24 July – Viral Forgiveness
I’d like to draw two things together this morning for our reflection. The first is what Paul says at the start of our reading this morning from Galatians concerning the gift of the Spirit and the miracles worked in the congregation in Galatia through that gift. The second has to do with a declaration heard in the media earlier this week that Sonia Kruger is not evil. I’ll begin with the second, because not all of you will know what it means!
Sonia Kruger is a presenter on a morning television news program. Earlier this week, as a personal response to some of the horrors being perpetrated around the world, particularly in northern Europe, Kruger made the remark that she thought Muslim immigration to Australia should be stopped. Not surprisingly, this brought forth a particularly strong reaction, especially in social media.
In response to this, Waleed Aly, in another news program a day or so later, surprisingly defended Kruger. She was responding, he said, out of fear. And Aly spoke of some of his own fears and remarked on the way in which many tend to respond to an articulation of fear like Kruger’s with such anger and outrage, pointing to how much more fearful she might feel now on the basis of the response she received. So Aly declared that what she said is not evil; she is just speaking out of what she feels, and many feel the same way. Of course, he said this with particular authority which comes with his own standing in the community and also with the fact that he is himself a Muslim. I don’t want to unpack this morning the righteousness or the wrongness of what Kruger said, or of Aly’s response to her. But there was one thing which caught my attention in what he did say, almost as a throwaway remark:
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen outrage go viral. Wouldn’t it be amazing if just once we could send forgiveness viral?”
This is one of those poignant moral ironies we often utter to ourselves or hear uttered by others. It is poignant because we actually desire peace and reconciliation and forgiveness in the way that Aly desires it his remark, but suspect that it won’t come.
But I wondered, Why is it that forgiveness doesn’t go viral in that kind of way? Why is it that we do not seek or cannot realise reconciliation and peace through the same kind of medium, in the same mode, with the same intensity that we express moral outrage?
As with many things, Paul has an answer to this question.
I noted last week, in our consideration of what Paul says about grace and law, how easy it is to abstract grace and law into concepts which bear no relationship to concrete reality, and certainly no concrete relationship to where Paul says they are sourced: grace coming out of the cross. I tried last week to explore how grace, as Paul understands, springs from the crucifixion.
But today, we will focus a bit more upon law. Paul is discussing many things in his engagement with the Galatians. The question of how I stand right before God is central to all those things. But when he talks about law, it is easy to imagine that the law is only about how we stand right before God: the things we have to do in order to be “saved”.
Yet, law is much more than that. In fact, for the most part, law is not about how we relate to God, but to each other. It is law – a sense of expectation about how people are to behave – which makes it possible for us to live together as a community. Violations of those laws are things which constitute a threat to us. Law is about human relationship. Moral outrage is about violation of law, the violation of human relationships. Kruger is seen to violate something fundamental about what it means for us to live together. There would be those, of course, who would agree with her but in this instance they were outnumbered by those who did not. We recognise very easily when the law is broken and we usually respond very strongly in an attempt to suppress the violation.
Forgiveness is quite different. Forgiveness has a different kind of register. It is itself a kind of violation of the law. It is a violation of expectation about how things should unfold. And so forgiveness doesn’t have the same kind of reference point of moral outrage does. That is why forgiveness cannot appear in society in the same way as moral outrage does. Forgiveness is not, in one sense, actually “there”. It is a violation, it is unexpected, it doesn’t have a clear reference points for justification.
And so, in this sense, forgiveness is miraculous. For the miraculous has to do with the setting aside of a set of expectations about how things are going to unfold or operate, whether it is the miracle of a person walking on water or the miracle of a persecuted man who returns to his persecutors with words of peace and forgiveness. In either case there is a setting aside of law.
It is very difficult for us to do that as a community, because what binds us together is not the breaking or setting aside of the law but the keeping of the law. If I forgive someone it is hard for me to justify to you why I have forgiven them or why you should. Justification involves a reference to some kind of common ground – a common reference point or law which indicates why this person might be forgiven. But forgiveness is not like that. It sets aside expectations. Law tells us who deserves something. But no one deserves forgiveness because it springs not from a justification external to me and the other person but in fact from the relationship between the two of us. That can’t go viral in the same way that moral outrage goes viral. Moral outrage doesn’t need any personal mediation; it springs up from the matrix of law and mores – our expectations about how we should relate to each other.
By contrast, forgiveness always passes directly from one person to another. And so forgiveness has its own peculiar virality. It is passed from person to person in the same way that infection passes from person-to-person. It is passed on from individual to individual just as someone might hand us a piece of bread or a cup. What we do in this process of giving and being reconciled and bringing peace is creating companions, literary “those who share bread”. We are creating a community. And the virality of forgiveness adds to that community as we learn about what it means, in fact, to forgive. For forgiveness is actually a rare thing – true forgiveness that doesn’t involve an If and a Then but sets aside the demands of the law simply with a view to being reconciled.
And so Paul reminds the Galatians, Did you receive reconciliation – the gift of peace among yourselves – through works of the law or just through hearing the word of reconciliation: God’s word to us that “I love you and would have you” and what flows from that – the word we are to say to each other: I love you and I would be with you. This is the virality of forgiveness
So we don’t come together here in order to ponder the moral ironies – how easy it is to hate one another en masse as a community and how difficult it is to love one another. We come together to acknowledge that the virality of moral outrage is actually our condition; this springs from how we actually live together. And what God brings is something totally different, which breaks this condition. It doesn’t set the law aside; we continue to require some ongoing basic expectations of each other. But in order for us to be able to look forward to a future which is different from the past; there needs to be some setting aside as well of those things which separate us.
I was struck as they heard again the words of the Psalm this morning, about righteousness and peace, mercy and truth kissing each other. It sounds beautiful but it is a contradiction in terms because, strictly speaking, legal righteousness separates us from each other, and truth is a contradiction of mercy: what somebody really did as distinct from what I am going to do about it. The God who reaches out to us in Jesus Christ is a God who says, I would have you, regardless. That is what Paul is talking about in grace: the miracle which the Spirit of God gives us in Christ – a different kind of being together, holy charity, the gift which passes the power of human telling.
This is what we gather to learn about, to grow into and then be sent to bring into God’s world. By the grace of God may be indeed learn, and grow, and be happily sent. Amen.
(Slightly edited transcript from recording)