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How Asking “Why?” Can be Wrongly Used to Absolve People of Bad Behavior


I typically talk with my counselor once a week. Today was my scheduled appointment. We spent most of our time talking about my Fundamentalist Baptist grandparents, John and Ann Tieken. Last week, I wrote a lengthy post about John and Ann. You can read this post here. Afterward, I received a vile, nasty comment from Dr. David Tee, whose real name is Derrick Thomas Thiessen. I responded to his comment here.

Writing about John and Ann was necessary, but doing so dredged up a lot of shit, some of which was buried deep in the recesses of my mind. I felt a sense of release and relief after writing the post. My counselor asked me, “so how do you feel today?” Before I answered that question, we talked about how my pastors, youth leaders, and Sunday school teachers taught me that I was obligated to always love and forgive people, no matter what they did to me. We talked about how the “blood of Jesus” was used as a cover for bad behavior, allowing perpetrators to escape personal accountability for their behavior. We also talked about that seminal moment in the late 1990s when I finally had enough of John and Ann and cut them out of my life; a decision I do not regret. I am glad that my children and grandchildren will never know John and Ann; never have to listen to their lectures and be demeaned by them; never have to watch their parents be berated and diminished by their Jesus-loving, family-hating grandparents. (Our three oldest children have vague memories of them, mostly from Christmases at my mom’s home in Columbus. Our oldest son likely saw John and Ann less than a dozen times in his first twenty years of life.)

“So how do you feel today?” my counselor, Melissa, asked. I replied, “I find myself asking ‘why?’ Why did John and Ann behave the way they did? Were they abused as children? What were their childhoods like?” In asking this question, I was looking for some way to justify their behavior or gain understanding that would allow me to forgive them.”

My counselor told me that the “why” question is a common question asked by trauma survivors. They are desperately looking for an explanation for why their abuser harmed them. I had convinced myself that if I only knew about John’s and Ann’s upbringing it would help me understand why they treated me the way they did. “Here’s the thing, Bruce,” my counselor softly said. “The ‘why” doesn’t matter, even if they were abused as children. They are responsible for their behavior.”

— Light goes on in my head —

Of course, my asking “why” gives John and Ann a way out; a way to avoid being held accountable for the harm they caused to me personally, to Polly, and to my mother. Regardless of their upbringing, John and Ann did what they did, and they must be held responsible for their behavior, including the rape of my mother as a child by John.

Our discussion turned to “forgiveness.” I told my counselor that had no plans to forgive John and Ann; that forgiveness, in my mind, is predicated on owning one’s behavior and making restitution. Since John and Ann spent my entire life hiding behind the blood of Christ and God’s forgiveness, I see no reason to forgive them. I am a forgiving person, but I don’t owe anyone forgiveness. Even if my grandparents had owned their bad behavior and made amends, I am not sure I would have forgiven them. As a Christian? Probably. But as an atheist and a humanist, probably not. I suspect I would have thanked them and walked away, thinking of my mom’s last moments before she killed herself. “John and Ann, you played an instrumental part in my beautiful mom’s death. May you rot in Hell.”

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    I find myself wondering, too, how people can be so horrible. And how they can justify their own behavior. Not sketchy behavior, not questionable behavior, but completely wrong, evil actions. A good person would NOT have abused anyone due to their upbringing. Or if they had, they would’ve realized it was horrible. So yes, John and Ann deserve only condemnation for abusing you and your mom. You didn’t take what happened to you, Bruce, and turn around and be cruel. Instead, you first tried to help others through your religion, and now you help others through your non-religion. YOU, Bruce, are proof that there is no excuse for anyone to maliciously destroy others.

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    Forgive and forget has to be some of the absolute worst advice to ever come out of any religion or philosophy. I learned in college that forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t mutual or necessary. I have gotten called bitter once or twice since then but I will never forgive someone who doesn’t own up to what they did wrong. I have been told I can hold a grudge(something I will admit to) but better to hold a grudge and be wary of peoples repeated toxic behavior than take the abuse and get steamrolled by supposedly loving people. I do try to give people a wide berth and be accepting of who they are but forgiving people who genuinely say and do toxic things to other people and expect forgiveness after a stupid performative song and dance isn’t one of them.

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    I don’t believe I am “there” yet as I am constantly trying to learn and weigh new ideas and viewpoints. Therefore, I don’t have a definitive statement on forgiveness. Where I am now is that I am not obligated to forgive anyone for anything. I am certainly not obligated to help someone who has wronged me feel better about their actions – that’s on them. And I do bear grudges, if that’s what you want to call them. I don’t forget that someone has done something wrong – I use it as caution for dealing with them in the future. Like, if you have reneged on paying back a loan you owe me, I am not going to loan you money again.

    We as humans do want to know why, though. It’s normal to feel that way. Sometimes the answer is that some people do not follow accepted social mores and choose to perpetrate crimes against others. That’s it. That’s their choice. And we can’t always “fix” those people.

    My mom told me about the sexual abuse she suffered as a 5 year old at the hands of her teen uncle, but she waited until after he died. She knew I would go ballistic on him if I knew (somehow I got that reputation in my family). My mom insisted that she had forgiven him – I told her I won’t forgive him. As an evangelical, she believed it to be her duty to forgive; as a nonreligious person, I don’t believe that. He never mentioned that he did wrong to her, never asked forgiveness, never apologized. To him, it was a nonevent; to her, it was trauma that she lived with for hee entire life and affected her mental and I believe physical health. So fck forgiving him. If it made her feel better, fine – but I won’t forgive him. I also told my mom’s brother and sister-in-law because she never told them, and they told me about another uncle who had sexually abused at least one of his 5 kids and cut that child off from the family after he came out aa gay. So fck him too.

  4. Avatar

    I’m wrestling with this question, because I want to know why, and it certainly isn’t to find an excuse for them. Maybe if we know why people mistreat us it takes the onus off of ourselves and puts it on them (where it properly belongs). When someone mistreats us we typically wonder what we did to provoke it. Human beings, being the highly curious social animals that we are, are always acting as psychologists trying to figure the motivation of others.

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I was in an abusive relationship with someone who blamed his behavior with the aftermath of his shitty childhood. I don’t doubt that it was bad but, as I often reminded him, I wasn’t in his life then, so he had no reason to behave as he did toward me. He never acknowledged as much, which is why I had to break up with him and get an order of protection. I must admit that I felt a twinge of guilt in getting that order–and consequently costing him his job–but I remind myself that while getting that order and tossing him out of my life won’t cause him to do the work he needs to do on himself, it’s not my responsibility to make him do that work.

    That said, I know I did some bad things when I was “acting out” my traumas. My past doesn’t excuse the time I treated people badly, but I am trying not only to be a better person, for myself as well as others.

  6. Avatar

    Thank you for this post. I, too, have wondered why about my evangelical christian parents who authorised and allowed many within the family and outside it to abuse me. I don’t believe forgiveness is necessary. My mum has a very vapid and empty “sorry if I hurt you, please forgive me”. No real acknowledgement, much less legitimate remorse.

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      I’m sorry SH, that your mother can’t muster up real sorrow over your pain. I think true decent parents would be wanting to change and fix that which is wrong on their parts. I hope you have built up a group of people who really love you for who you are, and are no longer around those abusive pricks.

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