Redemption In An Age Of Unjust Outrage—Should People Be Given Second Chances?

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was very well received and perhaps some of the reason for that being his call for redemption. Two of the special guests had been incarcerated during the Clinton administration (when things like “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes,” often disproportionately impacting minorities, became Federal law) and have been recently given their freedom.

The first mentioned was Alice Johnson who had been convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization (apparently not the CIA), sentenced to life in prison, and having their sentence commuted by the Trump administration:

Inspired by stories like Alice’s, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption.

The second guest mentioned, in relation to this redemption theme, was a man named Matthew Charles. Charles, with a face that beamed with gratitude, had been sentenced to 35 years in 1996 for selling crack cocaine in 1996 and became the first prisoner released under the “First Step Act” signed into law recently by Trump.

Like the President or not, this kind of criminal justice reform—after decades of excessive punishments—is something worthy of our praise. It is a first step back towards what once made America great and that being the opportunity to move on from our past failures, both individual or collective, and pursue a better tomorrow together.

Grievance Culture Never Forgives

Unfortunately, while legislative reforms are important, the President can’t undo a cultural progression away from Christian ideas of redemption and towards that of eternal grievance. Those sentenced by an outrage mob in the “court of public opinion” cannot face their accusers, they are denied any form of due process and are rarely, if ever, pardoned.

Media fueled public shaming campaigns, often at the behest of social justice warriors or their sympathizers, have destroyed careers mid-flight over a bad joke on Twitter—who can forget Justine Sacco’s sardonic quip about Africa, AIDS and race? One moment she was an anonymous leftist speaking cryptically about her white privilege to a small circle of friends and the next she is an international pariah for an allegedly racist remark.

Then there is Austen Heinz, the socially awkward genetic researcher and entrepreneur, who was driven to suicide by a bullying campaign led by Huffington Post, Daily Mail, BuzzFeed and other clickbait media sources.

His crime? He mentioned, off-the-cuff, some potential to change feminine scents, which was characterized as being “misogynistic” and “sexist” in one sensational story after another. Who knows what amazing breakthroughs someone as brilliant as Heinz could’ve produced in his lifetime had it not been cut tragically short by those who profit by pushing identity politics and division?

That’s not to say that there is no pushback against this sort of abuse. The wrongly accused boys from Covington Catholic High School are being represented in defamation lawsuits after suffering harassment and threats as a result of a media campaign, involving celebrities and other public figures, to shame them. One of the vicious commentators, Kathy Griffen, who called for their identities to be revealed and falsely accused them of using Nazis signs.

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Of course who can forget the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or ignore the current uproar in Virginia over a photo in Democrat Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface with a Klansman?

And that’s not to mention the two sexual assault allegations that surfaced since then against Virginia’s Lt Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a Duke basketball player. Reportedly Fairfax used his knowledge of a young woman’s prior rape allegation being quashed by university officials as a means to victimize her again since he believed she would be unlikely to report as a result of her prior experience.

In all of these cases the evidence and allegations are different. They all should be addressed on their individual merits and in the correct venues. But all are also in the realm of politics and from many years ago, which really does significantly complicate matters. Who or what many believe seems to become more of a matter of whose ideological team you are on or the potential political fallout more than the actual veracity of the claims being made.

Political campaigns have long relied on digging up comments, years old, served up out of context, is simply how the game has been played. That said, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the more serious allegations, it is one thing to accuse someone of being a racist, sexist, or liar (largely subjective judgements) and quite another to be accuse them of rape. The latter accusation is either objective reality or it is not, potentially criminal behavior, and definitely reflective of a serious character flaw if true.

Still, with the lessor offenses or with unsubstantiated allegations, at what point do we forgive “human frailty” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it), remember that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 2:10), “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:2), and move on? Should we ever treat human failure (real or alleged) like a permanent stain, a reason to always be suspicious of a person, or an irredeemable blemish? I would say no, based on the references provided above, but then…

Maybe Forgiveness Is Only For Some…?

One of the problems with how forgiveness is often used is that is used as a license for our friends and political/religious/tribal peers while simultaneously denying the same privilege to others. This is why a perceived smirk can become a national outrage while actual violence in malls is dismissed as “teenage boredom” and largely ignored.

I’ve long been against collective punishment for individual sins. I’m part of that generation who had Martin Luther King’s “content of character” rather than “color of skin” speech drilled into them and have always made a sincere effort to put that axiom urging judgment based on individual merit to practice. But I’ve found that this steadfast conclusion makes me a relic in the time of intersectionality, group shaming, unforgivable guilt for some and permanent victim status for others.

Perhaps this current generation is a correction to the overly optimistic outlook of my own?

Stereotypes are not entirely baseless, statistics do bear out differences in attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of groups, which could be proof of systemic oppression or simply our own cultural and biological inheritance. There is a reason why many professional athletes are typically of one demographic and chess players are of another, it has to do with discrimination and yet is discrimination based on ability despite coinciding with differences in race or gender. So it is conceivable, as well, that some groups are more likely to become school shooters and for others to me more generally violent as well.

