Rightful Moral Outrage or Moral Smugness?

I am working my way through a book titled Exclusion and Embrace by Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf. It is an incredibly rich and dense book written by a Croatian Christian who has had to wrestle with forgiveness of people guilty of numerous war crimes and acts of genocide against his people, following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. There is a line in the book that I keep coming back to, “Rightful moral outrage has mutated into self-deceiving moral smugness”.

It causes me to immediately think of the moral outrage in the meta-verse of social media following the Will Smith slapping of Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. It is just one example of how the world so quickly becomes morally smug. The accusing, crooked finger pointing that was directed at Will Smith is typical of what happens every day. Someone does something morally repugnant and individually and collectively the fingers point, the tongues wag, and the heads shake in disgust. Yes, what was done is morally unjustifiable and needs to be identified as such. But is that really our motivation? Are we really so concerned with establishing a morally just society in those moments? Or are we more concerned with making sure none of the finger pointing, tongue wagging, and head shaking expressions of disgust are aimed in our direction? I am convinced that our moral outrage turned smugness is a result of trying to hide our own guilt and deflect attention from us. It is a society wide form of gaslighting.

Why do we do it? Why do we point to others in such times of failure? It is because we have forgotten what grace is. We have forgotten that we are all sinners in need of grace. In our efforts to say that all morality is relative and nobody can tell us what is right and wrong, we all still carry the deep seated sense that we are guilty. The rise of shame in our culture is epidemic. Saying there is no objective morality has not helped remove that shame. In fact it has made it worse because we have no way of dealing with our guilt even if we are only violating our own personal morality. So we resort to pointing the finger at others in hopes that no one will notice our sin while we try to live in denial of it ourselves.

Enter, the Cross, and Good Friday. Jesus went to the Cross to provide the cure for our guilt and shame. He died to pay the price, take the hit, settle our cosmic account. He died to make us free from guilt and shame. But there is a catch. In order to be free from it, you need to first own it. You need to admit you have it and that you are totally incapable of fixing it. Only by accepting the gift of grace and forgiveness can you be free of guilt and shame. When that happens, it is no longer necessary to point morally smug fingers at others. You can point out moral wrongs, but you do so, not to make yourself feel better, but to lead someone to the Cross and grace and forgiveness.

It is impossible to stand at the foot of the Cross and think, “I am glad he didn’t need to hang there for me”. He did hang there for you and for me, and for those people that we think are so far gone that we must cancel them. They are no more gone than you or I. When you experience the grace of God available through the Cross, and you really own your sin that made the Cross necessary, it becomes very difficult to withhold grace from someone else. In fact, without the Cross, without experiencing the grace of God, it is nigh unto impossible to give grace to someone else. You cannot give what do not have.

When I find myself being morally smug, it is time to go back and kneel at the foot of the Cross and weep over my immorality, so that I can rise up and stand in God’s presence, and rejoice in my forgiveness. Then I am equipped and empowered to give grace to others as it has been given to me.