In a culture that has given itself over almost entirely to extreme moral accountability, mercy often appears dangerous and reckless.
Eighteen-year-old Brandt Jean offered forgiveness to his brother Botham’s murderer during victim-impact statements last Wednesday. He, an African-American man, implored Amber Guyger, the white woman who had killed his brother, to ask God for forgiveness and to give herself to Christ. He then gave Guyger a hug. A video taken in the courtroom shows Judge Tammy Kemp in tears as the young man hugs Guyger. Jean’s act of mercy inspired Kemp to present her personal Bible to Guyger in the courtroom—while instructing Guyger to read John 3:16 and telling her that her sins do not set her apart from forgiveness in Christ.
Reactions to these gestures of forgiveness and mercy have been mixed. While many have lauded Brandt and Kemp for their actions, others have condemned them, calling them irresponsible and complicit in an oppressive, racist system that permits whites to persecute blacks. But such condemnation only makes sense in a culture that has allowed bourgeois moral accountability to overcome what I call the Christian bohemianism of grace and mercy.
Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, attributes much of Western culture’s development to bourgeois values, in particular the niggling over small sums of money that gave rise to the precision and record-keeping without which modern business and science could not have arisen. Dollars and cents are not the only kind of currency, however. Reputation and ethical status have always been valuable commodities, and in both personal relationships and broader society, people have always jostled for the most favorable positions. In that economy, good deeds and right opinions are cash in the bank, while missteps and thought crimes are debts.
For most of Western history, however, a kind of Christian bohemianism counterbalanced this bourgeois business of anguished accounting—both financially and morally. Those adept in tracking sums, whether pecuniary or personal, week after week listened to the words of a man who gave up house, home, and trade, who called a rich young man to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, who gave sinners places of honor at his table. Week after week, they prayed the words this man taught them: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
As religious observance has declined in America, it is no surprise, then, that Americans have become less generous. They give less money than they have in the past. And they also give less morally; they are tight-fisted with forgiveness, mercy, and forbearance. Moral transgressions are not forgiven, even when the sinner begs forgiveness and raises millions in indulgences. The debts cannot be cancelled, but the debtor must be.
Many are comfortable with this bourgeois moral accounting. And certainly, racism is an evil that must be combatted. But the extreme, unyielding, and unforgiving moral accountability of “cancel culture” is not a solution, but a threat. It is a double-edged sword that both threatens the one who wields it and cuts against reconciliation and brotherhood.
The latest events in this cancel culture are a real-life parable illustrating Jesus’s teaching that “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). The recent case of Carson King, Aaron Calvin, Busch Light, and the Des Moines Register illuminate the danger inherent in withholding forbearance and mercy. On September 14, Carson King appeared in the background of ESPN’s GameDay with a sign requesting donations to replenish his “Busch Light Supply.” When donations to his Venmo account poured in, King announced he was donating all proceeds to a local children’s hospital. Busch Light and Venmo pledged matching funds, and total donations topped a million dollars.
But when it was revealed that King had posted racist tweets eight years ago as a sixteen-year-old, Busch Light distanced itself from the man. Reporter Aaron Calvin published the tweets in the Des Moines Register, despite King’s statements of extreme remorse. When outrage over this turn of events bubbled up online, troubling tweets from Calvin himself soon emerged, and the Register’s editor announced on September 26 that the reporter had resigned from the paper. Such is the way of life when no debt is forgiven and no transgression forgotten and no forbearance offered.
This bourgeois accounting without the counterbalance of Christian bohemianism leads to an unending cycle of retribution. Without a good measure of forbearance and forgiveness, societies fall apart. As a pastor often called upon to help bring peace in strained relationships, I can vouch for the corrosiveness of bitterness, grudges, and unforgiveness.
Jesus knew that his followers would not be able to say “Our Father” with one another unless they also said “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He was reflecting ancient Jewish wisdom when he taught them to pray this way: Moses taught Israel to cancel all debts in the Jubilee Year so that the community might be preserved. Creditors and debtors will never be brothers.
Barzun noted that Western culture sowed the seeds of its own decline, as the impulses and commitments that led to its rise would ultimately lead to its own demise. Certainly, bourgeois moral accountability threatens to turn society into a fearful place of unending animosity, where no man is a brother and everyone fears the retribution that will inevitably come to him. Food that might strengthen a sick man is often rejected because the illness makes it unpalatable to him. America has been shown healing nourishment in the mercy of Jean and Kemp, and our society will become stronger if it learns, marks, and inwardly digests it. I suspect that Jean and Kemp have won a sister, and I am certain that their example has inspired many Christians to strengthen bonds with others through the cancelling of debts, a grace and mercy that will never cease to be a scandal.
Christopher Jackson is the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin.