The headline over at msnbc.com is striking, “Taylor Swift absolves Kanye West at VMAs.” In case you missed it, the Video Music Awards were on last night and everyone was holding their breath, waiting for the next round of West vs Swift—a fight that started during last year’s awards when Kanye West grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift and boorishly declared that the award she won should have gone to Beyonce.
Early reports on Sunday indicated that Swift had written a song, Innocent, addressing West’s bad behavior, and after everyone from Oprah to President Obama called West out, it seemed fitting that Taylor Swift would have the last final word. What was that last final word? Um…hard to say, and this is where the headline comes in.
Absolution is the Christian doctrine that God has authorized and empowered his ministers to declare the true forgiveness of sins for those who are penitent (or “sorry”) for their sins. In most Christian liturgies, the wording is something like: “In the name of Christ, I absolve you of your sins.” The minister, standing in the place of Christ and typically reading the words of Christ, looks upon the sinner and assures him that his sins are forgiven. It is a powerful, dramatic moment in the congregations that still retain the absolution. But of course, this is why it seems so odd for someone to think that Taylor Swift had “absolved” Kanye West of his sin against her. I’m not even thinking here of the fact that Swift has no standing to absolve someone—she can certainly forgive, but absolution belongs to those ministers who were entrusted with the keys of the kingdom, with the responsibility to retain or remit sins (Matthew 16:19). Instead, I’m thinking of the song she sang in which she addressed the conflict with West. Here are the relevant lyrics of the chorus as reported by the intrepid entertainment reporters at theboot.com:
It’s alright, just wait and see
Your string of lights are still bright to me
Oh, who you are is not where you’ve been
You’re still an innocent
The problem, of course, is that Taylor Swift provides neither personal forgiveness nor declarative absolution. Instead, it’s just a mushy, feel good message about innate goodness, time to become a better person, and the need to judge yourself in light of all the wrongs everyone else has committed! That, my friends, is a confusion of law and gospel, broadcast for all to see on MTV.
True forgiveness (either personal or divine) requires a cost to be born. When you forgive someone who has wronged you, you are taking the debt they owe you upon yourself, promising to carry that cost so they don’t have to. When God absolves you for your sins, it isn’t because he thinks you’re an innocent, or that your lights are still bright (side note: what terrible lyrics!). God absolves you of your sins because he has taken the debt of sin on himself in the person of Jesus.
This overwrought moment of reality TV could have been a powerful experience of forgiveness, living up (almost) to the headlines, if Taylor Swift had understood that forgiveness doesn’t mean making someone else feel better about what they did wrong. It means relieving them of a real debt, by a real sacrifice. If anything, Swift’s inability to truly forgive points us forward to a savior who won’t be upstaged by a meat-wearing Lady Gaga, one who bears in his body even today the cost of our real absolution. May you hear his words of forgiveness wherever you worship this coming Sunday! And if you don’t, get to a place where you will hear those life-changing, life-giving words.