Monday, November 29, 2010

We Need the Objective Righteousness of Christ

I don't particularly follow football, but I've been intrigued on and off this season by the dramatic comeback of Michael Vick. Here's a guy who has, by all appearances, radically reformed himself in every way. He spent what should have been the height of his career in jail; he worked his butt off all summer and has come back better than ever both as a player and as a person. Who doesn't love an underdog story? Who doesn't love a tale of redemption?

A lot of people, apparently.

Chris Brauns shared a piece from Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly arguing that "it's time to forgive Michael Vick."
I’m just not sure what people want Michael Vick to do.

Quit football? Return to prison? Drown himself in the same lake where he and his crew used to drown dogs? Would he be forgiven then?

Now that Vick is having an eye-bugging season for the Philadelphia Eagles — 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions, four starts, four wins, one "Monday Night Football" jersey sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame — it seems only to have torqued off dog lovers worse.

I'm admittedly an over-the-top-dog-lover, and yet I think Reilly makes a compelling point; the full article goes to great lengths to ask, "What more is he supposed to do for angry dog lovers to forgive him?" (Or at least to get off his back?)

Here's what I came away thinking after reading Reilly's piece: there is nothing he can or will do. I know this because I know my own heart. This is why we need an objective standard for forgiveness that is outside of ourselves, both as the forgiver and as the forgiven.

If forgiveness is going to have its roots in something inherent in me as the forgiver (I decide when the offender has done enough to earn his way back into my favor) or as the forgiven (I show enough contrition or make adequate amends), we are in danger of falling into a bottomless pit. I've seen this in striking fashion in mediations where the offended people seem to be holding out for some additional sign of repentance before they will forgive; until they choose to forgive, that sign never comes. This is what has Reilly so frustrated; Vick has done enough for him to earn forgiveness, but there is a cadre of people out there who have unconsciously created a standard of forgiveness for dog-torturers that is simply unattainable.

Beware what Miroslav Volf so aptly called "rightful moral outrage [that] has mutated into self-deceiving moral smugness" (Exclusion and Embrace 58). Jesus said it perhaps more simply, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye" (Mt 7:3-5).

I've blogged about this dynamic before with respect to my marriage. Here's what I wrote then:

One more aspect of "the punishment game" that I'd encourage you to avoid is making your husband do something to get back into your good graces. In our marriage, it goes something like this: HH does something and I am angry at him. He then has the opportunity to get himself back into my good graces by doing me favors. I'll wake up in the morning and realize that he feels badly about something because I can hear him doing the dishes. Or he'll express feeling guilty because he doesn't feel like he's been doing his fair share around the house lately, so I'll tell him that he can make up for it later by, say, vacuuming or (better yet), giving me a back rub. (Back rubs are seriously an idol for me!).

There's nothing wrong with my husband seeking to bless me through tangible acts of service. But this isn't seeking to bless, this is seeking to appease. And I've discovered that in my own heart, it's a bottomless pit. Maybe emptying the dishwasher this time will work ... but next time, he's going to have to empty the dishwasher AND vacuum (at this point, someone at the shower chimed in, "and fold the laundry!" so I suspect I struck a nerve!). The scary thing is the same question I asked someone in a mediation a few weeks ago -- "How much is enough?" At some point, he's not going to be able to do enough for me to forgive him. We've got to find another way to be restored to each other.

Also scary is how remarkably similar this "theology" is to our natural tendency to believe that we need to work our way back into God's favor. Does God insist that we pay penance before being restored to him? No! And since God does not treat us in this way, we have no right to treat our spouses in this way.

And that's why I titled this post, "We need the objective righteousness of Christ." Our forgiveness, whether it be for something seemingly inconsequential or something really major, whether it be for a deeply personal offense or something more public and not personally directed at us, can never rooted in the subjectivity of our own goodwill or of the offender's restitutionary deeds (however necessary those might be). We need the finished work of Christ compelling us to forgive and, when we need forgiveness, calling us to rest in the knowledge that our sins were fully and finally paid for on the cross.

Michael Vick has said, "I can live my life with a clear mind every day, knowing that I'm moving forward." For all the good he's doing right now, I hope Michael Vick ultimately finds his clear conscience in the good of Someone Else.


Addie said...

Excellent and alarming - I am also a bottomless pit.

Patricia said...

Hi Molly! I followed Chris' link to your post and I'm so glad that I did. Very well stated. Excellent insights. Thank you.