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An Open Letter to Justine Sacco on Grace

Can your life be defined by one moment? By one mistake? By one infamous decision? For Justine Sacco it probably feels like it can. Maybe you have heard her story, but in case you haven’t, let me tell it the best I can.

On December 20th, 2013 Justine sent out the following tweet before boarding a plane en route to Cape Town, South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Now what Justine tweeted was irresponsible and misguided. These are the obvious facts.

But what happened to Justine Sacco after that tweet revealed how much our society really loves to see people destroyed. Social media exploded with outrage over the tweet, and Justine’s life suddenly took a swift turn for the worse.

However, I want to focus on this situation from an explicitly Christian perspective. How should we, as Christians respond to Justine Sacco’s mistake? Is there grace for her? Would Justine have a place in your church?

Now I believe that most Christians would say that there is indeed grace for Justine Sacco. Grace is the centerpiece of the gospel—the central message of Jesus. However, are Christians simply using “grace-talk” or actually believing that grace is big enough to cover sins that have been deemed unforgivable?

Finding Grace and Freedom

According to a recent story on Sacco in The New York Times, she admitted to “crying out (what seemed to be) her body weight in the first 24 hours” after discovering that her tweet had been retweeted and shared thousands of times. Sacco inevitably was fired from her job, and spent a long time wallowing in the guilt, remorse, and shame that comes from making mistakes, sinning, and it being exposed to the world.

Now over a year has past since Justine Sacco made a grievous mistake that ruined her life. I do not know what Justine is up to now, and I’m sure she is fine with that. I’m sure she prefers not being in the limelight anymore. Nevertheless, I do wonder if Justine found grace and freedom. Has she experienced the liberation of having her past mistakes redeemed and forgiven? Has she felt the burden of shame and guilt lifted from her?

Many people will say the church is “a hospital for sinners.” This seems right in light of the way that Jesus lived his life. Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17). In other places, Jesus dined with outcasts and tax collectors (Matt. 9:10). He seemed to have no problem in keeping company with those who were considered to be marginalized and wrongdoers (Jn. 4).

So what does this communicate to current Christians in an age of internet shaming? In an age of public shaming, is it possible for Justine to start over? No doubt Justine was wrong, but what should the consequences be for her mistake? Exile? Excommunication? Expulsion?

The Mentality of Karma

It’s interesting to me that Christians regularly use grace-language, but live out a karma-like mentality. When situations like Justine Sacco’s are brought before our attention, we tend to immediately think, “She is getting what she deserves.” But what exactly does she deserve? Is it really punishment, exile, and condemnation? I don’t think so.

What’s alarming though is that Christians tend to display this same karma-like mentality online. The culture of shame has infected the way that Christians conduct themselves on the Internet (just take a look at Twitter or Facebook on any given day). To be honest, do we really believe that the gospel message is going to bear fruit in an atmosphere of humiliation and reproof?

Imagine if Jesus would have said to Matthew, “Clean up your behavior and then you can follow me” (Matt. 9:9). Or when Jesus encountered the woman at the well. What if he would have said, “You have been sleeping around a lot, so I’m not sure that this living water is for you” (Jn. 4). What about in the last moments of the thief on the cross’s life (Lk. 23:32-43)? This man would have been considered to be one of the worst of the worst. However, Jesus offered unconditional grace to this man, and did not withhold forgiveness from him.

What if this was what immediately was offered to Justine Sacco? Grace, forgiveness, and love. I know that everybody is not a Christian, and she still would have faced consequences at work and from the world, but why couldn’t the Christian church rally around her and say, “There is room at the table for you”?

Why couldn’t the overwhelming response to Justine’s situation be more centered on Jesus Christ’s undeserved grace instead of on her ill-advised tweet? We now live in a culture where one mistake, tweet, lie, or video can ruin your life. Is this really the message of the Christian gospel? Of course not. But if the Christian church isn’t careful, she will let the secular culture influence her more than the liberating message of Jesus.

This is why I hope Justine Sacco, wherever she is, is confronted by someone who has been grasped by the now-power of the gospel. I hope she is floored by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. That is my hope and prayer for her, and for many more like her (i.e., Peter Jennings, etc.).The good news really is that good, even though Christians might not present it in that light always.

So Justine Sacco:

I pray that you will be liberated by the good news of Jesus Christ. He died so that we would not be defined by one mistake. He died so that we could be made alive (Eph. 2). If you are still experiencing overwhelming guilt, shame, and distress, I hope that you will recognize that the Christian God is a God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:11-12). Our sin may run deep, but Gods grace runs deeper still. Realize that.

Your friend and fellow-sinner,

Matt Manry

Matt Manry is the Assistant Pastor at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. He also works on the editorial team for Credo Magazine and Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He blogs regularly at matthewwmanry.com.