It must be that we are coming near to the End Times because Vox has noticed that there’s a big problem with the way things are. In a six-part series, they tackle the perplexing subject of forgiveness. The titles of the various pieces paint a bleak trajectory for their inevitable conclusion that we need it but we won’t be able to have it: “How to forgive someone who isn’t sorry, “The limits of forgiveness,” “The impossible task of truth and reconciliation,” and “The promise and problem of restorative justice.” I didn’t read them all, but I did quickly trundle through the one called “Everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven.” It starts out this way:
The state of modern outrage is a cycle: We wake up mad, we go to bed mad, and in between, the only thing that might change is what’s making us angry. The one gesture that could offer substantive change, or at least provide a way forward — forgiveness — seems perpetually beyond our reach. In the public sphere, we’re constantly being asked to weigh in on the question of forgiveness as a cultural process. The consensus thus far has largely been that American culture has no room for the concept. In a tweet from March 2021, Atlantic writer Elizabeth Bruenig wrote, “as a society we have absolutely no coherent story — none whatsoever — about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity s
Tragically, I guess I probably do agree. “We” do not have a coherent story for something as strange and terrible as being forgiven for having done a wrong thing. Vox, unhappily, in setting out to figure out what the problem is, contributes to it by dismissing the anxieties and concerns of those they don’t agree with:
With the rise of cancel culture — or, more accurately, the rise of hysteria around the idea of a hypothetical “cancel culture” that may or may not exist — public figures, especially ones with massive platforms, have a reason to completely disengage from their critics and from whatever the issue is that may or may not be getting them canceled. The problem starts, before any apology or even offense, with the public sphere. We seem to be incapable of handling potential opposition in good faith.
Yes, Vox, “we” certainly do seem incapable of handling opposition in good faith, as you have demonstrated here. To call cancel culture hypothetical is pretty rich, especially as we have all witnessed, over the last week, the determined erasure and marginalization of people who say that there is a biological difference between men and women. Most of the people who had their Twitter accounts done away with were trying to engage their critics, or rather, just say the truth aloud, and that wasn’t tolerated. So anyway, what insight and guidance can Vox provide for us in this dark and insane time?
The idea of “bad-faith engagement” has become kind of a buzzy shorthand for the messiness of this process, but it really is the key to any conversation we have about forgiveness. To reach a point where anger and toxicity are diminished, we have to engage with each other sincerely and respectfully, believing that the people on the receiving end of our anger have the best of intentions in engaging with us. We have to replace bad-faith engagement with good-faith engagement. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we must wind up dealing in good faith with extremists, conspiracists, disinformation agents, and other bad actors. It might mean that we stop assuming everyone who says anything with which we disagree falls into one of those categories. We’re a long way from knowing how to do that.
Let me just correct you there, all you Writers of Vox, “we” are not a long way from knowing how to do that. You clearly don’t know how to engage with your ideological opponents sincerely and respectfully, witness this very piece, but that doesn’t give you license to project your ignorance on everybody else. In fact, the very people you are unwilling to hear from, characterizing them as “bad actors” and “disinformation agents” posses the necessary secret of not only how to forgive, but, just to anticipate one of those big meme-like things further down in the piece that reads, in all caps, “WE REALLY DON’T KNOW WHO FORGIVENESS IS FOR” [emphasis theirs] we really do know who it is for. Trying to dig their way out of the pit they are shoveling for themselves, they introduce a concept that, no lie, most Americans have no emotional or intellectual and spiritual conception of:
Grace, the act of allowing people room to be human and make mistakes while still loving them and valuing them, might be the holiest, most precious concept of all in this conversation about right and wrong, penance and reform — but it’s the one that almost never gets discussed. That’s understandable. Grace relies on some huge assumptions: that people mean well and that their intent is not to be hurtful; that they are capable of self-reflection and change; and, of course, that we all possess equal shares of dignity and humanity.
This “grace” does sound intriguing to them, but just before this blinding moment of insight, they preclude people like JK Rowling from ever being allowed to have it, or Mel Gibson, and I’m sure they have a lot of other people, like me if they knew I exist. In the dreariest possible terms, they conclude this way:
And so, we arrive back at the beginning of the cycle: We hang on to our anger, and all of this anger puts the possibility of grace even further out of reach. Perhaps there’s a perverse commonality in knowing that no matter what “side” we’re on, we’re all bad at this. Being generous and gracious to each other is a difficult, grueling process for everyone. We all struggle at it, together.
