Over the past few years, we’ve regularly been subjected to what we might call an apology tour from men who’ve been caught in abusive behavior. “I’m very sorry I did wrong,” they’ll say, “and now I’m going to go away for a long time and think about what I did wrong.” Only they don’t go away for a long time. I roughly calculated how long it takes between the average accusation of abuse and the staging of a comeback, and it is often less than a year.
What strikes me about this often quoted story of a woman caught in adultery are three things. One, we’re often told that Jesus “forgives” her for her sins. But the truth is, he does no such thing. He’s asked to condemn her to a gruesome death and instead turns the question to her accusers, asking them to examine their own hypocrisy. In their rush to judge this woman, they put the law above empathy, above seeing people as individuals, above even letting her speak for herself. One might compare this to the kind of outrage we see exhibited on the internet, were we often rush to judgement of one another. Instead, Jesus instead chooses not to condemn her. And that’s not the same thing as forgiveness, because, perhaps, in her case, there’s nothing for him to forgive.
Which brings me to my second thought: what if she didn’t do it? It’s the mob of men that accuses her, the scribes and Pharisees Jesus is constantly warning us about, who claim they caught her in the act. However, what we know from stories of abuse in our own church and in the media is that these acts don’t often happen publically; they happen behind closed doors, and in secret, and they happen that way deliberately, so the perpetrator is less likely to be caught, so the victim can be shamed into silence and self-blame. We also know that women had little to no agency in Jesus’ time. Condemned, they would usually be killed, whether they were guilty or not.
It’s entirely possible the “adultery” this anonymous woman was caught in was really something else: rape, sexual harassment, or the same kind of everyday verbal or physical harassment women encounter on a regular basis. So maybe the idea that Jesus is forgiving a sinful woman here is twisting the usual structure of abuse and harassment around. Maybe he doesn’t need to forgive her because she did nothing wrong. His command not to sin any more is the same command each of us receives, because each of us has the capacity for sin. It’s whether we choose to act on that or not that is where our own conscience needs to take time to think and to reflect.
And here is the third thing: the woman never asks for forgiveness. Unlike those who’ve been accused, who’ve been found guilty and who have publically begged for forgiveness, she is silent, until Jesus asks who has really condemned her, and her answer is no one. It’s no coincidence that our other readings today are about new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us.
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Our newness might look like this: that we might speak, and be believed, instead of being dismissed. That when we’re falsely condemned, judged, or criticized, we might stop condemning ourselves. That we might not be condemned for things we did not do, but instead be set free. That we might learn to atone rather than apologize when we have actually done real harm. That we might get, for the first time, to tell our own stories, instead of having them told.
Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of four books, including Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009); Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012); and The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis Books, 2015). Her writing has appeared in America, Commonweal, Slate, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Narratively, Religion Dispatches, Religion News Service, National Catholic Reporter, and many other publications. She was born and raised in Oakland, California, where she still lives.
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