Desmond Tutu has been eulogising about forgiveness, he’s written a soon to be published book about it. He’s a fan of forgiveness. He has forgiven his father for his violence towards his mother, violence that Tutu witnessed and was powerless to stop as a child. He explains that it took him years to realise that he needed to forgive himself, or the child that he was, for not protecting his mother.
No one needs to be forgiven for being a child unable to prevent one parent’s violence towards the other (usually a father’s violence towards the mother). The child is never responsible. There is nothing to be forgiven for. But is it for the child to forgive the abusive parent? What does it mean for a boy child to forgive his father for violence towards his mother, essentially for a man to forgive another man for violence against women?
Tutu has also, with difficulty he says, forgiven himself for not making time to respond to his father’s request to see him the night before he unexpectedly died, an occasion which, Tutu imagines, might have been the time when his father sought to apologise for the violence he inflicted on Tutu’s mother. There’s nothing to suggest that Tutu is correct in this belief. It’s a convenience upon which he can pin his forgiveness.
It’s probably fair to say that Desmond Tutu is big on religion. He’s a retired Anglican bishop. I’d go as far as saying that he appears to have used his power and influence for good, but however closely allied to social justice, religion is conservative, it protects the status quo. In a feminist analysis that identifies patriarchal society, religion has been shaped to protect men’s oppression of women.
Apparently, in the bible there are two types of forgiveness: God’s pardoning of the sins of ‘his’ subjects, and the obligation of those subjects to pardon others. Being able to do so is so important that a believer’s eternal destiny is dependent upon it. Refusing to forgive is a sin. Forgiveness then is a selfish, not a selfless act. But it’s more than that, when talking about violence, it is an act that absolves the abuser of their responsibility. “No one is born a rapist, or a terrorist. No one is born full of hatred,” explains Tutu. He looks at how life chances have an impact upon the person we become, how none of us can say that we would not have behaved as an abuser behaves. I disagree. We are more than the product of our experiences. We have consciousness, we make choices, we can see if our behaviour is harmful or hurtful to another. Abusers are always responsible for their abuse. If someone’s ‘god’ , or indeed another believer, can absolve someone for the choices that they make, their responsibility is erased.
By reducing male violence against women to an individual relationship, one in which someone who is neither perpetrator nor primary victim can bestow forgiveness, we are ignoring, condoning – forgiving – the wider impact of men’s violence upon women, upon all women above and beyond that individual relationship. We cannot allow a person to say that this is okay, that this is forgiven, but it appears that religion encourages us to do just that. Indeed, male violence against women can be forgiven by god. That’s just a little bit convenient for patriarchy.
Male violence against women does not simply take place in the cocoon of an individual relationship. It is structural, it is systemic. The pattern, the overwhelming consistency with which women are the victims and men the perpetrators should be a big clue. Male violence against women is not random, it has a function and that function is to maintain the social order of male dominance: patriarchy. Male violence against women is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men. In the UK, the mainstream is very quick to identify ‘other’ religions as oppressive to women but this is equally true of Christianity. Religion reinforces and upholds patriarchy, forgiveness is just another of its tools. We do not need to forgive male violence against women unless we want men to continue to dominate women.
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I am so so grateful that you wrote this piece. I too have been immensely troubled by Archbishop Tutu’s promotion of forgiveness. I respected him enormously as a fighter against apartheid and other oppressions, but in the matter of familial abuse he is actually doing the abusers’ work for them.
I was brought up as a Christian (although I have not been a believer now for many years) and I am still subjected to this moralistic bullying from time to time. Whenever I hear the word “forgiveness”, I sense the word “vengeful” lurking just behind it – Christians seem to move all too easily from requiring you to forgive your abuser to casting you as a “bad person” (vengeful, selfish, etc) if you do not forgive.
This is not morality. This is scapegoating.
This immediately brought to mind a woman I counselled long ago, one of her issues being subjected to rape by her father at the age of 7. The family were Christian – extremely devout, and their solution was to deal with it ‘in house’ – basically all this vile man had to do was convince the pastor that he was repentant and she was convinced that she had to forgive him in order to move on.
As far as I could see everything was calculated to cause the least ‘fuss’ and of course to ensure that the rapist was left unaccountable (I know that Christians will disagree, but as this man continued to be a domineering patriarch who mercilessly bullied his family I do not feel that he ‘truly repented’). This is classic patriarchy, and this is one of the reasons I despise religion.
