Jared Witt - December 3, 2018
To a preacher with a forgiveness hammer, everything looks like a guilty nail.
So what happens when said preacher’s people don’t feel guilty? Well, obviously, forgiveness of someone who doesn’t feel guilty is pretty unsatisfying and anti-climactic. So the preacher who originally set out to preach forgiveness must start out by first convincing everyone of their guilt. And so, in pulpits everywhere, you can observe the common irony that most of that preacher’s time is spent creating the one problem he or she knows how to solve rather than actually solving it.
Some preachers (Lutherans are especially guilty of this), who ought to be the first to recognize the counter-productivity of finally convincing someone of anti-Gospel just so that they can be Gospel-ed, have instead decided to double down on the irony. They think that their favorite occupation of troubling consciences is something more legitimate than what it is if they simply re-label it as preaching “Law”—a ham-fisted use of Luther’s term for God’s justice and the cognitive dissonance that it causes us in our unjust state.
For a number of complicated historical reasons, dating as far back as Augustine and his “Fall of humanity” (4th century), we protestants have basically put all of our eggs in this one basket. We’ve decided that guilt is the only problem in the world and that forgiveness is the entirety of the solution.
Roman Catholics have almost been guilty of this same overcorrection at times, but their fascination with the mystical and the sacramental has always provided a more colorful outlet for spirituality that is largely unavailable to most of us modern protestants and our one dimensional religion.
Without a doubt, forgiveness of sins is a true Gospel theme in the Bible and from the earliest days of the Christian movement. It is one important facet of this many faceted diamond that we people of The Way call the Good News. BUT IT IS JUST ONE FACET.
If you talk to most 21st century, North American protestants, they’re likely to make it sound as if forgiveness is the whole diamond. The problem with that isn’t that it overvalues forgiveness but that it undervalues it.
What I mean by “undervalues it” is this: the people who so emphasize the importance of forgiveness of sins are strangely silent on the issue of what comes next after the point of forgiveness. If we can’t answer the question, “Forgiven for what?” or paint a compelling picture of what the forgiven life looks like, then it only begs the question as to why forgiveness matters.
If you’ll tolerate some philosophical speak, what we’ve technically reduced the Good News to is a negation of a negation of a negation: God is not going to not save humans because they’ve not behaved themselves…because Jesus. Hallelujah.
If that sounds absurdly convoluted, don’t blame the messenger. I’m still puzzling over it myself. I’m only saying plainly what many people both inside and outside the church have assumed to be the entirety of the Christian message. There are shorthand ways of framing this in simple positive statements. “I am saved,” for instance. But even the language “saved” demands a “saved from what?” We’re still talking about something that is negatively defined from the start.
It shouldn’t be surprising that people are finding this message less and less compelling. People don’t get real amped about negations of negations of negations. It’s fairly transparent where it comes from: a theological recipe which mixes a touch of medieval Catholic piety with a pinch of early American puritanical morality and a dash of middle class comfort. What we come out with is a doctrinal cocktail which reflects the concerns of the materially comfortable. It says, Things are basically humming along smoothly in this world, but sometimes we screw up, in which case we, as individuals, need a dose of forgiveness.
But more and more people are seeing the vast economic inequalities, ecological degradation, and many other serious large scale problems in our world and demanding more than just that God forgive sins. They’re demanding that God inspire change within the grace.
As you begin to see this dynamic for what it is, you’ll begin to see how this is a bourgeois luxury to assume that all there is left for God to do in the world is forgive a few personal vices but that, at the global level, we’re basically good.
Undoubtedly, when some Christians talk about sin and forgiveness, they are referring to things that effect the macro-issues of our world, which is definitely an upgrade from mere “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex” micro-moralizing.
But it’s clear that many, perhaps most, aren’t. You can see this in how, say, your average church responds to a person’s issues of sexual morality versus, say, how they respond to a wealthy executive whose corporation vastly underpays its employees or destroys the planet. It’s not that I’m saying the latter is beyond the pale of forgiveness or should be ostracized. I’m saying that most churches, in my experience, don’t even see the latter’s sins as sins.
You can also see this same sort of thing at work in how people respond to disasters. If there is a hurricane or an earthquake, there is immediately an outpouring of donations and goodwill. This human response is one of the things that is good and beautiful about our kind. But why only after a notable natural disaster, and not when, statistically speaking, far more men, women, and children are suffering and dying all the time from malnourishment relating to ecological degradation and everyday violence? Could it be that when the major theological problem is a few personal peccadilloes, those larger devastations simply become invisible to us?
Don’t get it mixed, for Jesus, in the four gospels, forgiveness of sins is a very big deal. But “forgiveness” regards these very large scale injustices every bit as much as smaller personal issues. And it’s typically a beginning rather than an end at the moral level.
Forgiveness is often one of the first moves of the Gospel, but it’s never the last.
In my time teaching adult education classes as a pastor, I’ve sometimes surveyed the room and asked “What’s the difference between heaven and here?” As full of answers as modern Christians are when you ask them how one “gets into” heaven, I find they have surprisingly little to say on the subject of what it would actually look like when you get there or why anyone would want to go (heaven actually comes to us rather than us going to it, biblically, but that’s another blog for another time).
This tends to lead to a discussion about all the problems that forgiveness fails to address.
What happens when the main existential problem facing the people in your world is not that some medieval cleric told them they were going to fry in hell, and they believed him? What if the main problem for people is instead the dissatisfaction and loneliness that occurs when one’s primary relationships have become digitized? What happens when it’s a sort of modern malaise caused by consumer culture where everything is disposable and nothing seems to matter? What if it’s the dread of the future that happens once we become eco-conscious?
Forgiveness doesn’t easily address those issues.
But if you’ve ever had the thought, “There has to be more to the story than this negation of a negation of a negation,” don’t worry. You’re not alone. Jesus didn’t come just to bring forgiveness. He also came to
“Proclaim good news to the poor...
Release for the captives…
Recovery of sight to the blind,
Liberty for the oppressed.”
He came to heal.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.