Should I Pray For My Abuser? Reconciling Feminism and Forgiveness
My eyes are stinging, my heart is racing, and I am yelling. Something about “righteous anger” and “paying the price.” The indignant soliloquy rolls off my tongue; I have sung this song before.
I was taught how to rage by the best of ‘em: my first memories are fury-colored. In my house, to holler was to be heard, to rave was to be right, and to cry was to forfeit. I studied shouting like a fine art until I became a master crafts(wo)man of madness. The world seemed to reward this skill: as a young actress, the ability to send my voice to the back of an auditorium was my “secret weapon” in battling soft-spoken students for the biggest parts. Friends admired my “fearlessness.” Teachers applauded my “enthusiasm.” I learned to love being the loudest one in the room. Even when punished for speaking (and/or screaming) out of turn, I was proud of my lung power; I wail, I win.
The older I grew, the less this mantra worked in my favor. Turns out, the longer you yell at someone, the shorter their tolerance. And, if to cry was to forfeit, I was the loser. I began to see that bringing a person to tears was a form of brutality: a truth that became most clear in the very place where I learned how to lash out, my home. When screaming moved in my direction, it didn’t feel like power, it felt like a punch in the face–only the bruises didn’t heal. Vitriol, I realized, wasn’t a victory, it was violence—yet, it remained my biggest vice.
So, when I finally accepted that anger and aggression were anchored to abuse, I did the only thing I knew to do: I yelled louder. I re-directed my rage away from the world and towards my abuser. Two can play at that game, I thought, convinced I had found a loophole: I would lick my wounds and spit the blood as I screamed. I couldn’t see that what I called justice was merely violence of a different color. An eye for an eye leaves both half blind.
Then I found feminism: the validation I needed to keep on screaming. I brawled against brutality in the name of women everywhere who were battered by verbal abuse. My sisters in solidarity understood my anger: they, too, were hurting and the pain we shared buoyed my bitterness. But it didn’t make me feel better. Now that I had a flag to wave as I belted out my battle cries, I was even angrier at my aggressor. It wasn’t fair, I shrieked, to be robbed of peace without penance. Someone had to pay. I demanded retribution until I went hoarse. Only then did I begin to hear myself clearly.
This was not feminism. This was not justice. This was not the path to peace. This was me, repeating the sins of my father in a higher pitched voice; this was glorified abuse.
Violence is defined as the exercise of extreme force: the imposition of one’s will on another. Thus, while I correctly identified the verbal assaults in my home as violence, I also became its bride, pinning its name to mine, paradoxically calling myself a peacemaker.
A few days ago, a friend sent me an interview with the feminist writer Marianne Williamson, where Williamson shares her spiritual homework for those who have been badly hurt: “Pray for that person’s happiness for thirty days.” Forgiveness, my friend assured me, was the perfect antidote to my fixation with force.
The angry child within me couldn’t help but protest.
“—how is that fair? Won’t forgiving the perpetrators of abuse defy my feminist principles? How can I let them get away with it? What they did was wrong!”
And so was I. My marriage to violence had deceived me into believing that peace required payment. I spent twenty years trying to scream my abuser into submission, demanding reparations for my pain. I was a fraud, not a feminist: my actions only served to deepen the divide between war and peace. The oppressed was now the oppressor (with radical sounding rhetoric).
Paolo Freire writes, “In order for [the struggle for humanization] to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” This, I now believe, is what Williamson was getting at when she encouraged the suffering to pray for those who have done them wrong. Anger, hatred, and bitterness can only ever breed more of the same; I was living proof. No amount of screaming could slake my thirst for “justice”; I wanted revenge, at any cost, and I ended up paying with my life, my integrity, and my values. No longer the victim of my abuser, I was the victim of myself, my peace seeking heart mired in an endless war.
And that brings me to today: my eyes stinging, my heart racing, my throat raw from yelling too long and too loud. The time has come, as Williamson urged, to pray for peace. But before I can even begin to meditate on those who have hurt me, I know that I must begin with my closest, most venerable enemy: myself. I must restore my own humanity by forgiving, and ultimately liberating myself, from the cycle of violence. Then, and only then, can I begin to address the abuse I seek to end. As Freire says: “If the goal of the oppressed is to become fully human, they will not achieve their goal by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction…it is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.”
Let us pray.
Written by Rachael Kay Albers
Find her at her blog!