Forgiving Christians

As best I can remember, my first publication was in the high school paper. It was an editorial, of course, and it was funny and mean and wrongheaded. I’ve put words into the public domain for 23 years since that day. I’ve been wrong a lot, and I’ve picked a lot of fights. At times I’ve stepped into a fight without meaning to. I’ve provoked angry responses from breathless Democrats and stiff-necked Republicans, student-government busybodies, college administrators, anarchists, fascists, communists, libertarians, union members, people opposed to spanking, gender theorists, feminists, masculinists, Francophiles, Viggo Mortensen fans, Nazis, Klansmen, and cat lovers. Sometimes a productive discussion has ensued, other times, not so much. The detractors who have been most unkind, however, and least susceptible to reason or goodwill, are people who call themselves evangelical Christians.

I’ve been thinking these past few days about why that is. It’s certainly not inherent to Christianity, because I have also received the greatest mercy and love from Christians, starting with my wife and working down to lesser beings. On the other hand, maybe my wife isn’t Evangelical. Maybe Evangelical is like Libertarian now, in that the capitalization somehow lends itself to stridency, insular community, and intolerance of dissent. I don’t know. I only know that for some reason it sits in my gut and makes my stomach hurt. I read some of the responses to things I have written, things I thought were well-intentioned and fair-minded, and I think: No wonder people reject the church. It’s filled with people like that. Then I feel especially bad, because I used to be someone like that myself.

Maybe what saved me from pharisaism is sin itself. Once you’ve done terrible things, once you realize that Grace extends to all who beg for it, even someone like yourself, it’s hard to deny it to someone else. I wonder sometimes if the people so intent on scrutinizing whose toes are over the boundaries of the law have ever peered into their own dark hearts. I wonder if they’ve given a moment’s thought that the warning about being forgiven as we forgive was uttered for them.

I wonder why their opprobrium puts me in a funk and makes me so sad. Surely that’s an indication of something wrong in my head. It makes me sad and then I get angry, and I think that I can forgive anyone but a pharisee, which makes no sense at all, to withhold forgiveness for someone’s lack of forgiveness. Maybe it’s because a pharisee is a bully. In the old days, they would stone you to death. Nowadays they pronounce judgment on your doctrine, having not the slightest sense from whence doctrine emerged, and draw lines separating their true, genuine faith from the rest of us. If they had their druthers, they’d stand at Heaven’s gate and make sure no undesirables got in. Maybe that will be their job in Heaven — doorkeepers — only instead of deciding who gets in, they have to humbly receive our tickets and watch us file past, all we sinners and liberals and non-capital-E evangelicals, not to mention Episcopalians and Orthodoxers and Catholics and Democrats and Mexicans.

Assuming they get in at all.

It puts me in mind of Graham Greene’s whiskey priest, pondering whether a self-righteous woman will ever make it to Heaven:

“God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? . . . salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting . . .”

Of course Greene was a Catholic and an adulterer, so what did he know, right? If only one of those sweating, angry, ecclesiastically unbound Evangelical preachers would take on the habit of piety, maybe we’d make some headway. But they’re too busy railing about gays and which version of the Bible is the most inspired to be troubled by something so venal, so intractable. Far easier to throw stones at the scapegoats than examine ourselves, I imagine. What bothers me the most is that I am left with this sadness, and this anger, and now this burden to forgive these unforgiving people.

And so I do. I forgive each one of you, not because I am commanded to, because I’m not a good enough Christian to let that suffice. I forgive you because I used to be just like you, and now I am not, and because I am filled with sadness at what you are and what awaits you.


  1. The Wingnut

    I just recently found your blog through my sister, and I just wanted to comment on this post. I agree wholeheartedly that this is a major problem with the “church”, and my heart breaks as well for those who have convinced themselves that they know it all. Thank you for your witty honesty!


  2. mdmhvonpa

    INDEED! I recall you railing against the young woman in the pew ahead of you with the but-crack and other such … judge-able clothing. I continue to rail against other’s transgressions … secretly praying that none would judge me for mine. The older (wiser?) I become, the more embarrassed I become with my pharisee attributes.

  3. Jim Lipsey

    The inclination to judge stems in part from our unhealthy desire to learn of everyone else’s affairs. We end up running around looking for motes in the process.

    Rather than taking this piece to heart and vowing once more to be less nosy, I end up trying to figure out who has been after Tony lately and why. Basically, I just want to know the backstory.

  4. Carl Holmes

    Ditto what Jim said. That is exactly where my mind was going.. shame on me.

    May those who have determined to judge you remember the ultimate maxim to not judge lest ye be judged. If God used the ruler on us we use on others as His guide…well we will just say things would not be so rosy!

    Thanks for the word for today opprobrium… good word!

