Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Forgive Me Not

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Forgive Me Not

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Pinning Your Own Tail on Someone Else's Donkey" by Wilfred M. McClay, in In Character, Fall 2008.

ANOTHER POLITICIAN SWEPT up in a tawdry sex scandal, another celebrity nabbed for driving drunk--then cue the ritual of redemption: the mea culpa media confession, the promise to repent or check into rehab, the teary plea for forgiveness. "Even when we cannot ourselves forgive a transgressor," Wilfred M. McClay writes, "we usually credit the generosity of those who can." Indeed, forgiveness is being touted in self-help books for its therapeutic effects: "It makes us, the forgivers, feel better." Forgiveness, McClay contends, is in danger of 'being debased into a kind of cheap grace," a state in which it will have "lost its luster as well as its meaning."

To McClay, "forgiveness can't be understood apart from the assumption that we inhabit a moral universe in which moral responsibility matters, moral choices have real consequences, and justice and guilt have a salient role." It is--or ought to be--a serious business. In ancient Jewish society, transgressors performed sacrificial acts to wipe away their sins, and "in the Christian context, forgiveness of sin was specifically related to Jesus Christ's substitutionary atonement." In our tame we retain "Judeo-Christian moral reflexes without Judeo-Christian metaphysics," and discharging the weight of sin becomes more problematic and confusing, especially when the process is complicated by the guilt many feel about not being able to "diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless."

Our awareness of our own moral shortcomings, says McClay, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, makes us all too prone to forgive the failings of others, and also explains today's odd spate of popular "phony memoirs" such as Love and Consequences. …

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