By: Stephen McAlpine
Our culture has a problem with forgiveness. We live in a post-forgiveness world. And it’s going to get brutal and cold if the trend continues. And it is trending. That’s the precise word for it, because all of the tools are available to unforgiveness to ensure it does.
‘We live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.’ -Douglas Murray: The Madness of Crowds
In his new book, The Madness of Crowds, conservative gay atheist writer, Douglas Murray says that the loss of forgiveness in a post-Christian West has arrived at exactly the time that we might need it the most.
Social media now has the ability to trawl up every jot and tittle of the new crop of secular shibboleths that someone may have broken twenty years ago in the long forgotten land of pre-Twitter.
But to make matters worse, this new fangled “wokeness” has the desire to do so. It is not interested in forgiveness. It’s shame culture all the way down. Couple this desire with that ability, and we’re headed for a brutal, nastiness of immense proportions, and all without the tools of forgiveness and redemption that we once had.
Murray says this:
‘The consensus for centuries was that only God could forgive the ultimate sins. But on a day-to-day level the Christian tradition, among others, also stressed the desirability – if not the necessity – of forgiveness. Even to the point of infinite forgiveness.’
Now Murray is not everyone’s cup of tea. But he’s completely right. Forgiveness is not something innate within us. Forgiveness wasn’t a key feature of Roman society; revenge and honour was.
And in cultures where the gospel has not touched, it still is! I’m reading the travel diary of local Perth author and theologian, Peter Elliott, Rambling Towards Jerusalem, and it’s a ripping yarn of Elliott’s hedonistic world travels in the lead up to meeting Jesus back in the wild 70s. It’s on the bestseller list in Koorong, so grab a copy. Here’s his observation while travelling through the wilds of Pakistan:
‘We passed through several miles of mountains, caves and hills, all custom designed for ambush, and forts which we were told not to photograph, but did anyway. The country was the stronghold of the Pathans, who officially lived under Pakistani rule but in reality lived by their own rules. Revenge was a major factor in their lives; no murder cases ever reached the courts because revenge was pursued privately until whole families were annihilated or one family leader grovelled to another.’
“Custom-designed for ambush.” If ever something were custom-designed for ambush in an unforgiving age it would be social media. There’s no actual wholesale slaughter – yet – in the West, but we will murder your career, your reputation if you cross us. Even better, after we’ve done our worst, we’ll lap up the grovelling apologetic Tweet or Instagram post that you offer us. And then we won’t forgive you. Because that’s not part of the bargain.
The woke righteousness of an unforgiving world salivates at the prospect of the groveller, doesn’t it just? But the groveller has nowhere to go afterwards. They will either be crushed, or, increasingly more likely if they’ve got a modicum of self-respect, they will harden up.
They will learn to play an equal and opposite game, seeking out the chinks in the armour of their previous tormentors, ready to pounce at the slightest indiscretion. There’s an ambush awaiting everyone all of the time. We’re a culture on edge, always watching over our shoulders. No wonder it’s tense.
It was only when the gospel of Jesus Christ gave forgiveness to an astounded world, still locked into revenge and grovelling, that something did change. Until this vicious cycle was swept away by the gospel of forgiveness, nothing could change And we’ve more or less taken it for granted. Until now.
Now? The old order is back. And meaner and hungrier in light of its long absence. Its primary tool is not the actual arena, but the virtual arena, where the boos, scorns and “thumbs downs” assail those who would challenge the laws of the post-Christian Sexular Age.
And if you think this is just Douglas Murray and me (never mind his book having become a best-seller) then it was confirmed to me as a growing concern among our young people, in a conversation I had with someone who works in state schools for a Christian organisation. This young woman is putting together videos about God for state schools, and her organisation has surveyed hundreds of school students asking what they’re primary concerns were.
The top answers are obvious; identity and meaning/purpose in life. A lack of transcendence will do that to you. But what else was top of the pile? Forgiveness! Young people in our state schools have no idea how to forgive people. They have no idea who to forgive and when. They are scared to forgive, and they come from unforgiving homes. Murray’s comment nails it.
And these young people are frightened of being left unforgiven should they cross the line. And when someone crosses the line with them, they’re not sure what justice is and what forgiveness is.
Sometimes it’s big and dreadful and there are deep issues to deal with. But generally, they are run-of-the-mill young people who are dead scared of putting a foot wrong once and being shamed for ever by a culture that can do “forever” so coldly and clinically. They’ve got no community to show them what forgiveness could look like.
The post-Christian West has promised us a utopia of rainbows and ecological Gardens of Eden. And what it is actually giving us? What are we getting for all the confident claims that we’re leaving a dead, dusty dogmatic, and religious past behind? We’re getting a seared, bleak landscape of social media ambushes, Twitter and Instagram forts that are ready to rain down vengeance on all those unfortunate to pass through its valleys unprepared.