There is a time for generalization…

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:10‭-‬14 NIV)

There may indeed be tendencies of groups that should be called out. That said, I doubt very much that St Paul, in the passage above, is making a case for unforgivingness or collective punishment. No, I’m quite certain that he, as one who once persecuted and killed Christians before his dramatic conversion, understood very much the need for redemption or he himself would forever be condemned. Had he been held to the same standard of today he would likely be completely disqualified from leadership and certainly never embraced as a brother by those whom he harmed.

Forgiveness Is For Those Who Repent.

One of those other problematic teachings that I’ve frequently encountered (particularly in my Mennonite religious culture) is this idea that forgiveness should be bestowed upon all people regardless of what they do or how often. This is based in a misapplication of Christian examples in a way that too often provides shelter for repeat sexual abusers and others who have learned how to game the system.

This idea that forgiveness removes any sort of accountability for sin is dead wrong. Sure, Zaccheaus needed to be forgiven for his taking advantage of people as a tax collector, but he also needed to repent of his sin and repentance required taking responsibility (financial or otherwise) for the wrong he had done.

In other words, had Zaccheaus been a child-molester simply admitting the sin or even an “I’m so sorry” speech is not enough, he would need to also face the civil penalties for his actions and also the social consequences as well.

The plea of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not permission for those in the crowd chanting “crucify him” to go on murdering innocent people or an escape from need for repentance. Those in that outraged mob who called for his death would eventually need to repent and face the consequences of their sins like everyone else.

Forgiveness does not absolve a person from need to repent. Yes, there are times when we need to forgive those who have offended us without them repenting, we should always give a second chance (even 70 x 7 chances) to those who do truly repent (ie: have confessed and also paid the penalties for their sin), but this idea that forgiveness means complete freedom from consequences or removes the need to repent fully is not at all Christian—repentance is a requirement.

So, yes, we must forgive as we want to be forgiven and we should also not hold a grudge against those who have wronged us, but there is no indication that those who do not repent will be forgiven by God and we owe it to them to tell them the truth. Furthermore, according to 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, we should not even associate with a person who calls themselves a Christian and continues to live in unrepentant sin.

So, returning to the question initially asked…

Should People Be Given Second Chances?

The answer is both yes and no.

Forgiveness is something conditional. Jesus called for repentance, saying “go and sin no more” to a woman whom he forgave, and using a parable of a man forgiven a great debt who did not forgive to illustrate the point that forgiveness can be revoked for the unrepentant.

Second chances are for those who acknowledge their error (and repent) or can’t be found guilty of wrongdoing after the matter has been addressed in the appropriate manner.

There should also be allowance for growth—people do mature and change. There should also be some tolerance given to all people, because nobody is perfect, we all have our flaws, and would probably look pretty bad if our lives were put under the microscope of the outrage mobs. However, this tolerance and allowance should not only be for those who are on our team.

For example, we cannot say that blackface is the unpardonable sin of racism in one case and then play it off as a “coming of age ritual” (it certainly wasn’t for me) because our own guy got caught. We can’t treat a boy’s expression as a “facecrime” (thank you, George Orwell) worthy of national contempt while totally ignoring the grown men yelling homophobic and bigoted things (or worse, describe their hateful and intentionally provocative slurs as “preaching about the Bible and oppression” (*ahem* CNN) while simultaneously heaping condemnation on a boy for wearing a MAGA hat and an awkward smile.

That said, I would expect more from a fellow Christian, raised in a good home and under good instruction, than I would from some random dude on the street. Jesus did say that more will be expected from those who are given more (Luke 12:48) and that may mean we hold some to a higher standard. And yet we should also be aware that our own judgment is clouded by prejudice, that we don’t see everything a person is going through or the disadvantages they’ve faced in their lives, and therefore should err on the side of forbearance in all cases.

So there is no simple answers.

I do believe that our culture, due to social media, click-bait stories and a progressive decline in moral values, has veered dangerously away from forgiveness and redemption. We should definitely think twice before joining an outrage mob, we also need to do whatever it takes to keep partisan politics and tribal identities from perverting our judgment, and we should always give as many second chances to others as we would want for ourselves.

No matter your politics, you very well could be the next less-than-perfect person turned into an unforgivable villain by the mob, so keep that in mind next time you see a sensational headline, read a poorly concieved Tweet or watch a video clip without context.

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Bullies Bullies Everywhere

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Bullying is a serious problem.  There has been a popular campaign against bullying.  There are “no bully zone” signs around declaring intolerance for bullying or those who do.  It is probably safe to say that nobody likes to be bullied.

What is bullying?

To bully, according to Google, is to “use superior strength or influence to intimate (someone), usually to force him or her to do what one wants.”

The definition seems simple enough.  One might picture that overgrown brute who stole their lunch money in elementary school or the popular clique that picking on less fashionable peers in middle school.

However, I have seen the word applied to almost anyone who expresses an unwanted opinion. For example, the woman who expressed concerns about a sign (a topic of a blog I recently posted) and was accused of bullying and intimidation for it.  I have also heard a host on The View describe a subway preacher who offended Lea Selaria as a bully and laud her as a hero.

