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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  • Samantha

    A very loud amen to this.

    As someone who worked at a Christian camp with a man that had a history of sexually degrading women and using his charisma to charm women this is so true. He tried to be sexually vulgar toward me and when I raised hell about it at the camp they constantly told me to extend grace instead of confronting that man. Two months later and with me threatening to leave they finally confronted him and he denied everything except he ended up resigning. If he wasn’t in the wrong why did he run away?

    Suffice it to say, I still ended up leaving. The spiritual, psychological, and emotional damage that placed on me was too much. Now I am battling PTSD and struggling to still believe in God’s redemption and to trust the church again.

    This post gives me hope.

  • In my former Protestant church, redemption was defined as “buying back”. Christ purchased us back to the Father, away from our sin and Satan, by shedding his blood. Redemption has, as you demonstrated, many definitions, depending on its usage. I don’t think it ever meant “free from consequences” so much as establishing a relationship with God. At least, not in my church, which was fundamentalist, by the way. The problem is that once we are redeemed, we no longer have to deal with eternal consequences, i.e. hell. There is still plenty of work to do on this side of heaven, though. Sin has consequences in the here and now. The Catholic church I attend now recognizes this. We speak of reconciliation, both in the here and now, and later on, in purgatory. There is a real human element attached to wrong doing, and we are obligated to make it up to those we harmed in whatever way possible. That means that an abuser cannot continue to be abusive, and has to find a way to make his actions right with those s/he harmed. That’s not always easy. We see redemption as a process, not a static event. We are always responsible for the choices we have made, and continue to make. I like this post of yours.

  • I agree that redemption ins a common theme in great literature. But today we have seen the death of any cultural metanarrative. Redemption is a narrative, and while it doesn’t have to be Christian, it does need to be deeply meaningful, almost eternal. The church has cheapened this, but so has the whole world world.

  • In my work in Victim Impact I am often asked if I have “forgiven” my offenders. My offenders are those who in this case carjacked me, kidnapped me, shot me three times and left me on the side of the road for dead. They were caught, they received long prison sentences. One was released as an inmate after serving his entire 20 year sentence, this means he never made parole. The other two made parole but broke their parole and re-entered the system and are finishing their 35 year sentences (they each had other victims thus their longer sentences).

    My answer during Victim Impact is always the same, “No, I have not forgiven them. They must seek their forgiveness elsewhere. From their own families. From whatever God they believe in. But I have not forgiven them because they have never been remorseful for their acts”.

    Redemption and remorse go hand-in-hand. The ripples that spread from abuse or violence are wide and do great harm. We, the victims of that harm should never be forced into the position of ‘forgiving’ simply to make others feel better.

  • > 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?

    This just happened in my church. After two years with no senior pastor we invited an abuser to the pulpit. Less than one year later he had split us into three groups: Those that loved the abuser, those that didn’t and the clueless rest. Eventually the district got involved. They put him on sabbatical, covered up his abusive actions,and begged the “offended” people to not bring a lawsuit against him.

    You’re right to be terrified. So many men and women who I respected, and who professed to love God and were observable Christians… how could they could be so divided over this issue and take sides against each other?

    Well, it shattered my faith, what little was left. I am no longer a Christian. My wife and many of my family are, but for me, I no longer see God as a loving kind father. Not when He lets this happen. Indeed… I cannot love someone who could order an entire family to be stoned, or an entire nation slaughtered. Or who would allow an abuser to come to “power” in my church and stand by while it is torn apart.

  • Margaret

    Redemption is a really important topic in my opinion. One I’ve been thinking about recently.

    I see a distinction between redemption of a person and “redemption” of a situation. For example, I believe I was redeemed as a person when I asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins. I no longer doubt my position as a child in God’s family.

    However, I suffer from depression and fear of abandonment. I am from the U.S. and my parents became missionaries in another country when I was 10 (along with 3 siblings). The best option open to my parents for our schooling was to send us to another location when we reached 7th grade thru 12th grade.

    It was painful for me to be separated from my family. It has taken years for me to learn to “trust God,” after to He called my parents to serve Him in a place where I could not live with them. However, the pain that I experienced has caused me to become sensitive to the pain of others around me. I notice pretty quickly when someone is withdrawn, or sad, or is being “left out” of a group.

    I do not need to be forgiven for feeling alone. I did nothing wrong, but I still felt inadequate and useless. I believe that my situation, or my “life story” has been “reclaimed,” made useful, made meaningful. I believe that my life can now be a blessing to those around me.

    Not sure if this makes sense or if I am expressing it clearly, but it’s my thought at this stage of my life. (I am now 54.) I still suffer from depression, and I sometimes still have panic attacks or anxiety about being alone. But over time, I have developed the confidence that God has not forgotten me and that He wants me to reach out to others who are feeling forgotten. I see this as a type of redemption.

    • I’ve seen this with other MKs. It doesn’t make sense to require a missionary family to relinquish their children. Some MKs bond with the other MKs really well; others, like you, remain feeling abandoned. I have a friend who was a teacher for two years at a MK school. She was the child of parents who took care of those MKs while she was growing up. She got to stay with her family because they were assigned to that school campus. Others were students with parents in other countries. Ironically, her parents left that mission field when their older children returned to the USA to pursue their own lives. They couldn’t stand to be separated from their children; yet it was ok for other parents to be separated from theirs. This is a dialogue which ought to be had within Christendom, but which will probably never happen. I hope you are are well.

