By Clint Wilson
Writing in spring of 2017, Wilfrid M. McClay penned an article entitled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” which garnered a decent amount of interest online, promoted even by David Brooks in the New York Times. In his article, McClay argued the following:
The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.
McClay’s point is that guilt has not, in fact, disappeared — quite the opposite has happened. Freud said that guilt was “the most important problem in the development of civilization,” and Nietzsche argued that if we could be rid of the notion of God, we could dispense with the notion of guilt. Then modern atheism promised that if we rejected the fairytales of God, and sin, and guilt, we would “return to Eden,” entering into the paradise built by human progress, around which institutions like the Church, with its traditional mores, have erected walls of intolerance and political domination, or so the narrative goes (McClay outlines this as well).
And yet, he argues, not only does the notion of guilt persist, it has grown into a cultural currency, used by many with ferocity on a new scale. For instance, consider the way in which our news outlets, and our public institutions make us feel a nearly omni-present weight of guilt. McClay writes: “Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.”
What he is saying is that the narrative tells me that if I shop at Costco, then I’m supporting child slave labor. If I’m American, I’m somehow corporately responsible for the Dresden fire bombings. If I’m German, I share in the collective guilt of the Holocaust. And the examples become much less serious, but proliferate endlessly. If I eat Cheerios, I share in the oppression of farmers who want to stand up against Monsanto. If I like Bach, I’m guilty of cultural elitism.
How then are people to respond? For even our responses, provoked by guilt, are themselves products of guilt. McClay provides an example:
I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens’s ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.
Thus, says McClay, we see an extreme rise in the notion of a “victim mentality.” Indeed, a kind of prestige and moral attraction has developed around the notion of victimhood.
To this we could add, rituals of scapegoating, of “cancel culture,” and of public humiliation and shaming, which are the quasi-sacraments of an age that sought to throw off the shackles of traditional Christian mores. Such behaviors are the outward and visible signs of an inward societal sickness, a “moral disorder” of a society who is trying to save itself and is willing to publicly crucify those who do not conform to this new “orthodoxy,” rooted as it in identity politics with no coherent sense of personhood or divinity at its core. In fact, every person is their own God, and thus, every other person’s guilt grows exponentially as the micro-aggressions pile up. In a world where God is dead, everyone is God, and therefore guilt compounds without any hope of expiation, of healing, of cleansing from our sins, without any hope of forgiveness.
Consider then the profound, counter-cultural hope held out to us by Holy Scripture.
The story of Joseph and his family in Genesis 45 rehearses one of the most profound and visceral scenes of forgiveness within all of Scripture. We see Joseph refuse to exact revenge on his brothers, even though he is in the right (although, he also was kind of a punk little brother!). It’s worth quoting at length:
1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there — since there are five more years of famine to come — so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
As you engage the story, you hear the naming of the violation, the fear of retribution, the kiss exchanged, and the tears shed upon brothers’ shoulders. Perhaps this reminds you of an encounter within your own family. I believe it was Archbishop Justin Welby who once said, “To forgive is to have a just claim and abandon it in the name of love.” Joseph practiced this. And, of course, we see this most clearly in the life of Jesus Christ, as he works his way to the cross, which is simply the embodiment of forgiveness par excellence.
How hard forgiveness is, especially presently where we often see a corrosive impulse to seek and destroy those who have sinned against the moral standards of the day. But this is a posture more rooted in the Zeitgeist of the moment than in the gospel of grace, repentance, and forgiveness. Right now, many communities are enraptured with a near-apocalyptic commitment to a new form of witch-hunting. But a culture that favors condemnation and excommunication has lost its most basic ethical mooring to true justice, which always keeps the possibility and hope of restoration on the horizon, as both a goal and a cultural good. And yet, “in Cancel Culture,” writes Pamela Paresky, “the powerful don’t give forgiveness, they take revenge.”
It is easy to criticize cancel culture, but what about us? To what degree are we to forgive? Peter asks Jesus the same thing in Matthew 18.
To be clear: the Christian message of forgiveness is not “Sin doesn’t matter, just forgive and get over it.” It does not say that justice or penalties for wrongdoing don’t matter. It says instead, “Sin matters so much that God in Christus Victor atoned for it himself, so we can walk in forgiveness. God was crucified to pay for our sin, and the sins of our enemies, so we don’t have to crucify each other, or crucify ourselves with shame and self-hatred.” The message of the cross, then, reorients our perspective on the sorts of pressing issues I listed above, away from guilt, so that they can be addressed constructively and boldly, rather than out of a futile quest for self-atonement.
All of us have been wronged, and will be wronged again. All of us have wronged others. These wounds lead us to engaging in relationships like they are tactical battles, with the PTSD from former relationships dictating how we enter into new ones. Patterns developed in war time must be healed during peace time, otherwise, our relationships will always be a warzone. But it all starts with the truth we have through the cross. In Christ , you are forgiven. You are forgiven. You are forgiven.
Peter Leithart states, “Communities of forgiveness are not determined by the past, by what has happened. They are communities with a future, they embody the possibility of a new creation.”
Who is it that God is calling you to forgive? What is the new creation God is wanting to work in you, and through you, by the power of forgiveness?
The church must keep the gospel of forgiveness at the very core of its proclamation.