grace not abounding

I want to knot some strands of rope here. 

Some folks have responded to my recent posts on Christian obedience — one and two — by noting that I critique conservative Christians but say nothing about progressive or leftist Christians, who are, I am told, just as bad or worse. In those posts I focused on conservative Christians because they often define themselves by their high regard for Scripture and I wanted to point to certain commandments that I believe they would find in their Bibles if they looked. Progressive Christians tend not to cite Scripture as often — but if they did, they would be in the same boat, because as far as I can tell they’re no more forgiving than their right-wing counterparts. 

Case in point: Last year I wrote a post about racial relations at Baylor University, where I teach, and made this comment:  

Any quibbles I have about what’s included in Baylor’s statements are insignificant in comparison to my concern about what’s not in them. There is quite a lot about repentance, but I have yet to find one single word about forgiveness, or reconciliation, or hope.

Christianity has a lot to say about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It tells us that we all sin. It tells us that when we sin against a sister or brother, in thought, word, or deed, we must seek to make it right, and to ask that person’s forgiveness. And if we feel that someone has sinned against us, we are to tell that person so, to give them the opportunity to repent. The New Testament authors go on and on about these matters. 1 John 1: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”; but also we should take care to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3) — we must do more than speak words of penitence, but also pay our debt to our neighbor, the debt of love (Romans 13). And our overall daily approach to one another is prescribed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another…. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Also in Colossians 3: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

If you’re not a Christian, this stuff probably looks like a way to let people off easy. And in one sense it is. As Hamlet says, “Treat every man according to his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Christianity is all about people not getting what they deserve.  

In more recent statements from the University, I have seen the occasional reference to reconciliation, but mainly in order to say how long a road it will be to get there, if we get there at all. But still: as far as I can tell, not one word about grace, or mercy, or forgiveness — not one word of Christian hope. 

And I get it, or think I do. If you start talking about grace people will seize it, cheaply; hell, they might not only accept forgiveness but demand it. They will abuse the gift — but that’s because that’s what we sinners do, we abuse gifts. Our God hands them out anyway. Again: Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who were hanging him on a cross. Had they asked for it? Did they even want it? Had they undergone a lengthy process of truth and reconciliation in order to deserve it? Everything about the demand for earned forgiveness makes total human sense. But it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” It’s not an ambiguous statement. 

I think most of our projects of reconciliation, when they exist at all, have it backwards. They want a long penitence at the end of which the offended parties may or may not forgive. I think the Christian account says that forgiveness given and accepted is where reconciliation begins. So if we say we are Christians and want reconciliation but do not put grace, mercy, and forgiveness front and center in our public statements, then we’re operating as the world operates, not as the ekklesia is commanded to. 

Almost four years ago I wrote

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better. 

I think it’s fair to say that that prophecy turned out to be true. And when it comes to dealing with malefactors … I look from Christian to unbeliever, and unbeliever to Christian, and as far as I can tell there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between them. 

February 8, 2021

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