Jared Witt | May 21, 2020
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
If that’s true, then what do you suppose everything looks like to a preacher with only one sermon about forgiveness? Forgiveness is definitely a part of what Jesus was about. And any transformation of this world almost definitely requires it.
BUT it also requires more than forgiveness. Jesus didn’t say, “I’ve come to bring forgiveness.” He said that he’s come “to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of debt forgiveness.” That last one has the word “forgiveness” in it, yes, but don’t be confused. It refers to forgiveness of the accumulated debt and sharecropping deals worked out by those landholders who had been bailed out by shark lenders during bad growing seasons, using their land, their family’s entire means of survival, as collateral. In other words, Jesus is proclaiming the year that the rich forgive the poor so that they don’t get buried by desperate financial moves, NOT the year that God forgives people for swearing in front of their grandmothers and for masturbating.
But somewhere over the next several centuries, Jesus’ original mission got lost in translation as it gave way to the “mission” of the church. “Forgiving sins” became everything, and everything became “forgiving sins.” There are probably a lot of complex reasons for this, but I suspect, one of them is that the rich and powerful always end up setting the agenda for any human institution eventually. And forgiveness of sins is a much more comfortable topic for the rich and the power to discuss than, say, forgiveness of debts or reducing the incarceration rate. Not only does forgiveness of sins require very little in the way of societal disruption, you can even monetize it if you convince people that they need you (the institution led by the rich and powerful) in order to get out of some eternal consequence.
On paper, this kind of manipulation of the poor and the simple by the rich and the educated is precisely what sparked the 16th century Reformation. The message of God’s unconditional love and grace, which doesn’t need to be earned or bought off, was the antidote for “burdened consciences.” No longer did people need to throw salt over their shoulder, spin around three times, and most importantly, give the church a bunch of money in order to receive salvation (paraphrasing).
This looks great in theory. Many protestants still celebrate the reformation, naively thinking that this was the functional result. But a curious thing happened as Protestants tried to put the theory behind the reformation to work on the ground. The logic was supposed to work like this:
A. People are already burdened with guilt, but
B.God’s forgiveness is unconditional.
Therefore, C. Let them be unburdened.
But remember, the Protestant church was no less an institution than the Catholic church, and institutions have bills to pay. In order to pay bills, you need a product to sell. And the product they were selling was unconditional forgiveness. Once people find out that it’s unconditional, they never need to buy a refill. So what happens the first time they catch wind of that, and they realize that they don’t need you, the institution, anymore?
Sure, neurotic guilt and self-doubt can run deep. And people might not fully trust you when you assure them the first time that they’re forgiven. They might need to come back and hear it again. And this is precisely what the early reformers were banking on. “The mean old Catholics got these people so neurotically bound by guilt that they’ll be back next week.” And they were right…
…for a while. But what happens a generation or two or ten down the road, when you’re no longer dealing with people who need to be reassured that the mean old Catholics were wrong about their guilty state? Instead, you’re dealing with their greatn grandchildren, who were never told they were guilty in the first place?
The logic turned into this:
On the ground
A. God’s forgiveness is unconditional, but
B. people are not already burdened with guilt.
Therefore, C. Teach people how guilty they are, so that they’ll appreciate the forgiveness.
You see what just happened there? It’s no small tweak to the agenda. Suddenly, the entire reformation movement, whose entire purpose was to free people from guilt and the manipulation of that guilt by the powerful, instead made it their business to guilt them in the first place.
If this is your impression of what a sermon is: 30 minutes of the preacher rubbing your noses in it followed by two minutes of “but it’s ok, because...” this is why. He’s got a snow cone to sell, and he can’t until he convinces you that it’s warm outside.
Or to stick with another analogy, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
In a world of racial income disparity, sex trafficking, opioids and suicide, there’s probably more to talk about than whether God can overlook your pre-marital sex so you can still get into heaven.
Cheers and Peace,
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.