Forgiveness and Western Guilt

| 5/3/2011 1:07:58 PM

first-things-may-2011“We still value forgiveness, but we are very confused about it,” writes Wilfred M. McClay for the intellectual Christian-monthly First Things, “and in our confusion we may have produced a situation in which forgiveness has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight as well as its moral meaning and been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of release it brings us.”

McClay sees Western society to be in a state of moral crisis (when isn’t it?), an era in which traditional conceptions of guilt, forgiveness, and personal mores have been detached from psychological experience by the acceleration of science and technology, a devaluation of Christian life, and the advent of modernity. For one, forgiveness, by McClay’s reckoning, is too swiftly and carelessly meted out:

We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.

Globalization and Western prosperity have also changed the landscape of our collective guilt in two notable, contradictory ways. Noting the ease with which we can gauge the suffering of members in the global community, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt,” McClay writes, “expands to literally infinite proportions.” And after Sigmund Freud laid the groundwork for the Self-Help-Industrial-Complex, we adopted a more “influential therapeutic view that the experience of guilt does not involve any genuine moral issues but rather the interplay of psychic forces that do not relate to anything morally consequential.” Shameless Westerners, he contends, have been morally abstracted from a meaningful understanding of guilt, and have embraced a cheapened sense of forgiveness in response.

This is just the topsoil of McClay’s lengthy argument. His full essay—which also touches on victimhood, sin, and innocence—is worth diving into.

Source: First Things

steve eatenson
6/1/2011 6:33:06 PM

It was the Christian Right that chased Osama Bin Laden all over creation costing this country billions of tax dollars and countless human lives and misery. Where was the "Christian Forgiveness?" When we had pictures of Americans celebrating Bin Laden's assassination in bars and in the streets, where was our Christian sense of moral guilt and shame. Give me a break. Too many of our leaders hide under the umbrella of Christianity while practicing greed, thievery, cruelty and lack of compassion. Jesus would weep if he could see what is perpetrated in his name. Bin Laden could have been just as easily taken captive and thereby neutralized as murdered. Come on now!

Keith in St. Louis
5/11/2011 10:20:28 AM

McClay writes: "Noting the ease with which we can gauge the suffering of members in the global community, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt expands to literally infinite proportions.” So true! Christianity (depending on sect or denomination) has a solution or solutions, as does Humanism. But I can't help but believe that Christianity offers this "sense of release" more than any other belief-system, and if it works to that much then hopefully it will lead to good deeds as well. I'm not sure what Pete Hart is referencing in regards to hearing "Christian moralizers nearly every day." Regardless, I appreciate McClay's essay if it can serve to awaken us to our self-worth both individually and collectively, which genuine forgiveness typically does.

Pete Hart
5/11/2011 9:01:53 AM

I don't know why I'd waste my time reading an article by someone who points to a devaluation of Christian life as a problem. We aren't a Christian country. We don't need more Christian moralizers, don't we hear them in the news nearly every day? Maybe the author mentioned is referring to values that actually reflect the teachings of Jesus, but if so, it would be nice if the article above made that clear.

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