Note Murray’s words at the top when it comes to redemption: ‘We do not know who could offer it. ‘
Bereft of anything outside of ourselves, we are left with the toolkit, the materials and the instruction manual of forgiveness, but with no one skilled to put it all together. I wonder! If only there were someone who could show us what forgiveness looks like when its assembled? If only there were someone who displayed forgiveness on a constant basis towards his enemies. Pity no such person exists.
If ever a culture was primed to show what costly forgiveness looked like it’s the church. But I don’t think it’s ready. Why? Because we’re doing a dreadful job of loving our own enemies. Now loving someone and forgiving them are not completely the same thing.
But I think those of us in the church who do take part in the increasingly partisan public square are struggling to model an alternative to this unforgiving, loveless world, because we’ve tapped into its partisan narrative.
We are called to love our own enemies, not the enemies of the people or politicians we don’t like, which increasingly seems to be the case. And which increasingly every second Christian on social media seems to tweet or Facebook about. Some terrible words have been said about those we disagree with, that fuel this unforgiving world. Granted, people need to ask for forgiveness in order to be forgiven, but you’ll never forgive them even if they do, if you don’t a priori, with no strings attached, love them. And they way many a Christian writes about their enemies on social media, love is a long way off.
Face it, if you’re politically progressive, then loving your enemies does not correlate to loving the asylum seeker who faces political opprobrium or the hatred of shock jocks. That person is neither your enemy and can often be used by you to self justify. It means loving Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, and seeking his good.
And if you’re a the political conservative, then loving your enemies does not mean loving the rugby player hounded out of their sporting role, and derided by all the woke media. That’s easy. It means loving Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle, and seeking her good. Anything less is just a cheap imitation of forgiveness masking a tribalism that Christians have become increasingly known for.
For those who disagree with either of these propositions – rail against me now (on Facebook if you like). And my only caveat is that this blog post does not cancel out the need for action that my previous three Bully posts have implicitly called for. Both the culture of bullying being tolerated by the church, and the lack of forgiveness within and emanating from the church are symptoms that the gospel is no longer front and centre.
We’ve been drinking at this secular well, and its cultural narratives for so long, that we’re even twisting Jesus’s language around enemies to justify us having other enemies, who would most definitely be Jesus’ enemies if he were here right now. There are no depths we will not plumb.
“See Jesus? See that person over there, that’s our enemy isn’t it? Any enemy of yours is an enemy of mine.” And then Jesus turns and looks at us and gives us that strange “You don’t get it, do you?” look. And when he does, we are filled with shame and we humble ourselves and repent, and , gloriously, he forgives us!
As Murray says:
‘..we live in this world where everyone is at risk of having to spend the rest of their lives living with our worst joke. And where the incentives lie not in acting in the world, but in reacting to other people: specifically to audition in the role of a victim or a judge for a piece of the moral virtue that suffering is mistakenly believed to endow.’
Living with our worst joke – forever. If that’s what this unforgiveness culture is offering it’s no wonder we see everyone positioning themselves as victims. Which simply makes actual victims even more victimised. The clamour and noise is drowning out many voices that need to be heard.
But I am not a victim. Oh, I could shape it that way, if I wanted to. I will not twist and turn to make myself a victim, regardless of how much the status of victim becomes the primary moral virtue of a society that lacks transcendent virtues.
But that is not why I am not a victim. The Bible tells me that I am a perpetrator. And I am not an unwitting perpetrator, or one who can – ultimately – blame upbringing and circumstance. And I don’t need social media to tell me that. The Scripture tells me that.
I know I’m a perpetrator and that my very perpetrations are designed to suppress this truth. I am an offender before God and my primary need is not for justice, but for forgiveness before Him. The Judge of all the Earth loves me, but not enough to gloss over the fact that I need the forgiveness which He alone, through his Son can offer me. Now Douglas Murray is not there yet, but he’s darn sure there’s something in that story that can liberate us from the dreadful future we’re creating.
If there were merely a justice deficit in our local secular schools, then the survey results would reflect that reality. But there’s not – there’s a forgiveness deficit. Students are scared. They’re looking at a world their elders -we – have created, and they’re not liking what they see. They’re digital natives – the virtual world is the world -, and that world is custom designed for revenge and personal and social annihilation.
If all we offer as the church is more of the same – a baptised version of the guilt/shame cycle that requires grovelling – that the world is offering them, then we are wasting our time. If we cannot lead them to the ONE who can offer them forgiveness and redemption, then let’s not be surprised when they join the baying mob, if only to draw attention away from themselves and their own worst jokes.
This is a bracing word. But this is a bracing world. We won’t get through by offering a baptised version of what the secular frame is already offering. We’d better have something so outrageous, so shocking, yet so liberating and enlivening at the same time, that those who have grovelled as much as they can, yet still can’t find – or even be offered – forgiveness, look up and realise that it might be their only hope in the dark cultural fort-lined valleys of unforgiveness.
Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine
About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.