      • Margaret

        Thank you sheila for your concern. My view on this is changing as I have children of my own. The fact is that Missionaries are not “required.” to relinquish their children..They are presented with choices. Often, the country they live in does not have schools for their children. The children need to be able to return to the “home” country, when they are grown. Today, there are a lot more options on how to accomplish this.

        Another change is that missionaries are not “required” to stay on the field forever. I think ease of travel has a lot to do with this. People can go and “serve” for a shorter period of time and then be released to return to their home country,. This makes it easier to educate their children, and to be a part of their lives as they get old enough to leave the nest.

        I talked with my parents about this when I was in college. I hated that they lived in another country. They were very compassionate. They listened carefully. Then they told me that God had not “released” them from their work. They also told me that the only way they could handle the separation themselves was to release us into God’s hands.

        At the time, I hated this answer. Now, as a mom with kids in college, I find it profound. I have discovered that no matter how close I live to my children, I can not protect them from “life.” I cannot solve all their problems. In fact, they don’t want me to and would like me to keep my nose of of some of their “business.” I have had to “release ” my children into God’s hands. It is the only way to peace between me and my growing up children. I learned this from my parents.

        When I look at my life, and the struggles that I had, I can see that God was faithful to me. I can believe that God will be faithful to my children as well.

        “sigh” it might be time to start a blog of my own. And yes, I am well.

  • DD, I agree with you that redemption is not just an escape from hell or other consequences.

    But I particularly like the way that you apply it to our blanket acceptance of those who repent. You are right that we should accept them, but we should also be watchful because growth is a process, and leadership should come after a sufficient period of growth.

    In addition, repentance does not eliminate all consequences of our actions. If we murder, we must face the consequences even if we genuinely repent. If we steal $10,000 from someone and repent, we still owe the money.

    • Margaret

      Even the apostle Paul was not accepted easily. After his conversion, he spent time with other Christians for a time, before he started preaching. Barnabas went with him to Jerusalem, to vouch for Paul, when he met with the church leaders.

      • This is true Margaret. And they had a right to be cautious; and Barnabas did a great service in getting to know Paul in order to re-introduce Paul to the Jerusalem church.

        Even so, when Paul was chosen for the first missionary outreach many years later, it was as part of the team ‘Barnabas and Paul’; it did not become ‘Paul and Barnabas’ until after Paul had demonstrated his leadership.

    • Exactly! True repentance must involve reconciliation with reparation. One must pay back the wrong, if at all possible. Consequences in the here and now are vital to the whole process.

      • It is true Shelia that, in hurting each other, we do not get off scot free when we repent. The hurt is still there.

        However, there should be balance. As forgivers who also have much to be forgiven ourselves, we should not become legalistic about our forgiveness of others. Sometimes it turns out that the sorrow for the hurt is all the repentant can offer. So our forgives becomes pure grace. So I like your inclusion of the words, ‘if possible’.

        We should not be stingy with our forgiveness or dictate the conditions, because Jesus suggests that we should forgive others the way that the Father forgives us..

  • R

    I think showing true repentance means that you seek to understand how you hurt others. You give up your power.

    Recently I heard of someone who made a bad decision in an organization. He apologized for the decision. But was he truly repentant or just sorry that it made the organization look bad? I think if he was truly repentant, he would have asked others to be part of making the decision in the future. He could have done some things to balance out the effects of the bad decision. So far, he hasn’t done any of those things.

    When Zacchaeus repented, he didn’t just say he was sorry and demand that everyone forgive him. He actively sought to repair the damage he had done.

    Luke 19:8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

  • R

    Recently I heard someone say that they were tired of apologizing. I thought, “That person is not truly repentant! They are not truly sorry if they are not willing to understand the other person’s pain.”

    I think this is similar to Paula Deen. So many people insisted that she be forgiven immediately. But most of those people were white and did not suffer any injuries to their careers from Paula Deen. She apologized many times but also made a lot of excuses. I don’t see that she tried to make amends for what she did – especially the unequal financial distribution with the cook who developed her recipes.

    I don’t think anyone has the right to demand that everyone ignore their past sins.

    Excellent post, Samantha!

  • Is there such as thing as being beyond redemption? Forgiveness for my abuser gave me freedom. Yes, he is still a part of my life. No, it is not a significant relationship, nor do I trust him. What I am an advocate for is seeing all people as in need of redemption. Me. Him. What hope would I have in Jesus to rescue me if I did not believe that He couldn’t rescue those who also hurt me?

    • Melissa, I do NOT think there is such a thing as being beyond redemption. I agree with everything you said.

  • I’ve been thinking about redemption a lot lately, especially about its deeper and broader (and more beautiful) implications. Definitely chewing on some ideas for a future blog post. I especially like the redemption story in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. 🙂

  • Ali

    You so have a point on the issue of redemption however studying the word of God in context on the topic sheds a brand new light on the topic. The through is human behaviour can be inexplicable but that dose not change the fact that a person is saved. the issue you should be addressing is mind renewal which the word of God teaches to give ourself totally to Gods word. this is guaranteed to change the worst person on earth if we continue to steadfastly do the word of God.

  • When I pick up my guinea pig Lily and giver her loves and make her feel special and give her her favorite treat, a carrot, I feel redeemed. That is Christ’s love working though me to convey His love to one of His creatures, and “perfect love casts out fear”.