Lent begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, and that, of course, means that today is Mardi Gras. For the New Orleans crowd, it’s a pretty lively celebration – a chance to let out all your human-ness before entering the solemn, spiritual season of Lent. For me, Mardi Gras has a another significance. And given Harvey Weinstein’s conviction yesterday, it seemed all the more appropriate to share this post today.
*Trigger warning.* (As if the title wasn’t enough.)
Many years ago, a woman I was dating was drugged and raped in Louisiana at a Mardi Gras celebration. It happened while we were dating, but I wasn’t there at the time. She was on a business trip in New Orleans, and I was living in Virginia. It was shortly after Katrina had rocked the city.
The morning after it happened (the morning she woke up in a strange hotel room), her family (who works for the same company) took her to the hospital. When the police took her statement, she was understandably shaken and struggling to retell what she knew. The cops took that as a sign that she’d be an unreliable witness, and having plenty of problems to deal with after the Katrina fallout, they figured it wasn’t worth their time to investigate further. Ultimately, the hospital lost her rape kit, and the police never moved forward with any charges. My then-girlfriend spent the next three months trying to track down the rape kit and the police report, in an attempt to bring charges. We even reached out to a friend who was a local detective in NY and asked for his advice. At best, the New Orleans police seemed to be ambivalent about it. At worst, they were condescending and accusatory. Ultimately, the case went nowhere.
When I was a young man, I used to think about how I would react if I were ever in this situation. If someone ever did something like this to a girlfriend, I had a whole scheme planned out for how I would exact revenge. In my mind, it was as though I’d have a license for violence. As though I’d be justified in doing the bad things that I wanted to, just because someone did something bad to me first.
Now, here I was with the “opportunity.” I knew the guy’s name. I knew the city where he lived. I knew the company he worked for. And, at the time, but no longer, maybe by the grace of God, I knew what he looked like. I had a bunch of vacation time and frequent flyer miles. I could get on a plane and pay him a visit.
As I started thinking through my options though, a few things came to mind. A trip out to see him would probably have been the beginning of my criminal record. Or worse, what if I went to confront him, and he was carrying a gun and shot me? (Gun owners think of these things.) Dying while attempting to assault someone was not how I planned to go out from this world. (As if it were my choice, that is.)
So I was stuck. With no support from the police and a clueless hospital, I could either do nothing, or start down a dark personal road that I never wanted to go down. Neither option seemed any good. So what next?
I prayed. Nothing fancy, just asking for some clarity on what I should do. In my experience, whenever all of the options I can see are terrible, prayer usually opens up a great additional option, one I never considered.
When I started praying, I figured I knew what God’s message to me would be, but I don’t know that I wanted to hear it. Honestly, I might have been praying for something else. I don’t remember how long it took for God to respond, but He did. He was very clear:
I remember that as soon as I heard it, I spit it out, like a mouthful of something terrible. And just like spitting out food, you get the pieces out, but there’s still a little bit of taste left on your tongue. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t ignore God’s message. So yeah, I heard it, but hearing and doing are two totally different things.
I mean, this guy took a lot from me. Any intimacy between me and my girlfriend? Put on hold indefinitely. He hurt someone I loved. And, to be honest, part of me was thinking about ending the relationship, but how do you dump someone a week after they’ve been raped? If you care for them at all, you find a better time. But that was one of the doors that this guy closed. And maybe worst of all, is the manliness thing where some other guy basically says, “look what I can do to something you hold dear, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Yeah, forgiveness? I wasn’t there. After all, everything in the world says that I’d have been justified in doing all sorts of evil to this guy, or at least never forgiving him. And the world speaks loudly.
So instead, I held on to my anger and frustration. And as the days went on, I found myself spending too much time and brain power just thinking of the bad things I would never do to him, even if I had the chance (to get away with it.)
And it got to be a heavy burden to carry. Who wants to spend their lives thinking of things like that? Seriously…
And after trying to hold on to it by myself for a while, I knew that the anger in my heart wasn’t what God wanted for me anyway. I came to the point where I realized that I was doing something that was damaging me just so I didn’t have to do what God wanted me to do. (Does that sound familiar?) And I knew that I should let it go, but I wasn’t able to yet. So, I went to confession. After all, God clearly told me what to do, and I was clearly ignoring Him.
Now, in my list of confession experiences, most of them have been good. A few of them have been really good. And a couple of them have been life-changing. I would rank this one in the “life-changing” group. It went something like this:
Me: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. A few months ago, my girlfriend was raped, and I haven’t been able to forgive the man who did it. I know I shouldn’t be hanging onto this anger in my heart towards him, and I’m sorry. I’m struggling to let it go. I want to.”
The priest sighed emphatically.
Priest: “Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, people say, ‘forgive and forget, forgive and forget,’ but that is total B.S.” (The priest actually said, ‘B.S.’ in the confessional. And he said ‘forgive and forget’ in a mocking, parrot-sort of way. It felt good to finally have someone on my side. He continued…) “True forgiveness involves remembering the hurt that people cause us, but releasing it anyway, and that’s not easy to do. You know you’ve forgiven someone when you want the best for them. And that’s hard to get to sometimes… I’ve found that the best way to do it is to pray for them. For God to work in their heart and help them turn away from evil toward Him. I’ll be praying for you and your girlfriend. What’s her name?”
The penance was light.
I left confession, and I started thinking about all the possessed people that Jesus had healed. All of them had the outward appearance of being “bad” people. But, Jesus knew that inside was a good person. Someone he loved. Someone he could help free from this oppression of evil. The possessed people that Jesus healed didn’t want to be possessed. They didn’t want to be doing these things. They didn’t want to be sinning against God, but they did. And I started to draw a parallel between those people, and a man I hadn’t been able to forgive.
So I came away with a different perspective. I learned that the man who did this was, like it or not, another child of God. And in my mind, he didn’t want to be doing this. Sure, we all make choices, but there are a lot of factors that influence us. Addicts don’t always want to use. Liars don’t always want to lie. And bad people don’t always want to do “bad” things. And in my mind, maybe, just maybe, this man was trying to free himself from a life where he felt like this was how he had to relate to women. And that realization helped. It transformed my perception of bad people, and it reminded me that they are, in fact, people. (I once heard someone say that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.)
While my girlfriend and I were going through this, someone said to me, “bad people always get what’s coming to them.” Looking back on my own life, I thank God that isn’t always true.
Because, you see, I’ve been the bad guy before. (No, I’ve never raped anyone.) But I have caused a lot of hurt. Sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes, I figured that I was justified in doing it. (I wasn’t.) God gave us Ten Commandments, but I’ve broken almost all of them. (I can’t look down on Adam for eating of the foridden tree – I’d have crashed and burned, too. Probably in record time.) And if bad people truly got what was coming to them, there’s no way I would be writing a blog from my home with my children sleeping upstairs. But thankfully, God didn’t give up on me and kept nudging me back in the right direction.
Peter once asked of Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
For a good disection of this conversation between Peter and Jesus, check out Nathaniel Biebert’s blog post.
So the guy? Yeah, it’s been a long road, but I forgive him. (Present tense – the forgiveness still happens today.) I don’t excuse what he did, and it’s not okay. But I’ve asked God not to hold him accountable for it. I don’t want him to have to pay the price for it. Rather, I want him to open is heart to the Lord… and quit doing this shit.
And the girl? I haven’t had any contact with her in almost a decade, and it’s been even longer since she and I have talked about this. I don’t know what’s come of it, but when we last spoke, she seemed to be in a good place with everything. Maybe she came to the same conclusion I did:
Forgiveness is like letting someone out of prison, only to discover that it was you behind bars the whole time.