Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Forgiveness is unnatural

Over the past week I've seen a number of people express anger and bitterness towards the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. The idea that God would forgive monstrous evil is proof for some of Christianity's moral bankruptcy.* That might seem odd on the face of it. Isn't forgiveness supposed to be good P.R. for Christianity? Don't people usually get upset about the wrathful justice of God? Ultimately, these twin critiques--Christianity as evil because of God's judgment and Christianity as evil because of God's mercy towards the wicked--stem from the same corrupted understanding of forgiveness. And since a corrupted understanding of Christian forgiveness necessarily entails a corrupted understanding of the God who forgives, the problem cuts straight to the heart of Christian theology.

As sociologist Christian Smith first observed, the religion of most Americans--even those in the Church--is not really orthodox Christianity so much as a kind of "moralistic therapeutic deism." Most of us want a religion that helps us generally be "good people" and feel good about ourselves as such. We like a God, then, who excuses or overlooks our everyday faults and flaws.

This is not, however, a God who forgives. As C.S. Lewis observed, what we call forgiveness is usually just excusing. That is, rather than acknowledging and forgiving a wrong, we find a way to excuse ourselves or others from guilt. The wrong simply ceases to be considered a wrong and thus does not need to be forgiven in the first place. We want a God, then, who excuses, and who sees us as basically good, who sees our flaws and failings as we do--as insignificant trifles.

In order to extend forgiveness, though, you have to recognize the inexcusability of what's being forgiven. And in order to accept forgiveness, you must acknowledge your need for it. Forgiveness does not minimize evil. It is, to the contrary, inseparable from wrestling with the full weight of evil. And we simply won't do that with the greed and lust, the narcissism and vainglory that characterize your average American's sins. These might be flaws, but surely they're not really evil.

The God of moralistic therapeutic deism cannot comprehend or accept evil. When confronted with our sin--and the sins of those like us--we simply recategorize them as understandable and ultimately excusable flaws. Some evil, though, cannot be explained or excused away. The revelation of sexual abuse and molestation by a Christian reality TV celebrity last week sparked a social media explosion--and some angry rejection of the doctrine of forgiveness. In the face of this sort of unspeakable evil, the gently excusing God will not do. We want our God wrathful and vengeful and unforgiving.

This is a natural reaction--and a good reminder that forgiveness, by contrast, is unnatural.

Throughout his public life, Martin Luther King Jr. modeled the Christian doctrine of forgiveness in all of its complexity and power and unnaturalness. The evil which Dr. King confronted seems to us stark, unaccountable, and foreign. My students sometimes speak of the Jim Crow Era as though it were a thousand years ago and a thousand miles away--rather than within living memory and in this very town. Dr. King faced repugnant racism, systematic oppression, a legal system that tacitly and sometimes openly sanctioned lynchings, the bombing of churches, and murder of children. This is wickedness on an unthinkable scale. Yet Dr. King responded in Christian love and forgiveness. In a 1957 speech titled "Some Things We Must Do," he warned his followers against bitterness. "We must," he said,
somehow stand up before our white brothers in this Southland and see within them the image of God. No matter how bad they are as we think, no matter what they do to us, no matter what they said about us, we must still believe that in the most recalcitrant segregationist there is the image of God.
Dr. King then turned from attention from his followers to the segregationists against whom they struggled. To them, he proclaimed his indomitable love:
Come into our homes at the midnight hours of life and take us out on some desolate highway and beat us and leave us there, and we will still love you. Run all around the country and send your literature, and say that we aren’t worthy of integration, that we are too immoral, that we are too low, that we are too degraded, yet we will still love you. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.
Dr. King was not naive, and he did not excuse. He saw the image of God in the segregationist and loved him for it, but in so doing he never minimized the wickedness of segregation. Even as he faced evil that would overwhelm general human decency and goodwill, Dr. King never lost hope. Earlier in the speech, he explained why:
I believe in the future because I believe in God. And I believe that there is a personal power in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. I believe that there is a force, a creative force, that works at every moment to bring low prodigious hilltops of evil and to bring down gigantic mountains of injustice. And He’s still working; He’s working now, at this hour. And because He’s working, I know He’s working to establish His kingdom.
That is the Christian God--the one and the same God who forgives and who brings about justice. The challenge for Christians today is to live in and for and from that God--and not the God who excuses our sins but will not forgive the more monstrous sins of others. The God who is God requires that we neither overlook nor minimize evil but learn to forgive it, and in so doing learn how to receive forgiveness ourselves.

To do that--to forgive and be forgiven--we must name evil for what it is. In a recent essay on "Paschal penitence," Episcopal Bishop John Bauerschmidt wrote that the practice of Confession "is not a 'sad' reminder of sins that should be left off in a 'happy' Eastertide, but part of the proclamation of the very meaning of the Resurrection." The good news of forgiveness, in other words, cannot be separated from the "bad news" of our sin. We cannot accept forgiveness without accepting our own sinfulness.

Nor can we extend forgiveness to others if we fail to account for their sinfulness. We must, furthermore, be willing to confront not only personal but also structural and systemic sin. We should not be afraid to confront and name these institutional and communal sins--whether we're speaking of the unnacountability of the Roman Catholic hierarchy amidst sexual abuse scandals, oppressive systems of racism that still persist in America today, or widespread abuse in some patriarchal, fundamentalist branches of Christianity.