  5. IlĂ­on

    Man! It *must* be good to know that one does not “pronounce judgment on [others’] doctrine, having not the slightest sense from whence doctrine emerged, and draw lines separating [one’s] true, genuine faith from the rest of us.” It surely must be good to know the basis for questioning the “Assum[ption] they get in at all.

  6. Paul A

    mdmhvonpa, I would agree, with the caveat that we (Christians) are not to abandon discipline, moral standards, etc. — I don’t think that’s what Tony is suggesting — but rather that when we make appropriate judgments, we do it in a spirit of love and grace, with the goal being restoration and not condemnation.

  7. Tom

    Excellent post Tony.
    The capital E evangelicals remind me of the servant in Matt18:23 – 35.
    Fellow servant…
    Vs 31: “So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were exceeding sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.”

  8. Tony

    This was not a brief for relative truths, each with an equal claim on our loyalty. Some people are right, and others wrong. My argument with these pharisees is that they are intolerant of dissent, incapable of discussion, and ignorant of their own church history. They behave as if they are hate-filled, and as if they haven’t a forgiving bone in their bodies. They are the very people Christ railed against.

  9. Ron

    I should cause each of us to quake uncontrollably to realize that Matt. 6:12 and 6:14 set the judgment standard for each of us.
    Opprobrium? Hard to do that “in love.”

  10. Kelli

    Thanks for articulating what I so often want to tell those E (with a capital) vangelicals. I’m always amazed that these people are so arrogant to think that they have the right to judge. My spirituality and faith (not to mention religious teachings) have always told me that only God is allowed to judge…the rest of us are here to love and forgive and take care of each other. Funny how that gets lost when you’re busy telling everyone else what God expects from them.

  11. Leslie Carbone

    Good post, Tony. The human tendency to diminish profound truth to simplistic form, which distorts Christianity into a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts, combined with the scandal of the evangelical mind, which grows ever less capable of the hard intellectual work of balancing justice and mercy, combines to produce the ugly phenomenon of the pharisaic Christian. Thanks for standing up against it.

  12. Adam DeVille

    Flannery O’Connor, as you will of course know, was especially good at blowing up faux piety and the sanctimony that too often lurks behind it. That’s why, I daresay, she was so misunderstood and disliked by many self-identified Christians. She used to say that “smugness is THE Catholic sin” but I suppose that applies, mutatis mutandis, to evangelicals and others inclined towards “soteriological exclusivism.”

  13. Michael Simpson

    No likes a Pharisee, true, but no one also likes (or should like) the super-duper-nonjudgmentalist, either. He’s the mushy-minded neighbor who can’t even decide whether he should punish his son for downloading porn onto the family computer – “who am I to judge?” he says. So if you’re gonna write this sort of post, it might be worth writing another on how you think we ought to go about “judging” (or if you’d like “discerning”). For it seems to me that, pace our public image, the greater problem among Christians is not “judging” but nonjudgmentalism, resulting in flabby doctrine and a sense that “loving” one another more or less means being “nice” to each other.

  14. Allison Cambre

    It seems like I remember somewhere in their book about the prostitutes, and sinners being at the head of the line into heaven before them.

  15. Steve Bogner

    Tony – For what it’s worth, what you describe sounds similar to what I experience within Catholicism. It’s sad, really, to see the church (small ‘c’ intended) divided, to see it fighting within itself when its is in reaching out to those who need love, compassion, and salvation. But then, if you look back over Christian history, it seems this is how things have gone for centuries.

  16. Tari

    My pastor said recently – and he may have been quoting someone else, I have no idea – that “Scripture isn’t a sword to point at others. It is instead a scalpel with which we remove the sin from our own lives.”

    Amen to your post, Tony, and thanks for SitG.

  17. janie

    I just recently discovered your blog, Tony. (I’m a regular at WoW, and have enjoyed your writing there.)

    I’m a “recovering” judger (with Jesus’ help) so this was a great post for me!

  18. janie

    MLP, I’d say the difference between “forgiving” and “condoning” seems pretty obvious. Something you can condone does not require forgiveness. (If I am wrong, please correct me, anyone.)

  19. JIM

    I can’t quote the Bible too well, but somewhere (in Matthew I think) it says that God rains on the righteous as well as the unrighteous.

    Remember what Lao-tzu said, “Circumstances don’t determine your state of mind, for that power rests with you.”

  20. MLP

    Janie, you completely miss my point. I know the difference in the definitions of “condone” and “forgive”. I’m asking what is the practical difference in a world where we are all sinners. If you forgive my sin day after day, can I not assume you are condoning my actions? Remember also, I am asking about unrepentant sin, not the forgiveness due to a remorseful sinner who asks for it. After all, remorse is a sign that the sinner acknowledges the wrongness of the act. How is forgiveness, absent remorse, different from condoning the action in the first place?

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