendent. The idea of redemption took root.

Redemption, to me, is an integrally loving act, and I’ve come to see it as something unlimited by Christian definitions. I look at how “redemption” is commonly used in American evangelical and Protestant circles, and I find their use of the word troubling. Redemption, in many ways, has been corrupted by over-simplification; it now means little more than “absolution for sin.” That word, absolution, is important in a Christian context, because its primary meaning of “release from punishment” has come to be an essential part of the Christian meaning of redemption.

This limitation of what redemption means frightens me, because, in action, when someone searches for “redemption” in many Christian circles, what they’re looking for is “escape from consequences.”

I’ve been struggling for months with what I think an ideal form of redemption could look like in action. If the church, the representation of Christ on earth, is intended to extend mercy, compassion, empathy, and ultimately redemption, what should that truly be? Some of the most beautiful stories in our mythos are ones of redemption — stories like the Prodigal Son, Ruth, Paul– and ones where we seek for redemption but cannot find it are some of our most heart-wrenching, like Judas or Esau. Christianity is filled with stories of the redeemed– in some cases, that’s how we refer to ourselves. It’s in our songs, our hymns, our poetry. In some way, I could make the argument that Christianity is the redemption narrative.

For that reason, I understand why we, as Christians, seek to offer redemption whenever we can.

However, we’ve cheapened it. We’ve sullied it. We’ve turned it into something it was never intended to be: a way for abusers and oppressors to manipulate us.

Handsome and I have spent the last several months periodically trying to work through this. I’m horrified that abusers have found a way to infiltrate and hide in our churches so that they can continue victimizing the people around them without fear of punishment, and he’s horrified by the idea of a church becoming so suspicious and unloving that we refuse to extend compassion to those who desperately need it.

How do we strike a balance? Can there be balance?

Something I’ve slowly come to think could be a good place to begin is in caution. Very often, it seems like the Christian community (especially online) throws its arms open wide the moment someone “repents.” If that person also has a huge and influential platform, we seem willing to extend our olive branch preemptively. This is why I wish I could go to the gatekeepers of online communities and beg them to practice more discernment, more caution. Please, wait. Give him or her time to demonstrate what we want to believe is true.

But what about in our physical churches? Should we even think about the idea of excluding people? Personally, I don’t have many qualms about anyone entering my church to worship there– we all have our histories, our mistakes, our intentions to harm another. But giving someone who has a history of abusive behavior the opportunity to speak, to lead, to give that person power? That makes me uncomfortable and nervous. But then I’m reminded of Paul, who actively persecuted the early church and sought its annihilation, and he became one of its leaders. Or Peter, with his temper and his acts of violence. Or Matthew, the tax-collector, which meant he was probably a part of (and benefited from) the oppressive Roman system. Or all the disciples, who wanted to rain down fire from heaven on an entire village that denied the Messiah.

I think of all of that, and I’m still terrified of the idea that an abuser could be given the chance to lead my church, to become a part of its public face. Because how in the world do we determine that someone who used to be an abuser is no longer?

And the answer is . . . we can’t. Not really.

Which brings me back to caution. To discernment. To tentative, action-based trust. To openness, honesty, transparency. To examination, and the willingness by everyone involved to be questioned and criticized. Because redemption isn’t about removing consequences, and if we try to make redemption and forgiveness equal with tabula rasa or memory loss, it’s not redemption at all. It’s intentional blindness. Jesus himself reminded us that we live in a broken, ugly world– a place filled with wolves. And in that world he tells us to be as cunning, as wary, as shrewd, as wise as the snake all while being as innocent and harmless as a dove.

When we deliberately decide to cloak an abuser for what he or she was– or what he or she could be now— when we decide to ignore what they have done, or to hide it from the people they could hurt? What we’re doing is choosing ignorance, and we’re choosing it for everyone. Keeping people in the dark, refusing to give them the opportunity to protect themselves isn’t love. Giving someone with a history of abusive behavior an easy, convenient way to remain unchanged, unaffected isn’t loving. Science, history– it all tells us that abusers rarely change, and they only do so when compelled– and even then it takes time. That’s what I think it means to be as “wise as the snake.” It means being prudent, being aware of possible dangers. It means being watchful, and patient.

But we’re also asked to be as harmless and innocent as the dove. Even Jesus was aware of the necessary balance we have to strike as humans, and he was aware of how difficult it was when he said that we are like “sheep among wolves.” But we can’t neglect one action for the sake of another– we have to be both.

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