Can God forgive us?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Ethan Hawke, playing Reverend Toller in the powerful movie First Reformed, hauntingly asked this question after grappling with what humanity has done to the environment. This question resonates, as we see a world where hatred is the lead story on the news every night. This world, where immigrant children are being ripped from their families for unknown periods of time, or being abused or neglected. Fear dominates and suffering feels commonplace. The question is now even more relevant in this world we live in: Can God forgive us?

At Samaritan, our practice is heavily influenced by a Bowen Family Systems theory perspective. This theory suggests that individuals cannot be completely understood in isolation from the various systems they are a part of. This means that we cannot fully understand someone if we do not also understand their family, workplace, culture, and religious affiliations, etc. This is why we work with children in their greater life contexts, involving parents and siblings, school counselors, teachers--the larger groups the children interact with. We work with marital problems with both parties present, thinking it counterproductive to have each party work on the marriage with separate therapists. One person cannot be fully understood without the other. None of us (as much as we might like to think) is an autonomous individual untouched by the people and systems around us. All of us are part of multiple systems: family, work, congregation, culture, schools, etc. and we must be understood as we exist in the midst of these systems.

Murray Bowen (who developed Bowen Family Systems theory) was a systemic thinker who, beyond the nuclear family, also spoke about societal regression. It is possible that we are in the midst of a such a regression now. That is, when chronic, or ongoing, anxiety is present in our society for too long, people may try to make it go away, or bind it, in simplistic ways that ultimately cause more harm than good. The recent decision made by President Donald Trump (and more recently reversed) to separate children from their families in an effort to reduce illegal immigration (a very complex issue) was a poorly thought-out attempt at binding, or reducing, intense societal angst. The decision has now traumatized and threatened the wellbeing of many children who will have to deal with the repercussions of this decision for many years to come. While darkness is always present as a part of the human condition, that darkness is becoming more and more visible. Part of working with systems from a spiritual perspective is confronting this darkness when we see it. When we are silent, those haunting words “Can God forgive us?” echo in the emptiness.

Let us not be silent, especially when children are abused, separated from their parents, or when their health needs are ignored. Jesus himself was clear that children need, more than anyone, to be protected. He was clear that “if anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble… it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea”. Those are harsh words, but also a clear reminder to those of us who are concerned about family systems but do not speak out when needs of children go ignored. It is a clear statement that to disregard the health and safety needs of children is “sin”.

Too often religious groups focus only on personal sin and personal morality at the expense of systemic “sin”. While a focus on personal morality is important, we can not forget Pope John Paul II’s discussion of “structural sin” and “institutional evil” either, which points to the fact that larger societal structures support sinful acts and behaviors and are complicit in enabling them. This notion blends well with Bowen’s systems theory. Given what we are witnessing in our world, now is the time to confront “structural sin”. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov,"every one of us is answerable for everyone else.”

This is not a political statement: it is beyond the party platforms of Republican or Democrat. This, instead, is simply the outgrowth of thinking systemically. Both parties can forget about the needs of children or the poor in the interest of their parties’ agendas. We cannot ignore children’s needs, or racism, or misogyny, or poverty, or violence or disregard for the environment. To do so is to miss a very important reality. Regardless of party affiliation, we all have a powerful responsibility to think systemically - to answer for, not only ourselves, but also for everyone else - so that we can leave a better world for our children.

To begin working toward this better world, we can all start here:

  1. Acknowledge your own darkness. None of us is perfect - we all carry some darkness. Whether it is our biases, unacknowledged racism or prejudice, insensitivity, or desire to remain ignorant even after knowing - we have darkness. We do not, however, have to act from this darkness. Instead, knowing our limits allows us to seek opportunities to grow and learn and shed light on that darkness.
  2. Speak out whenever possible about “structural sin”. Whenever children are being hurt, whether by being separated from their parents, or by abuse, or by poverty, or by a poisoned environment, we cannot be silent. These are not partisan issues: this is simply being responsive to the needs of children, who cannot advocate for themselves.
  3. Get involved! Find a cause that will leave the world a better place for our children. There is no shortage of opportunity to connect with other people and communities who are working to meet the needs of our most disenfranchised and vulnerable.

To stay silent… to do nothing for the children of our world… is to hear those haunting words, “Can God forgive us?”