Learning the Public Redemption Dance

            What does it take for a person who has failed largely to be forgiven—and even more, redeemed and restored back into their community?  To be even more specific, how does a diverse community forgive?

When a person experiences a failure of morals or ethics or nerve, the recovery is hard, often brutal in its emotional intensity and relational cost.  Redemption of relationships or reputation may take years.

            When the person who fails is a public figure from politics, sports or entertainment, every aspect of that recovery is magnified in the court of public opinion.  The redemption involves not only the people involved, but thousands of others who may not know the person or the details of the situation, but have nevertheless formed an opinion of their guilt, innocence, sincerity, or remorse.

            That precise scenario is being played out now in a number of high-profile headline-grabbing stories:

            + NFL quarterback Michael Vick was convicted of dog-fighting and horrible abuse of animals. He spent two years in prison (oddly more than another NFL player who killed a woman while driving drunk).  He lost his huge NFL contract, has paid massive fines and is now dealing with bankruptcy.  Yet, when he signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the howls from the animal rights advocates were loud.  Even after more public apologies at the introductory press conference and promises to serve Philadelphia-area humane societies so that he will “help more animals than I hurt”, the response has been that “ we have no responsibility to provide Mr. Vick an opportunity for atonement for his actions.”  Interesting language, that—and harsh, with no forgiveness in sight. How long until redemption?

            + University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has been in the news most of this year because of an attempted extortion plot by the ex-wife of a staff member. Turns out the extortion was the second chapter in a sordid story. Pitino got drunk one night and had sexual relations with the woman. She became pregnant and the Pitino paid for “health insurance” that was ultimately applied to an abortion. When the news of that went public, there was a media feeding frenzy.  There was another press conference where Pitino spoke publicly and apologized for his “indiscretion”—and mentioned twice that his team went to the Elite Eight last year. OK—until it turned out that the public apology wasn’t Pitino’s idea; it was demanded by his university president.  The suspicion of his moral fiber by the families of recruits and the vitriol of opposing crowds have yet to be seen.  How long until redemption?

+ Lt. William Calley is linked with one of the most horrific acts in US military history—the My Lai massacre.  In throes of the Vietnam War (fall, 1968), Calley led a group of soldiers on patrol who systematically slaughtered most residents of the village of My Lai. The hundred-plus bodies littered on the road were mostly women, children and the elderly. Only the intervention of a US helicopter unit who landed between Calley’s men and the villagers prevented even more death. Call it the madness of war or some sort of mass hysteria, it is a horror beyond description.  Calley was court-martialed and served time.  He has not spoken about it since—until last week.  In a speech at a Rotary Club in Columbus, GA, Calley said that he regrets that moment every day.  OK.  But one of the members of the helicopter crew  has been back to My Lai multiple times and developed relationships with the survivors of the massacre.  He said that the survivors always ask why Lt. Calley has not come to My Lai himself and asked forgiveness.  They asked, “Why wouldn’t he come and ask forgiveness, so we could give forgiveness?”  How long until redemption?

In each case, some attempt has been made to deal with the failure—to exact a sense of justice. In each case, an outside authority has demanded some “payment”: jail time and probation, public apology, court martial and discharge. If there is a justice system designed to punish the breaking of laws or even a university policy applied, is that enough to forgive and move towards redemption?

Obviously not.  The restoration of one’s public reputation and the redemption of a life is not explicitly tied to the fulfillment of a penalty phase. Public forgiveness is more, because it involves the (even distant and vicarious) relationship between the figure and persons in the public.

Here’s where things get tricky.  Forgiveness is an act of love.  It is most readily granted by those who have themselves experienced forgiveness.  Those who have not experienced forgiveness tend not to be forgiving, which signals the absence of love.  Jesus said it this way, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Lk. 7:47) The reverse is also true: he who loves little, forgives little.

A society full of people hungry for forgiveness will be less likely to cut public figures any slack. Especially public figures they perceive as being privileged.  A society full of people longing for grace will be less likely to be generous with second chances. Especially with public figures they already suspect get too much stuff for free.

So, where will our society learn forgiveness and grace—for public figures and everybody else? Where can we learn the steps of redemption’s dance?  Where is there any pure picture of redemption of a life and restoration after brokenness?  Where does any diverse community demonstrate this?

It’s Jesus’ people.  When our relationships in the family of faith (the single most diverse body left in our increasingly specialized society) get sideways, we can demonstrate the grace, forgiveness, redemption and restoration that people in our society desperately need to see.  It’s our calling: “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:35); “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13).

We can model grace, forgiveness, etc…We can dance redemption to a grace tune.   But here’s the struggle and challenge: do we?  A society that does not show forgiveness and grace may in fact be ignorant of forgiveness and grace. They don’t know how to do that.  And since the sharing of forgiveness and grace is at the heart of the gospel Jesus’ people are to live and proclaim….Well, you can fill in the obvious. A more kind, gentle and less vindictive society may simply need a redemptive model to follow. Or somebody to take them by the hand and teach them the steps of that dance.

If you’re not a Christ-follower, can I apologize for those of us who are?  We have too often not loved well, even in our churches, so we haven’t shown you the astonishing wonder of Jesus-driven grace and the power of forgiveness to restore and redeem lives.  We have withheld from you and our communities a transforming force. 

If you are a Christ-follower, will you join me in a prayer that our Father would help us live out the most basic values of our gospel – in our families, our relationships and our churches?  That we would lean into Jesus’ dance of deep love, offering forgiveness and risking radical grace with each other—when everything in us wants to run the other way.

If we’ll become a redemptive community, it will be good for us.  It will be good for families and churches, who will dance again—and giggle for the joy of it.  It will be good for high-profile people like Vick, Pitino and Calley—and for the most of us who live in the shadows.  And ultimately, it will be good for our society, which can learn grace and dance redemption, too.

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