It’s happened again. Another celebrity has been subjected to Internet mob justice. Comedian Kevin Hart was recently invited to host the 2019 Academy Awards. Predictably, masses of people began scrolling through records of everything Hart had ever said or written to find dirt on him, and it wasn’t long before they uncovered several “homophobic” jokes that he had made in the past. When this came to the Academy’s attention last week, Hart was issued an ultimatum: apologise or step away.

Hart opted not to apologise because, he said, “I’ve addressed this several times.” The homophobic accusations, he continued, had arisen before and he had admitted fault and apologised. “I’m not going to continue to go back and tap into the days of old, when I’ve moved on and I’m in a completely different space in my life.” Energy that had been directed to digging up the dirt, he went on, could equally have been devoted to digging up prior apologies he had made. To apologise again would be to feed and “reward” the “Internet trolls.” “I’m going to be me and stand my ground,” he concluded.

Unsurprisingly, the backlash from the “Internet trolls” was so severe that, just hours later, making public his decision to step down from hosting, he issued, via Twitter, the apology that he said he would not issue: “I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past. I’m sorry that I hurt people. I am evolving and want to continue to do so. My goal is to bring people together not tear us apart.”

The response to his apology was polarising, to say the least.

Some were of the opinion that Hart should be forgiven. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Susan Fowler cautioned that holding people accountable for past actions, for which they have publicly apologised, was setting a standard that no one could meet. Society cannot progress, she says, if we do not allow people the opportunity to grow. 

If I do something wrong, I want to have the chance to realize what I’ve done, change my view, correct the mistake and learn from it. I’m pretty sure that every one of you, if put in the hot seat, would want the same.

We must be careful about the world we are creating in the age of social media, especially since there’s no turning back.

Writing for the Washington Post, C. Nicole Mason took a very different approach. She thinks that Hart’s response to the furore “is a trick meant to cause us to question our moral compass and to empathize with him, the person being called to account.” It is little more than a ploy, she believes, “to whip up public support and empathy.” Recognising that the Internet mob have successfully cut short Hart’s dream of hosting the Oscars, and that he may well “be forever labelled a homophobe,” Mason asks, “What future opportunities might he lose because of this ‘witch hunt’?” She answers her own question quite bluntly: “Who cares?” Our “duty and moral obligation to protect and defend the most vulnerable among us” far outweighs the potential fallout from the Hart witch hunt. People like Kevin Hart “must be held accountable” for the things they say and write.

Mason writes biblically when addresses the need to “protect and defend the most vulnerable among us.” God clearly has a heart for society’s vulnerable. People should certainly be held accountable for treating anyone made in God’s image in a demeaning way. But my interest in this article lies in the suggestion that Hart, despite his public apologies, may “forever be labelled a homophobe,” and that, if he is, “who cares?”

Several of the articles I have read talk about old tweets and jokes having “resurfaced,” but let’s be honest: Nothing “resurfaced” that was not meticulously hunted down and dredged up. It is a hallmark of our social media age that dirt remains dirt and forgiveness is not an option. On the one hand, we see some biblical truth in this, for Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgement, people will give account for every careless work they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). There is great value in exercising the utmost caution with every throwaway thing we say, particularly in our digital age in which records are not easily erased.

At the same time, the Bible speaks clearly to the power of God’s forgiveness. When genuine repentance is expressed, God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). The Lord, who forgives transgression, “will tread our iniquities underfoot” and “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). He promises, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

Mason’s approach to the controversy is fascinating. On the one hand, she mirrors the heart of God in her pursuit of justice. She is concerned, as God is, about the vulnerable and the marginalised. She is committed to holding people accountable for every idle word they speak. God shares these commitments.

Where she falls short of God’s heart—and this is where Christians rejoice!—is in her unwillingness to forgive. There is no doubt that our sin—even our forgiven sin—carries consequences, and it may simply be one of the consequences of Hart’s idle words that he will not host the Oscars. But we serve a God who, even if we suffer the consequences of our sins, is willing to forgive our transgressions and remember them no more. According to the standards of worldly forgiveness, Kevin Hart may “be forever labelled a homophobe.” In an age of Internet mob justice, there is likely little that he can do about that. Christians can rejoice that the God of the Bible does not forever hold our sins against us, for the sins of all those whom he forgives were dealt with decisively at the cross.

Released! Signed in tears, sealed in blood, written on heavenly parchment, recorded in eternal archives. The black ink of the indictment is written all over with the red ink of the cross. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” (T. De Witt Talmage)