When this article is relevant, it is excruciating. There is no way around it. Put yourself in these situations:
· You realize your spouse has been abusing the children and now need to call Child Protective Services.
· You dated a popular guy in the college ministry. He raped you. Now you need to call the police.
· You discover that the church’s financial officer has been embezzling funds. Now you need to file a criminal report.
· You watch a med tech be careless in how he/she fills prescriptions at the hospital or pharmacy. You need to talk to the ethical board.
· You realize your son or daughter has been stealing their grandparent’s pain medicine and selling it to other students at school. You need to call the principal.
These kinds of moments tear at our souls. We know there is a right thing to do. We don’t want to do it. In our discomfort and dismay, we look for other options. Forgiveness is often the “break glass in case of emergency” concept that allows us to rationalize not doing what we know we need to do.
It doesn’t make logical sense to refrain from reporting these kinds of criminal offenses. But, unfortunately, too often it makes emotional sense. Let’s track the thought process step-by-step. We’ll walk through it using first person pronouns (i.e., I, me, my) to help it feel more like the critical moments of decision.
1. I learn of awful actions by someone I know and care about.
2. I feel angry, despondent, sick, betrayed, etc. At this point, I am thinking of the people harmed.
3. I realize what needs to be done (contacting the authorities). I realize many lives will change if I do.
4. I feel intensely worse. I’m not just aware of what happened (past tense). I realize I must make choices (present tense). My focal point begins to shift to the impact on the person who did wrong.
5. Reasoning begins to mix with emotion. I realize my actions will have huge consequences.
6. I focus on the outcome of my choice to act. I begin to consider doing nothing.
7. I feel less “involved” in the situation if I take the more passive road.
8. My conscience beats me up for considering the possibility of doing nothing.
9. Forgiveness emerges as a Christian theme that helps me rationalize that doing nothing is a godly response.
10. My choice to do nothing protects the wrongdoer instead of the vulnerable under the guise of forgiveness.
Do you see the “fog of war” beginning to settle in about halfway through the list? The first part of our thought process makes sense. But a shift begins at step four. Steps nine and ten are the outcomes that frequently make the news as scandals—“a person does profoundly bad things and those near them do nothing.” We never thought we would be the person protecting the wrongdoer, especially not in the name Jesus.
How does that happen? The key shift points are step four and again at step seven; hence, they are in bold text in the progression.
When we only hear of a tragedy, we tend to identify with the victim. At step four in this journey we begin to identify with the wrongdoer. We will have to explain our actions. So the question we ask changes from, “How would I want this situation handled if I were the vulnerable one(s)?,” to, “How would I want this handled if I were the guilty one?” That shift changes everything!
But this is a different kind of choice. Doing nothing isn’t the equivalent of saving your money. Doing nothing leaves the vulnerable exposed.
Instinctively, we know this. That is why our conscience will not release us to the passive option. That is why the ninth step in our progression is so important.
We categorize our passivity as the gracious, forgiving, or Christlike response to the sin of the wrongdoer. All it takes is a flip of the question for this façade to fade.
· What if you were the child being abused?
· What if you were the next girl this guy asked on a date?
· What if you were one of the church members giving in faith?
· What if you were the parent of a student buying pills at school?
When we identify with the vulnerable instead of the more personal (e.g., our friend, spouse, child) the notion of being passive towards sin no longer seems gracious or forgiving. It is revealed for what it truly is—dangerous and cowardly.
It is true. We are all sinners. But it is not true that innocent and vulnerable are suitable synonyms in this sentence. We are just as sinful as the drunk driver who kills another driver in a wreck. But we are also more vulnerable when we drive on the road not knowing which drivers are sober and which are intoxicated. Our need for forgiveness does not cancel out our vulnerability on the road.
We can acknowledge that there is an emotional tension between forgiveness and protecting the vulnerable. But we must realize that this tension is only in our emotions (i.e., we feel torn), not in what is ultimately the right choice.