C. S. Lewis once explained that theChristian virtue of forgiveness is thought to be a fine idea by most people, provided it applies only to them. But if someone wrongs them, woe be unto thewrong-doer. In that case, Lewis wrote, “howls” of fury will be heard. Grace, if applied to someone else, is not only undesirable, it is contemptuous, a shirking of responsibility.
Why is the very concept of grace held in contempt?
The answer is complicated.
Lewis’ comment sets the scene for an either/or explanation based on self-interest. And it is sometimes just this simple. Jesus uses such an approach in his parable about the fellow who demands repayment of loans to himself no matter how ruinous to his debtors, but seeks forgiveness of his own debts. He doesn’t get by with that.
There is, however, the issue of accountability to think about, and Jesus among many others reminds us that justice matters and that trust among people requires a shared sense of responsibility. A society of any size, including that most intimate society we call the family, cannot long endure if accountability and responsibility are thrown out the window. Reciprocity and mutuality are as essential to human life as mercy and forgiveness.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the problem of a society in which judgment becomes unmoored from actual relationships, indeed, when judgment gets tangled up with vengeance and is portioned-out by often anonymous figures remotely through social media. A culture of retribution has developed in our society which not only holds forgiveness and grace in contempt, but also has no regard for redemption, and which allows the “judges” to operate from behind an impregnable virtual curtain.
In a recent editorial for USA Today, Scott Jennings, reflected on events surrounding the resignation of Alexi McCammond who had just been named the new editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. McCammond is a respected twenty-seven year old woman, a rising star in the publishing world, who ten years ago said some truly awful and indefensible things about gay persons and people of Asian descent on her Twitter account. McCammond, who is African-American, expressed remorse for having said what she did as a seventeen-year-old when these comments originally came to light three years ago in 2019. However, the staff she would have overseen at Teen Vogue, rose up and demanded that she be stripped of her office before she actually took it. The internet lit up in outrage over her past misdeeds and joined in the clamor for her removal. She resigned, a promising career in tatters.
Within a few days, because we live in the Irony Age, another story began to circulate that the person who “re-surfaced” the damning comments from McCammond’s teen past was found, herself, to have authored despicable things on her own social media accounts. The disclosure of which made the USA Today’s editorial even more pertinent because of the historical incident it recounts.
Jennings, you see, began his editorial by telling the story of English Protestant Reformer John Bradford who, upon observing a criminal being led to the gallows on a London street uttered the famous words, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” And just to remind us how long we’ve lived in the Age of Irony, it is worth remembering also that Bradford was fairly prophetic in his comment, because a few years later, after a change of regime, he was burned at the stake as a heretic.
Political pundits on the left and the right are raging about “cancel culture,” although usually only when it affects one of their partisans or patrons. And many of these commentators argue that the phenomenon is new. In fact, in most ways, “cancel culture” is nothing new: Exhibit 1 being Reformer John Bradford. You can’t get much more “canceled” than being burned at the stake. But there are new elements in today’s version of this phenomenon that make it particularly problematic, chiefly the way in which social media aids and abets both the trespasses and the punishments.
And, I don’t think any of us would defend the acts that so often are condemned. We are responsible for what we say and do, and, certainly, we should be held accountable. The so-called “woke movement” has indeed awakened many people who were slumbering through injustices that have been routinely and wrongly ignored.
But the example of McCammond is instructive, and by no means unique. What are we to do about people who have admitted their mistakes, owned up to them, and repented? Does justice demand that their lives hereafter must be destroyed?
Of course, McCammon’s situation is even more fraught by the fact that she was seventeen when she tweeted her offensive comments.
As we are growing into adulthood, is it not possible, is it indeed not probable, that we are going to make a good share of mistakes in views, opinions and even actions, some of them grievous, that we will regret later?
I truly don’t believe that such errors of judgment should carry a life sentence.
But beyond that, and for all people of all ages, the theological question must be, is there no room for redemption?
“What about those who are not penitent?” One might well ask. That’s a crucial question. Let’s not ignore it.
We’ve seen felons like Harvey Weinstein marched-off to prison for egregious acts he apparently committed believing himself too powerful to be held accountable. We have seen politicians brush-off with the most casual denials charges of sexual misconduct, including rape, brought by women whose lives have been wrecked. Justice isn’t just if it fails to hold us all accountable. This is something about which we can all agree.
There are people in our society who have given themselves over to hatred and violence, who target others on the basis of ethnicity, or gender, or sexual orientation. In the past few years, it sometimes feels like the most base attitudes and hateful behaviors have crawled out from under the rocks where they previously hid in shame, but now have achieved some sort of social and political validation. Thus validated, they have taken their disreputable views mainstream, and have found willing converts among those whose often justified resentments have left them ready to hear the ancient messages of clannish hatred.
Such hatred cannot be left unchallenged, and our laws must constrain and hold accountable violence committed in its name, but neither will such hatred yield merely to hatred from an opposition, no matter how much the opposition believes it is on the side of the angels. Even angels fall.
Can someone who has held repugnant views, has said egregious things, has done awful acts be forgiven? And can a penitent be redeemed and restored to society?
We will have accomplished nothing — absolutely nothing — in the name of justice if redemption is not also possible.
We all know another story.
Two people went up to the Temple to pray.
One prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not a sinner like this fellow praying next to me. My opinions reflect the most enlightened perspectives of our society. I advocate the most righteous causes, and condemn without mercy those who think and do that which we know is abhorrent.”
The other person, refusing even to lift his eyes to heaven, prayed, “Forgive me, Lord, the sinner.”
Which of these two went down from the Temple forgiven?