Humans tend to think in binary: yes or no, on or off, is or isn’t. The fundamentalist traditions are saturated with binary thinking: you are saved, or you aren’t. You are us, or you are them. You take every word in the Bible literally, or you reject the Word of God. Pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and in a moment you switch from the damned to the redeemed. There is not much room for spiritual progress in the pop fundamentalist understanding of salvation.
This is where the Christian compulsion to forgive becomes a bludgeon. If someone has been injured and is still carrying the effects of the injury, we think they haven't forgiven. We don't recognize that forgiveness is a process. We jump on them and tell them to forgive and forget. Just do it. The Holy Spirit will give you the strength. One-step forgiveness, and if you can't handle it then you aren't praying the right way.
But deep damage can't be healed in one quick trip to the doctor. Several years after cutting off contact with my schizophrenic father, I found that I was far enough away from the abuse that there was something new that I could do to step even further. There was a new way to forgive. I could stop trash-talking my father and wearing the abuse like a battle scar. I had every right to tell the world how horrible he was. He'd given me that power. Now forgiveness meant giving up the right to be noisy about the damage.
And that was that. I'd forgiven him, because I put the debt aside and stopped being angry. That was what Grace had told me forgiveness was. I'd met their standards. The process was really over. Right?
But it wasn't. A few more years passed, and one evening I was in the middle of nighttime prayers-- the ones that I really shouldn't do in bed because I start start to fall asleep and am partly praying and partly dreaming about being late for work or being covered in spiders-- and a new way to forgive was suddenly in my head, even though I hadn't been thinking or praying about my childhood. It was huge, and it was scary, and it meant letting go of the one vengeful thing I had left. I could ask God to forgive my father.
That's the way that Christians get around forgiving people, isn't it? We say, "God will judge," and content ourselves that while the person who hurt us isn't going to pay in this life, God will really blast them on Judgment Day. Hey, we might even get to watch.
Since it was a damage done to me, I was the only one who could ask God not to count that debt against my father. That was under my power. A new way to forgive, and one that was so far out of reach when I started down this spiral of forgiveness that I couldn't have grasped the concept. Here it was: "God, I release him from his debt to me. God, I'm asking you not to judge against him for the harm he did me." It left me feeling emptied out and light, like a sky lantern floating away from the earth.
I've never called him up and said, "I forgive you." Maybe that's a step that will come later, but I doubt it. It's not something that I could communicate to him. He would hear: "I finally agree that you didn't do anything wrong, and you are welcome back in my life."
It's been thirteen years since I spoke a word to my father. At my brother's wedding a couple of years ago, there was an old man sitting several rows behind me. "That man won't stop staring at you," Patrick whispered to me. "It's creeping me out."
"Don't worry," my brother said; "I told him he's not allowed to talk to you." And I realized that I'd forgotten my father's face. I wasn't afraid of it any more or fixated on it with hatred. I couldn't forgive and forget through willpower or holiness. It was the natural work of time and separation that released the relationship and made the forgiving and the forgetting possible, stage by stage. And that's one of God's gifts of healing to us, winding through the coil of time that we're alotted.
First I was a victim. Then I was out, but damaged. Then I wasn't damaged, but different than I would have been otherwise. And now? Time fades the memories, and the thousands of choices and hundreds of people that compose life after my father have taken me so far away that his influence doesn't touch where and who I am. I'm not even different any more. He's gone.
Ten months ago I moved to a new place. For the first week before my wedding I slept alone, blinds closed and deadbolt locked, expecting every night to have the dream again.