The good news of the kingdom of heaven is also hard news. We should not, then, be surprised when people reject God's forgiveness--any more than when they reject God's justice. As St. Paul taught the Corinthians, "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 


*I'm specifically writing here in response to those who expressed disgust or anger at the Christian doctrine of forgiveness per se (here are two examples that came across my feed, but you can find examples ad infinitum by searching "forgiveness Duggar" on social media).

I am not addressing the scandal itself--because I know almost nothing about the reality TV family at the center of the scandal, and I don't know a great deal about the scandal itself. I feel the need to specify things to which I am not reacting:

(1) I am not dealing with those who are accusing Josh Duggar of hypocrisy. Some people have expressed anger at apparent hypocrisy on the part of the man at the center of the scandal who has, I gather, accused gay men of being molesters (so I'm told, anyway--again, I knew basically nothing about him a week ago). Assuming that's true, the principle of Matthew 18 and debt forgiveness would apply here--you can't receive forgiveness and condemn others at one and the same time. Matthew 18 does not provide a perfect correspondence. Mr. Duggar in this case is not withholding forgiveness for the same sin he committed but is rather projecting his particular sin onto an entirely separate issue. But, in any case, I'm talking about forgiveness itself--not the hypocrisy of the forgiven.

(2) I am not dealing with those accusing other Christians of hypocritically demanding forgiveness for a molester while heaping condemnation on less destructive sins by others. One example I've seen mentioned is those who see Freddie Gray's drug use as somehow justifying his negligent homicide at the hands of Baltimore Police. So while some Christian conservatives condemned Gray (and many other young black men who've died at the hands of police), others are now demanding forgiveness for Mr. Duggar. If you assume that these are the same people--which very well may be the case--then the critique is valid. But in any case, that's not what I'm talking about here.

(3) I am not dealing with those pointing out that forgiveness does not necessarily entail the erasure or removal of consequences. Sometimes people assume that truly forgiving means not holding accountable. "Forgive and forget" expresses this idea. This is a corruption of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Forgiveness requires that we reject vengeance--but not necessarily all punishment. Just punishment is not about inflicting harm or exacting revenge. Just punishment ultimately flows not out of hate for the offender but out of love--for the offended, for the community in which the offense took place, and even for the offender himself. Loving the offended, the community, and the offender usually requires that sin entail consequences. So this is a valid critique in general--and it's probably relevant to the specific instance. But I'm not reacting to this.

So to be clear: I'm responding to a rejection of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness itself when applied to those we see as monstrous--revulsion at the idea that God and others would forgive a child molester.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Accidental Plagiarism

It seems like every time an author becomes mired in a plagiarism scandal, you hear excuses about sloppy notetaking or research skills leading to someone accidentally stealing the work of another writer.

Have you ever bought that line? I tend to have a... let's just call it skeptical response. My response is something of a "trilemma" reformulated from C.S. Lewis' own famous trilemma*: the author making that excuse is either a liar, an idiot... or a lying idiot.

*Lewis argues that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is either a liar, a madman... or God. 

Just now, though, I'm not excited about where that particular trilemma leaves me. Here's why:

This morning I went into the unruly drafts folder of my email account looking for a particular project. A draft from a month or so back caught my eye. Upon opening it, I saw two paragraphs that I wrote down for a blog post I never finished. As I reread those paragraphs, I tried to remember why I hadn't ever finished the post--these were (I thought with a touch of self-regard) well-crafted and thoughtful paragraphs.

Those paragraphs were responding to an essay, and as I tried to recall the essay in question I realized with a start that this is that essay. This was not my own writing. I was looking instead at a draft of an email I'd intended to send to a coworker: a short excerpt that was supposed to be paired with a link to the essay. But I'd been interrupted before I could finish the email and had forgotten about it. Those two unattributed paragraphs sat in my drafts folder innocuously for a couple months, and when I returned to them, I somehow managed to believe they were my own written work.

So where does that leave me with my plagiarist's trilemma? Well, since it doesn't make me a liar or a lying idiot, my own trilmma convicts me of pure, unadulterated idiocy.

Or, perhaps, I ought to extend a little more charity--and a little less presumption--in my judgments of accused plagiarists.

I can't imagine that I would ever have gotten to the point of publishing those paragraphs while still thinking it was my own prose. After all, the entire span of time from opening the draft to realizing my mistake could not have been more than a couple minutes. But I also have to recognize that, in the first place, the draft was only a couple months old. Had it been a year old, I might very well have never realized my mistake. And, secondly, I do not write all that much. Those two paragraphs were not sitting amidst reams of my own written material.

In other words, had I been looking at stray notes from a book-length project--the kind that might cover years of research--it seems to me highly possible that those two paragraphs could have slipped into that project without citation or attribution. Nor does it seem totally unrealistic that larger or multiple sections of unoriginal material could be unintentionally plagiarized due to sloppy notetaking.

Anyone who writes cannot be reminded of this too often: it is essential to use care and attentiveness in the use of sources and citations. When taking notes on a source, make explicitly clear the differences between and among direct quotations, paraphrases of the text, and your own thoughts or responses to it. Your reputation and your reliability depend upon it.

Lastly, I've been reminded of the demands of charity. Charity requires us to resist the satisfying urge to excorciate others for their mistakes, and charity calls us to presume the best rather than assume the worst in others.