But is it really bullying to express an unpopular opinion? 

It seems to me it is more bullying to shout a person down or to encourage others to gang up on a person for sharing their opinion.  Sure, maybe someone does offend us.  True, we may want to enjoy bacon without guilt and do not enjoy being called a sinner.  Yet, does our being offended make it right to bully them into silence?

The label “bully” seems to be used to bully people who share unpopular opinions.  Those labeled as bullies seem to be fair game to be shamed, humiliated and ostracized by the group.  It would seem bullying is only wrong when enough people disagree with an opinion or behavior, but not when they do the same and worse to the accused bully.

Obviously, I do believe freedom of speech goes both ways and with that we are free to offend those who offend us.  Still, if we are truly against bullying, isn’t it a little hypocritical to bully those we label as bullies?

Group shaming of individuals is bullying and wrong.

Remember Justine Sacco who became  an international pariah as she was on a flight home?  Is it okay that a woman is subject to global scorn, threatened with violence, fired from her job and her life turned upside down for a sarcastic tweet about white privilege?  Is our being offended an excuse to attack and destroy another person? 

I don’t think so. 

I do not believe anything is solved by our answering every offense blow for blow.  I believe the best way to overcome bullying is with love.  It might take time to see results.  But if something is wrong for someone else to do then do not make excuses for doing it for yourself…

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21 NIV)

There is time for confrontation.  I would not hesitate to stand beside a person being attacked, belittled and intimidated.  But don’t expect me to join a mob against one person.  Mob demands rarely help the cause of justice.

I read it on the internet, so it must be true…

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There was a story circulating a few years ago claiming that a mountain lion was hit by a truck in Pennsylvania and urging people to spread the news.  The claim was accompanied by a picture of a man with a big dead cat and also included mention of Game Commission denial.

This story was red meat for those of my friends who were already suspicious of the state officials (who maintained there was lack of credible evidence that mountain lions roamed the state forests) and was confirming proof to them.  The story included a photographic evidence, did it not?  How could it not be credible and proof of a cover-up, right?

As it turns out the same photo has been used in many stories to make different claims.  It is a real photo.  However, according to more credible sources, the photo was taken in Arizona and not in Pennsylvania or the many other places where internet stories claimed the animal was hit.  The story that the mountain lion was hit in Pennsylvania is apparently a lie.

So, why would a person be so suspicious and skeptical of one source (like the PA Game Commission) and yet be so gullible as to fall for an internet hoax from a random source?  Why trust a complete stranger who we have no way of knowing if the information they give is trustworthy or true while disbelieving sources that are at least somewhat accountable and knowable?

It comes back to confirmation bias or the idea that people will be more accepting of evidence that confirms their existing beliefs or biases.  Those who accepted the story as true already believed the truth was being hidden by the government and thus didn’t feel need to check the credibility of the claim.  They pick up and run with whatever tickled their existing partisan fancy.

I understand confirmation bias.  But it is difficult for me to understand why people are so easily duped by internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories from spurious sources.  It is especially difficult for me to understand how people can be so cynical of mainstream sources and then simultaneously accepting of a story posted by some random person on the internet.  It should be opposite, we should be more skeptical of a little known source and less mistrusting of those more known.

Time and time again I see stories posted by friends on social media, I do my due diligence to research the claim and oftentimes find it is a myth or hoax.  In an age of Photoshop pictures can be easily doctored.  Credentials can be fabricated to make an appeal to authority and I am instantly skeptical when someone uses that type of appeal rather than concrete evidence and sound logic.

Good cases aren’t bolstered by bad arguments.  True stories do not need fake photos or deceptive use of facts.  By using (or linking) unreliable information as proof of an idea a person is actually hurting their chances of convincing intelligent people who disagree and are potentially making a mockery of themselves.

Lies and fraudulent claims used to promote a moral argument are especially inexcusable.  I can understand why corrupt politicians and calculated propagandists distort evidence trying to gain power from the ignorance of their constituency.  I can also understand why immoral people fabricate stories and try to deceive for entertainment or whatever reason.  But what I cannot accept is false information used by those who are claiming the moral high ground.  It is hypothetical at worse and dangerous ignorance as best.

“These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”  (1 Timothy 6:2b-5)

A moral person should take responsibility for the stories they spread.  An untrue claim can do real harm.  Gossip, slander and evil surmises may help line the pockets of those trying to exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain.  But these things do do not help the cause of truth.  As people of faith and love we have no excuse to be casual with our sources.  Agreement in principle is not a reason to trust a source or be negligent of due diligence.

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”  (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

Contrary to what some may think, being a person of faith does not automatically lead to better discernment.  We must actual train ourselves to be godly and discerning.  What this means practically is not just accepting internet stories as fact even if we like what they are saying.  We have a moral responsibility to be critical thinkers who can see past our own potential prejudices, misconceptions or biases.  It requires first being humble enough to admit what we want to think is true isn’t always true.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

If you do not know if a story is true or not, rather than risk promulgation of half-truth or lies, do not share it.  There is plenty that is good or honorable that we can share without risking the credibility of ourselves or hurting that which we claim to love in the process.