If Desmond Tutu had publicly written that males who commit violence against women must be held accountable for their behaviour/actions then this would indeed have sent a very strong message to all so-called ‘religious men and their apologists’ that males do not have the right to subject females to male violence or male domination. But instead Tutu is paroting mens’ common excuses/justifications because men must never ever be held accountable for their violence committed against women and girls.
Instead we women as usual are expected to ‘forgive and forgive and forgive’ the male perpetrators and even when men murder us women it is the male perpetrator(s) who are the ones accorded sympathy and excused their accountability by other men. So it continues men claiming ‘I can’t help it/men claiming you women must forgive us men/ men claiming we aren’t responsible and no we won’t accept our accountability.’
This is how men continue to maintain male power over women and girls and Tutu is just another male apologist refusing to accept that his father never once accepted he was accountable for making the choice to subject Tutu’s mother to systemic violence.
What about Tutu’s mother? Oh yes she has been erased by Tutu because his sole concern is demonstrating he is the dutiful son who ‘forgives his father’ – how convenient – forgiving the male perpetrator for violence this male committed against a woman!
I’m still waiting for men en masse to hold other men accountable for their choice and agency to continue subjecting women to male domination and male control. But this will not happen soon because if men were to hold other men accountable this would mean men collectively having to accept they are ‘part of the male problem’ but because men are the dominators/oppressors they will never willingly give up their pseudo male right to control and oppress women.
Men who claim they are ‘sorry for committing violence against women/girls’ can prove this by their actions but given I do not see such men holding other men to account for condoning/justifying/excusing/denying pandemic male violence against women then clearly the male perpetrators are not ‘sorry’ rather they are furious at being punished for something they see as their male right. What is that? Why male right to oppress and dominate women of course.
Whilst there are indeed some Feminists who have long sought to erase mens’ interpretation of what supposedly passes for ‘religious belief’ this has in no way reduced mens’ pseudo sex right to oppress women and girls. Men have always used ‘religion’ as a justification for male sex right to control women and ignoring this fact ensures the focus is deflected away from male accountability and how men maintain structural male oppression over females. Tutu like many men has undertaken ‘good works’ but he continues to promote/justify male lies that women must ‘forgive and forgive and forgive’ because he refuses to accept males are the ones who must demonstrate they will not forgive/excuse/justify systemic male violence against women and girls.
Whilst I am totally sympathetic to your critique of Christianity, please be aware that there are many feminist Christians, like myself, who are working – and have been for decades – to challenge unthinking patriarchal views within religion (and specifically, Christianity). Feminist theologians, like myself, have analysed and discussed every aspect of Christian theology, including the concept of forgiveness, from a variety of perspectives of women’s lives and experience. There is no one view on forgiveness within Christianity, any more than there is one view on anything else – even though some representatives of Christianity would make you think otherwise. And Tutu is one of Anglicanism’s greatest champions of gender justice and LGBT rights around the world – which doesn’t mean he is right about everything, but does mean he deserves some respect.
Thank you for your comment.
As I acknowledged “I’d go as far as saying that he appears to have used his power and influence for good”.
Yes, I know there are women who manage to combine feminism and religion, it’s just not for me.
I didn’t think the piece was implying disrespect simply by pointing out the inadequacies of the Christian expectation of the victim to forgive or for Tutu’s piece. I lived with two violent ex partners, one who pushed me out of a first floor window when I pointed out that he was lying to me about my own money and the second who beat me senseless whilst pregnant because I refused to stop a job I was doing in order to get something for him whilst he sat watching TV. Brainwashing women into forgiving a perpetrator of violence who has not asked for forgiveness or doesn’t mean it has cost millions of women and children their lives. Think this edict was written by men for men to keep women and children in violent homes and I don’t see any evidence for the Church really dealing with violent sexism in its teachings or that Tutu’s words do anything other than justify his father’s violence.
Christianity is as bad as any other massive power structure – it wields power through oppression and women are a prime target of oppression in all religions. I can understand Tutu wanting to forgive his father from a personal perspective but you are right, it is a personal and therefore selfish act, although probably necessary for his own growth and healing process.
Thank you for writing this. I also found it extremely difficult to read.
I may be over-simplifying, but as I read his piece, I kept thinking, ok, but you are an extremely authoritative, influential man (who was not the primary target of this abuse) whose father is dead … and you’re advocating for forgiveness to readers who will include women who are not authoritative of influential, and whose abusers are alive. It seems cruel to publish this piece, even if it is what he privately believes.