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Friday, December 14, 2018

Please Forgive Me - The Sorry State Of Absolution

The Old Testament gave no ground to sinners.  Jehovah was a judgmental, punitive, retributive God.  Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed despite Abraham’s intercession.  The Flood was unequivocally necessary because of universal human failing.  Better to start over.. 

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The New Testament is much more forgiving.  In fact, Christ’s central message was one of divine generosity.  Of course men sin.  Eve, the temptress, seduced herself by the Devil, corrupted Adam and condemned the entire human race to a life of penury and pain  Jesus offered hope to even the least hopeful.  If one were only to believe in him and accept the offer of his grace, the kingdom of heaven would be open.

The choice is clear.  Who would rather face a censorious, unforgiving judge than one who understands man’s foibles and moral weakness?  Jehovah was right in sending his Son to correct the very imperfect world he created.  The Flood didn’t work.  The human race came back and renewed itself; but unrepentant and ignorant, went on to repeat the same mistakes it had made before Noah.  The human race that God had created was irremediable, and the only hope was that at least some of his creations would finally respect, love, and admire him – a tall order, but one surely in competent hands. 

Milton wrote about this divine mission in Paradise Lost but Jesus’s work was not a foregone conclusion.  The forces of evil, especially when arrayed so ingeniously by Satan, were daunting even for the Son of God; but defeat was necessary and foregone.  The world was not created to be evil.

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From any point of view God could never have envisaged the sorry, facile state of forgiveness today.  Public apologies after breaches of public trust are accepted without question.  No sin is beyond forgiveness, and most are considered only aberrations from a moral norm.  American political and religious leaders who have betrayed their wives, their congregations, and their followers can be restored to status and position if they prostrate themselves in abject apology before their constituents.  Even given the likelihood that such serial sinners will sin again, they must be forgiven.  Christ’s message gone horribly awry. 

Jews are quite cynical about the Catholic sacrament of Confession.  It is all well and good, they say, to sin, be forgiven with only a few desultory prayers, and be free to sin again; but the true import of sin – a hurtful, spiteful rejection of the Lord, Jehovah or Christ – is overlooked in such an easy round of forgiveness.  We take sin seriously, say observant Jews on The Day of Atonement, take our moral responsibility to heart, accept the very mortal offense of repeating it; while Catholics spin the bottle and go on with their lives.

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Of course Jews misunderstand the principles of Catholic forgiveness.  One can be only truly forgiven if the sinner understands the immoral nature of the sin and promises never to commit it again.  All well and good, Jews say; but promises are worth little more than the breath it takes to utter them especially if there is no penalty for failure.  Repeat offenders – repentant adulterers, liars, and cheats who ignore the meaning of the confessional and continue to sin – go Scot free in the permissive, exceedingly tolerant Christian society.  Better to condemn once and for all, to mete out just punishment, and to expect humble acceptance of it. 
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell; but most of all because I love Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen (Catholic Good Act of Contrition)
Jesus surely never meant a universal, unquestioned forgiveness of sin.  He must have learned something about unrepentant human behavior from his Father; yet after his death, he was not responsible because the Holy Ghost, the enforcer of the Holy Trinity, who was charged with keeping the faith as The Son had envisaged, was derelict in his duty.  He – the Holy Spirit – allowed for the emergence and preeminence of the Church, the Vatican and the Pope, all with vested interests in forgiveness.  After all, what would be the future of a church which could be swept away and destroyed by a vengeful Old Testament God?

Christianity has had such longevity because of its temperate, forgiving nature.  Judaism provides needed moral brakes to Christianity’s excesses, but it can only admonish and hector from the sidelines.  Protestant fundamentalism has taken sin and forgiveness to another level.  One can be saved through Christ’s divine grace and redemption, so never mind temporal, earthly Jewish harping about right behavior.

In a crucial scene in the movie, The Gift, an unrepentant sinner – an ugly-spirited, arrogant, but attractive ignoramus – asks forgiveness from a man whom he has offended, hurt, and seriously damaged years before.  The man refuses to accept the offender’s apology and says, ‘You might be done with the past, but the past is not done with you’.  He prefers vengeance to forgiveness and destroys his offender.  Old Testament justice, and we sympathize. Why even consider an insincere apology from someone who will sin again?  Why not destroy him?

Image result for images movie the gift jason bateman

We have forgiven weeping politicians for their indiscretions, no matter how serious.  if they have realized – or at least publicly acknowledged their moral dereliction – then shouldn’t they be forgiven, especially if their opus – the goodness of their collective works – outweighs any one-off error of ways?

Did Jesus ever think of forgiveness in context? Parsing the seriousness of sin was not in his litany.  Sin itself and the willing admission of it was; but there was no questioning Christian morality.  All faithful knew quite well what was expected of them.  The likes of betraying politicians and preachers would be condemned no matter how humble their contrition; and only after the most abject apology and profound commitment to reform would their apologies be considered.

“I’m sorry” has lost all meaning, all salience, and all relevance to moral judgement. It has become facile, expected, and totally meaningless.  Worse, it has become part of the sinner’s forgivable trajectory.  “I’ll never stray again” says the straying husband, buying time and space before his next affair.  “I will always be faithful to your interests”, says the politician who has only his own interests and longevity in mind.  “Please forgive me”, asks the Catholic priest for his abusive behavior.

Granting forgiveness is one thing, admitting wrongdoing is another.  Admission of guilt, sin, or error is the last resort.  If one can get away with a crime, never have to admit it, nor ever do penance or beg for forgiveness, so much the better.  “It’s not what you know”, says Alonzo, the corrupt police detective in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, “but what you can prove”.   Committing the crime is not the problem, leaving a traceable trail is.

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‘Transparency’, today’s buzzword for political reform does not mean honesty, forthrightness, or admission of guilt; but the image of innocence.  If it looks good, smells good, and feels good, then it must be good.  Truth is secondary if not irrelevant.

We have gotten so far from the Act of Contrition – the heartfelt, deeply apologetic admission of having offended God himself – that apologies of any sort are meaningless, so subject are they to image, presentation, and self-serving explanation.  Better to take an Old Testament view of sin – wipe it and its offenders out in another Flood.   Bring back unapologetic, vengeful, and retributive justice.  There is no reason to shy away from the death penalty, the one, absolute act of justice that remains in a relativistic, self-justifying society.

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