By David Brooks, New York Times, January 14, 2011
Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.
President Obama’s speech in Tucson was a good step, but there will have to be a bipartisan project like comprehensive tax reform to get people conversing again. Most of all, there will have to be a return to modesty.
In a famous passage, Reinhold Niebuhr put it best: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
Who can disagree with both Brooks and Neibuhr? However, it is in the last word, "forgiveness," that the world is most in need. We do not know or seemingly do not care about the complexity and the depth and the significance of forgiveness. We often to not forgive ourselves; we do not easily or readily forgive each other; we pander to the words "I am sorry" as a way to gloss over so much of what constitutes really abusive behaviour. And we act as if to express authentic forgiveness is an act of wimpish, effeminate foolishness, expressed only by those seeking something in return.
There is truth in Brooks' words that we have lost our modesty, and have replaced it with too much narcissism, as we "cheer-lead" our own brand. However, more modesty will not necessarily bring forgiveness.
The Christian church has, for two centuries, permitted the ugliness of judgement, and the most sanctimonious of judgements, to be imposed by those whose claim to moral and ethical purity is so deeply flawed as to render those judgements worthless. "We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God," as Paul puts it, and the Christian church has, with impunity, turned that sentiment and thought into the central kernel of its
salvation theology. Because we are sinners, we therefore need the salvation and the accompanying forgiveness that comes from the Cross and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Without our full acceptance of that sacrifice, we are left to sin and Satan. The church has, essentially, rendered forgiveness beyond the scope of the human enterprise, leaving it to the sacrifice of the Saviour. For many too, the church has made the access to forgiveness, following confession, the ritual act of a clergy, in the formal "penitential" encounter. It has, then, been formalized into a ritual between mendicant and clergy, whose prayer ends, "pray for me a sinner."
(We have all heard many stories from practicing believers that mock the Confessional for its insincerity.)
By taking the act of forgiveness out of the human realm, except as conveyed to those who "believe" and by rendering it essential that all humans come to believe, in order to participate in that forgiveness, the act of forgiveness has become, for many, the principle act of a faith community, offered once at Golgotha, and perpetuated through remembrance in the celebration of the Eucharist.
If forgiveness is seen to be mostly a God-given, Jesus-incarnated holy and spiritual gift, for believers only, then what meaning does the act of forgiveness have, when it comes from a mere mortal, and also when it comes, from a kind of dutiful, pedantic and dismissive mind and heart?
Furthermore, the very people who express the most vital "faith" in and "belief" in this forgiveness from Calvary's death and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, are the most vociferous in their condemnation of other human beings whose lives do not conform to their "picture" of the perfect life, and in this case perfect refers to its capacity to fulfill their picture of complete unequivocal discipleship to that same Jesus Christ Resurrected.
And that means that they have "mastered" the intimate mystery of the mind, heart and spirit of their anthropomorphic god, usually conceived in their own image, rather than the other way round, that they have been conceived in the "imago dei" the image of God. And, in that single faith step, those people have lost their basic human humility. One cannot "know" the mind of God, and claim that ownership, and continue to remain open to the mystery of God's continual revelation now and in the future.
Furthermore, if ever there were an institution in need of forgiveness, it is the Christian church, in all of its many forms and faces. And yet, how often do we see it steeped in its own hubris, drowning in the blindness that comes from such hubris, and vehemently condemning those on the outside of its heavy red doors.
Some institutional humility, seeking forgiveness from those it has so brutally assaulted in its pursuit of its own perfectionism, would go a long way to bringing the act of forgiveness back into the realm of Christian praxis, and bringing the simple act back to the kitchen and dining room tables everywhere.
But don't hold your breath!