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Angela Tilby: Social media challenge forgiveness  

11 November 2022

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ONE of the most liberating aspects of the Christian faith is belief in the forgiveness of sins. This is so important that it finds a place in the Apostles’ Creed, linked to belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Forgiveness is assurance that we are not locked into the consequences of our past errors, but freed by repentance and the grace of God.

More than 30 years ago, the pastoral theologian Wesley Carr, later Dean of Westminster, suggested in Ministry and the Media (SPCK, 1990) that the Christian idea of forgiveness is seriously challenged by contemporary media. Once an electronic image has “fixed” a person’s past, it is extremely difficult for that past to be overcome.

There is an excruciating extract from a French video of 1982 which illustrates how media lock us in time. It features the 12-year-old Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is being driven in a car and is talking about money. “I love money,” the precocious child admits, and then goes on to talk about his plans to become rich. The clip is frequently replayed on social media, confirming the view that Mr Rees-Mogg has always been wealth-obsessed and hypocritical — avarice being a serious sin in the Roman Catholic teaching to which he claims to adhere.

I have no idea what the adult Mr Rees-Mogg thinks about his 12-year-old self, as depicted in the documentary; nor is it possible to know how much his repeated appearance as a pre-teenage tycoon actually influenced the person that he became. He has, after all, realised his ambitions to become wealthy, and there is some truth in the saying that the child is father to the man.

But Carr’s point, holds, I think. Once you have seen the video extract, you can hardly help having a view of Mr Rees-Mogg’s character. Worryingly, it showed him as a caricature of the self that he would become. There was no depth or questioning that might have moderated the portrait. It is a truism that social media encourage us to stereotype ourselves. Individuals going for job interviews are often well-advised to delete any posts that might be used against them. The evidence of our sins, errors of judgement, and sheer idiocy is always waiting in the Cloud to trip us up.

I really don’t know how the Church can address this. But more emphasis on the forgiveness of sins might help. And an emphasis on forgiveness might enable us to see through the notion that we are simply self-defining entities, avatars in a cosmic computer game. Our fate is not written in the stars, nor even in the Cloud. We are, of course, capable of error, but also of conversion. The truth of personal being is in the givenness of grace, the choices we make, the path we follow.

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