So anyway, we can’t deal with all of the terribly bad and wrong ideas in that piece because we just don’t have time. It is Sunday and we have to grapple with the lections, which, by the providence of God, more suitably and elegantly answer Vox than any merely human writer could. Let us wander over to the people as they enter into the Promised Land after their long sojourn in the wilderness.
You will remember that the people became impatient on the way and rather than asking God for what they needed, they rebelled against him, and tested in him their hearts, though they had seen his works. At the very edge of the good and rich land God had promised them, they concluded that it was not good, and that God was trying to destroy them. And so God judged them, and that judgment was that they would all die without entering into the rest he had promised, except for Joshua and Caleb. So now that their bodies are all turning to dust in the desert, the children of that first generation have crossed the Jordan:
The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
And then something strange and unexpected happens. The writer tells us that:
As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.
Fear, it says somewhere or other, is the beginning of wisdom. If anyone finds his heart-melting like wax because some objective truth has come upon him, like the painful reality that he is not good and yet he should have been, and that there is someone who will call him to account for his badness and failure, that would be the first step in that longed-for quest for forgiveness. But that’s probably not the kind of fear that the kings of the Amorites are experiencing. They fear war, and the next line in the text would seem to say that that fear is justified:
At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives…
Flint knives? What for? To turn and destroy their enemies, the Amorites? Or to go in and conquer the land as they are being called to do? What are the knives, those sharp instruments designed for cutting, for? Where is Vox? Perhaps they can give an answer…no? I guess we will have to go back to the text:
and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.”
That is quite a different picture, isn’t it. The people of God will not go to war against their enemies before they have first been cut in their own flesh. They will receive the sign of the covenant—a terrible and true sign that we have fallen away from the righteousness that God requires, that we are wrong and bad, that there needs to be some remedy for our wretched condition, but that God himself will provide that remedy. Circumcision points forward to a far distant future prefigured also by the slaughtered lamb, the blood over the door, the bread that comes down from heaven. All the images are tied together in a strong red cord that flutters in the breeze should anyone’s beleaguered eye be able to catch it.
Or go to the other story told this morning, of a man who has two sons. The second son goes to his father and says, in effect, ‘I wish you were dead.’ And the father takes the punch to his gut and gives that son the inheritance that had been saved up for him, letting him go into a far distant country. And what does that son do there? In the hardness of his heart, in his selfish anger, he devours everything that had been given to him. He sins, grievously, against his own body and those of all who come in his way. He does what everyone does. He thinks only of himself and finds himself aggrieved that his father should have been such a bad deal.
It is true that our culture has no “narrative,” no story that makes sense of the grief and outrage. And that is because, for the highest and the lowest, the rich and the poor, the Tweeter and the TikTocker, “we” have taken offense where no offense was given. We have accused God of being wrong, and bad. We have said not only that he doesn’t care, but that he doesn’t exist, and that the world he has made and given us can be marred and destroyed, including the human body, with no consequences. And as we devour the dregs, searching about in the pit for something more to eat, we shake our fist at the heavens and curse him.
When will we, in our hunger and poverty, “come to our right mind?” I say “we” because, of course, though I know how to forgive, and probably you do too, we are all drinking out of the font of our cultural ruin.
Forgiveness is the very beating heart of the cosmos because God didn’t just wait for us to see that we were perishing poor in our wickedness and moral filth. He sent his Son into that far distant country to take our place, to pay the cost of our rebellion. He watched as his Son was wrapped not in a rich robe, but in one of mockery and scorn—our mockery and scorn. The Father and the Son together worked to accomplish a forgiveness that destroyed death, that raises the dead, that cuts to the heart of stone and makes it alive again.
Who is forgiveness for? What a question! It is for you. It is for anyone who calls on the name of the Lord to be saved. It is for the crushed, the brokenhearted, the canceled, the hopeless, the offender. Surely, the Lord is coming soon. Let your heart melt like wax if you haven’t gone running to him for mercy and, yes, for grace. For in him there is plenteous redemption. That redemption includes the riches of his mercy, but it also includes everything you need—the lamb, the bread, the wine, the clothes, the milk and honey, and even the rest. All you Christians this morning who hold out their hands to clutch onto this God who gives everything though you did nothing to deserve it, throw poor Vox a bone and send them a little note explaining how forgiveness works. Or maybe tweet at them, quick, before you’re canceled.