Sounding Board

Resurrect forgiveness

China’s surprising take on a celebrated parable reveals a growing global problem

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In China, they have rewritten the story of the woman taken in adultery. It’s among Christ’s most iconic parables, but the Chinese Communist Party have creatively gone to the trouble of improving it.

It begins the way we would expect. “The crowd wanted to stone the woman to death as per their law. But Jesus said, ‘Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.’ Hearing this, they slipped away one by one.”

But then it takes an unexpected twist. “When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, ‘I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.’”

This surprising retelling comes from a summary of Christian teaching published for secondary schools on the subject of “professional ethics and law” and it tells an interesting story — not so much about Christianity, which it gets entirely wrong, but about the world the Chinese and so many in the West are creating. A world where forgiveness is unwelcome.

The fact that Christians are bad at forgiveness does not take away from the fact that we are absolutely bound to forgive

Forgiveness is at the core of Christianity. When you scrape everything else away, a very good summary of Christians is that we are “forgiven, forgiving, sinners”. Forgiveness is at the heart of our faith: the forgiveness of our sins wrought by Christ; the clear condition in the Lord’s Prayer as we pray that we might be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

We’re not always good at forgiveness, of course. Our history is marked by grim milestones as Christians have criminalised certain sins, even punishing some by death. Social ostracism has been a hallmark of the Good Christian, while institutions set up ostensibly to care for those who have “fallen” have ended up causing incredible harm to those incarcerated there.

The fact that Christians are bad at forgiveness does not take away from the fact that we are absolutely bound to forgive. It is written all the way through the New Testament, and Christ probably says more about it than anything else. It has filtered down, albeit imperfectly, to the cultures and societies built on a Christian foundation.

And it is dying. If you want the canary in the coalmine for the death of Christianity in the West, it isn’t church numbers falling or sexual immorality or anything like that. It is witnessing the absolute absence of forgiveness in the new morality emerging in the early twenty-first century.

Footballers, hauled before tribunals for things they wrote as 14-year-olds, well before they had either reasonable understanding of what they were saying or obligation to their future employer. 

Morality retrospectively imposed by HR departments and reputation management consultants.

Academics, authors, journalists, Tesco workers — made unemployed and finding themselves unemployable for comments made in haste and repented at leisure. 

I’m not talking about the situations where someone has said something that is contested but unpopular (where their cancellation should be egregious in any free society) but those who have said actually stupid or hurtful things — the kind of tweets that make you wince when you read them. The situations where HR departments and communications experts will look at the CEO seriously and say that it is imperative that an example be made of the malefactor.

Forgiveness has filtered down, albeit imperfectly, to the cultures built upon a Christian foundation

Perhaps at its heart is the certainty that the wheel of fortune will never spin round and impale me on its spike. At least, that would be the most obvious reading. “Judge not, lest as ye judge so shall ye be judged,” leaves you perfectly free to administer the worst judgements in the world if you think your hands are clean enough when hauled to account yourself.

But I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on. Returning to China might be instructive. The horror of the reworking of Jesus’s words and actions towards the woman taken in adultery might obscure another outrage: that Christ says that he too is a sinner but “if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead”. So what is going on?

At best it is the knowledge that if I, corrupt as I might be, do not denounce that other person then no-one will be cancelled and the world will not become a better place. 

At worst it is the hope that if we can direct attention onto another person’s sin, everyone might not notice ours. The knowledge that we are sinners and might be dragged down ourselves has always been a great motivator for denunciation. And denunciation is the spirit of our age.

But still, from the deep recesses of our culture comes a cry from a lonely hill, from a cancelled man on a bloody cross, that reminds us all that no matter how hard we try to avoid it, we have been forgiven — and no matter how much we resent it, we are called to forgive. 

And that the world is better for it. And that this is written far deeper into our culture than today’s bitter gall. And that means that this cry will be heard long after today’s twitter mobs have fallen silent. 

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