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.