On Dominic Cummings and forgiveness

It was drawn to my attention this afternoon that the local publication Bournefree Magazine published a Facebook post quoting selected sentences from my piece I posted yesterday. Unhelpfully the headline they attached was rather inflammatory and I made the mistake of reading the comments. As a friend and colleague messaged me 'Never.Read.The.Comments!'

A vocal group of people in rather course language left me in no doubt what they thought of me involving myself in the debate. Two main objections seemed to appear: the first was the old chestnut that religion and politics should remain separate and the other was that as a Christian I was supposed to be forgiving. I dealt with the fact that one's faith cannot help but inform one's politics in yesterday's post, sadly this was left out of the Bournefree Magazine piece. I just wanted to respond to the criticism that the church is hypocritical in calling on the Prime Minister to hold Dominic Cummings to account because we ought to forgive.

In the Church of England's liturgy there is provision for the reconciliation of a penitent (confession to a priest) and at the beginning there are the following words:

The Lord our God is gracious and merciful; he does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they should turn from their sins and live. He has given power and commandment to his ministers, to declare and pronounce to his penitent people the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent and believe in his holy gospel. Let us therefore pray that he will grant you true repentance and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

For the church forgiveness can't be understood without penitent repentance. The sinner (of which we all are in one way or another) must understand what they have done wrong, feel sorrow for it, confess it to God (directly or to a priest) and repent (turn away from the sin and endeavour not to repeat it). Forgiveness without repentance is, as Bonhoeffer would say, 'cheap grace' or more accurately 'cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.' That is to say that forgiving sin without requiring repentance first, although technically possible, does nothing to help the penitent move on from their sin and draw closer to God. This is the place of forgiveness in the church, where forgiveness is tied up with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In terms of forgiveness in wider society it is true that forgiving someone for their actions, even if they are unrepentant can help an individual to move on from a traumatic event. Yet when somebody breaks the law or endangers other's lives through their actions then simply forgiving and moving on, as the Prime Minister would have us do, is not good for the upholding of law and order in our society. If we were to take the point of view that we should simply forgive and move on to it's extreme then no one would be tried for their offences- somehow I feel that those calling for blind forgiveness on this matter would be the first to cry out if a potential criminal was declared innocent before trial. The current position of Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson is not to admit any fault but to attempt to deflect the public's ire at the media. This is a dangerous place to be because a nation without a professional and free press, which is the dream of many a despot, is in danger of losing the ability to reflect on itself.

Actions have consequences and sometimes we must stand in front of others and admit our fault- this is where true forgiveness and healing begins. What the bishops, priests and deacons speaking out on behalf of the church are calling out for is not mindless punishment or immediate sacking but for a truly repentant heart that is sorrowful for endangering the general public. This will allow the public to regain trust in the government's message concerning coronavirus and the attempts of all of us to fight it.

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