At some point, a leader will find their beliefs to be at odds with the belief system of a congregation and decide to take a stand based on their beliefs. Such stances are challenging because they run counter to the emotional needs of the community to think, act, and feel the same. An extreme version is happening today in our election cycle. Most people in the Trump camp think, act, and feel very different from those in the Clinton camp. Neither side would be welcomed or accepted in the other’s camp. If Trump’s VP were to hold a press conference announcing that, after months of reflection, he now thinks Bernie’s idea of free college for everyone is actually a good idea, even the stones at the Trump house would cry out! There is little space to have one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
All congregations struggle with these two opposing forces. At one end is the need for congregations to come together and form a community. At the other end is the need each person has to be their own person with their own thoughts, actions, and feelings about a whole host of faith issues. Congregations vary in their capacity to encourage individual thoughts, feelings, and actions. Some do a better job than others.
The decline in congregational membership, particularly in the mainline protestant church, the increasing polarization of society, and the institutional demands to fix problems have put pressure on clergy to focus less on being an individual and more on developing a sense of community. Most congregational leaders focus their energy on building a community.
We are hardwired for community and relationships. Community happens naturally. I was at a community prayer service recently with a room full of people I did not know. It didn’t take long for that experience to feel like “church” to me. Humans have a natural inclination to be social and a deep desire to connect to an experience of community. Congregations struggle not because of a lack of community but from too much.
Forgiveness and the balance of togetherness and individuality.
As a Christian, I was taught to forgive others. It was a consistent message I heard as a child. It continued into my adult life and into my training as a pastor. I would ask questions like: How far does forgiveness extend? Are there certain acts that are so horrific that not even God would forgive them? For me, the answer became no. There was nothing beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. My practice of ministry began to reflect this belief as I encouraged others through my preaching, teaching, and counseling to forgive.
I recently attended a holocaust remembrance service, Yom Ha'Shoah. The keynote speaker described her experience of forgiving her father. Her father had been abusive towards her and her siblings. As a child, the father had escaped Europe after watching the Nazi’s kill his parents, family members, and other members of his community. After making his way to the United States, he married and had children. The speaker described her struggles growing up with her father. Later in her life she worked on forgiving her father. It wasn’t easy, but as her father laid in a hospital bed, days before his death, she told him that she forgave him. She attributed her capacity to forgive him to her own efforts to research and better understand the trauma of his childhood. She described forgiving her father in terms of positive feelings.
It turns out that forgiveness has positive social outcomes and negative individual outcomes.
Oeindrila Dube, Assistant Professor of Politics and Economics at New York University, recently did a study to answer the question, "can there really be reconciliation after the atrocities of a civil war?" Following a decade of civil war in Sierra Leon, a truth and reconciliation program was established by an NGO to assist communities in restoring social cohesion. The program brought communities together to allow victims to speak about the crimes committed against them and allow perpetrators the opportunity to admit their crimes. The goal of the program was to find forgiveness between victims and perpetrators while they receive encouragement from the community.
In places where the program was offered, forgiveness went up significantly. Trust of former combatants increased 22.2 percent. Social networking increased by 11 percent as more friendships formed. In these communities there was a substantial increase in the number of people who participated in parent teacher associations, government affairs and other community oriented organizations. The overall benefit of forgiveness was to the community which experienced a sharp increase in community involvement post civil war. This seems to confirm our natural, human propensity towards togetherness.
At the individual level, things were drastically different. They were significant overall costs to the individual. In the three measured areas of depression, anxiety and trauma, those who participated in the program either as a victim or perpetrator had negative outcomes. In these individuals, the presence of severe trauma was 36 percent higher compared to control communities that did not run the program which was at 8 percent. Even after two years, the results were the same; individuals were more depressed, more anxious and suffered from higher indicators of trauma after going through the program. It is as if the community had benefited at a cost to the individuals.
The researchers concluded that more needed to be done to mitigate these negative effects. In essence, the overall community benefits were considered high enough that it warranted the continuation of the program but only if individual health markers can be improved.
It would seem that there is a connection between the community and the self. If the goal is social cohesion, then it’s possible that it comes at a cost to the individual. If the goal is to support the health of the person, then it may require less social cohesion. A different approach to forgiveness is required.
Approaching forgiveness by thinking differently.
I’m not suggestion we not forgive others. Forgiveness, learning to not retaliate, and developing a capacity to deescalate certain situations are all important skills for the health and welfare of humanity. All religions to some extent teach the importance of forgiveness because at a basic level seeing one another as equals is an essential component of living together.
So how might we approach forgiveness differently? Dr. Murray Bowen developed the concept of differentiation of self. You can read more about this concept by clicking here. Differentiation of self is about being more of an individual but not in the ways we typically define individuality. Common notions of individuality move us to be independent of others. For example, someone might say, “That group in the church is crazy, and I’m not going to participate in anything they do.” Or “I’ve differentiated myself from my family.” That’s not differentiation in the way Bowen conceived of it.
Bowen’s idea of individuality was a self who operated out of well thought out core principles and beliefs, while staying connected with others in the relationships system. It is the capacity to say “I” while others are demanding “we” without running away or insisting others agree.
Bowen observed that when families focus on togetherness, negative symptoms emerge in individual family members. They could be physical, psychological or behavioral in nature. Not unlike the Sierra Leon study, when the focus was on togetherness, coming together and going along with the community, it had negative outcomes for some individuals.
O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood, as to understand. - Prayer of Saint Frances of Assisi
Differentiation can be a useful way of thinking about forgiveness. For the woman who forgave her father, it wasn’t until she was motivated to learn about his upbringing, the facts surrounding the invasion of his hometown, and the way the family managed anxiety that forgiveness followed. It was the result of her efforts to be more responsible for understanding herself, her father, and her extended family. It was an effort for self, not part of a community process that was driven by others. My hunch is that those who arrive at forgiveness on their own, do better long-term. I think that’s an idea worth researching for anyone who has the motivation to do it. Faith communities that provide space for individuals to work at their own pace, and foster an environment of discovery, will always do better long-term.
You can learn more about the Sierra Leon study on forgiveness at these two sites: