The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“Spinning Sorrow: The Uses and Abuses of Forgiveness in the Public Sphere”
South Beach, Florida
Speaker: Dr. L. Gregory Jones, Professor of Theology at Duke University Divinity School and Strategic Director of the Laity Lodge Leadership Initiative
Moderator: Michael Cromartie, Vice-President, Ethics and Public Policy Center
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 23rd Faith Angle Forum. We’ve been doing this since 1999 and this is actually number 23. We hope you all will come for the 25th anniversary in a year or so from now.
Now, Dr. Jones — you have his bio in your packet, so I am not one of those who reads the bio back to you. I think you have already read it, but Eerdmans Publishing was kind enough to give us a copy of his famous book on forgiveness, so you have a copy there called Embodying Forgiveness. And when I wrote Dr. Jones, who is Professor of Theology at Duke University Divinity School, where he did his PhD in Theology, I told him about the fact that we would not talk only about forgiveness, but talk about it in a political context.
The invitation came at a time when Mark Sanford was running for Congress, several men in New York were running for mayor, several presidential candidates had made some mistakes in their past and were oftentimes using theological categories to advance forward, and so I thought, what better person than Dr. Gregory Jones, who has written two books on forgiveness and reconciliation, to address this.
I gave him a generic title and he came back with this wonderful title, “Spinning Sorrow: The Use and Abuse of Forgiveness in the Public Sphere,” and there is not anyone better in the country to address this question than Dr. Gregory Jones of Duke University. Dr. Jones, welcome.
DR. L. GREGORY JONES: Thank you, Michael. It’s great to be with you. I loved being here in March as an observer and am glad to be with you today.
This is a huge topic to take up. When I teach courses on it or when I speak on it I note that — when I first wrote Embodying Forgiveness I thought I was just getting one book out of my system, and realized it’s a topic that actually cuts into all kinds of issues — personal, political, cultural, social, religious — and so I am going to be barely skating the surface in the comments that I’m going to offer today.
And I’m happy to entertain questions. If you happened to scan Embodying Forgiveness at all, you’ll notice a number of footnotes at which I punt on big issues and say that would take another book which somebody else, hopefully, will write.
But it’s an important issue because it touches on some of our most intimate, personal relations, as well as some of the largest public issues.
I want to begin by just describing a cartoon from one of our — the last generation’s great thinkers and theologians, Charles Shultz. He frequently had insightful things to say and one of his recurring strips was when Lucy and Charlie Brown were playing baseball. They may be the only team more hapless than my beloved Chicago Cubs, and that may be because Lucy was the star outfielder and Charlie Brown was the manager.
In one particular strip — I’m embellishing the actual strip a little bit in the story — but Charlie Brown pitches the ball, it’s hit out to center field, and Lucy is in perfect position to catch the ball, and then it hits her on the head, falls to the ground, and the batter gets a homerun.
Lucy brings the brings the ball back up to Charlie Brown, and she says, “I’m sorry, manager, I really wanted to catch it this time, but as the ball came down I started thinking about all those other times.” As she hands him the ball, she says, “I guess you could say the past got in my eyes.”
“The past got in my eyes.” That seems to me to be one of the ways of talking about why forgiveness is such a haunting issue. Even when we become interested in change — as I’m going to talk about forgiveness being inextricably linked to a commitment to change the behavior that would lead to a different way of life, and hopefully not repeating the event — the past gets in our eyes.
It haunts us whether we’re the perpetrator, whether we’re the victim, or some complicated set of dynamics thereby. You see this in all kinds of political contexts.
In the former Yugoslavia you had people who had been living next door to each other, who had been marrying their children off to one another, who all of a sudden, in the midst of conflict, erupted into violence, where people started saying, “Your people killed my people five hundred years ago or so.”
Similar kinds of things between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. It is part of the animating challenges of the Middle East conflict. It’s the sense of a long history that can be mobilized for vengeance often at the drop of a hat.
And yet, in American culture, we have this phenomenon where forgiveness is often used as a way to excuse the past and to spin sorrow, largely as a PR way of managing a crisis, which has very little to do with any kind of changed behavior, or ultimately any accountability for the past. So I’m going to talk a little bit in a moment about what forgiveness is and how it’s connected to redeeming the past.
But this phenomenon of spinning sorrow is so prevalent and recurring that it has become its own trope in American culture.
I coined the phrase “Spinning Sorrow” during an interview after Pete Rose had come out and finally confessed, largely because he was wanting to get into the Hall of Fame and the number of eligible years of voting in the regular process were about to disappear and he was not going to get in, and so he came clean. But he made it clear that he didn’t really think that there was any problem that he needed to correct or any behavior that needed to change. He just said, “Well, yeah, but it wasn’t really any big deal.”
It was all staged and planned by his PR consultants to manage public perception, and as Michael was referring to in the political sphere, it seems like we have it almost monthly that somebody spins sorrow in a carefully managed way.
We have it also in religious traditions. You remember Jimmy Swaggart and others who have very well-staged and sometimes dramatic apologies that seem disconnected from any particular practice of forgiveness and repentance.
I think one of the problems we have in the public sphere has to do with the fact that a lot of the characters who spin their sorrow are actually narcissists, and the problem is that narcissism makes forgiveness and repentance exceedingly difficult because the person lacks the capacity for empathy.
In order to actually apologize in a meaningful way, to repent, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, you have to have a capacity to understand things from the other’s perspective. And so when you have a narcissist for whom the world revolves around “me,” as is often the case — and so, you know, when you think they’re going to engage somebody else, they say, “What did you think of my latest book?” Then we have a problem with even the capacity for the individual to understand what repentance and forgiveness might look like.
But there’s a broader issue, I think, that afflicts American culture and probably Western European culture as well, particularly in the British context, and that is an image that comes from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who in a book that was published in 2002, called Lost Icons, he makes an argument that in Western culture we’ve lost some background languages that actually are really important to the well-being of any society or culture.
This was a book without any explicit religious argument; it’s really about just what he calls the background languages that are important to sustaining culture. The first one he talks about is childhood, an interesting phenomenon on how we’ve politicized childhood and not given the kind of space away from the spotlight for children to experiment. The last one he talks about is the loss of the language of soul and how it impoverishes our culture to lose that.
But the third one that he talks about — the second one is about charity and the kind of carnival gatherings designed to relativize inequality and distinction through public celebrations.
The third one he talks about is remorse, and he argues that we’ve actually lost the language of remorse as a serious practice in our culture, at all levels.
So, you know, to talk about Mark Sanford or the candidates in New York City — or in the religious sphere — or Lance Armstrong — all the kinds of big celebrity environments. You have it also occurring at the local level in communities where politicians and fairly public figures also engage in the same kind of spinning of sorrow that lacks that genuine sense of remorse and that genuine sense of accountability, but also not really an authentic offering of forgiveness on the side of the victims who will say, “I forgive you,” while nonetheless arming again for the next battle — that we’ve lost that sense of what are the practices that are necessary to be sustained in local communities.
I think this is actually what undermined South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was notable in the 90’s for being the first time when a Truth Commission actually explicitly had reconciliation as a part of its aim. And so it was focused explicitly on the goal of reconciliation, which included amnesty for people who confessed, and there were some very moving and dramatic confessions that were offered in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But in talking with both commissioners and people in local communities, what really seemed to undermine it was that in the original planning stages of those who envisioned it, it was to be a national commission that was then replicated in local communities throughout the country because what was needed was ways of acknowledging the brokenness and the difficulty in local congregations, in town halls, in communities all across the country.
And what happened instead were a few very celebrated national examples with the commission at the national level with Desmond Tutu as the head — and it failed ever to get into the lifeblood of the local communities. And so what you had in the local context was this seething sense that — and the past getting in their eyes without any vehicles, without any real rituals and practices to engage in — something that I think people in Rwanda learned from, but it’s still been imperfect because it’s very hard to plan and coordinate something at that many levels down.
But ultimately we’re talking about — when we’re talking about forgiveness — is something that has to be contextualized often outside the public spotlight in the ongoing hard work of conversation, repentance, forgiveness, that is engaged between and among diverse peoples.
Well, what would it look like then if we were to say forgiveness was to be not so much used and abused for self-interested purposes and political purposes, but what would an authentic practice of forgiveness look like? I think actually that, as Williams suggests about remorse, there is a secular way to articulate what religious traditions understand forgiveness to be.
Religious traditions — and there’s more overlap between particularly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, I think, than divergence — but I think those religious traditions articulate and name it in a more fulsome way that are necessary to sustain the account more broadly, but I’m not one who believes that you have to believe in God or it requires convictions of a particular sort in order for forgiveness and reconciliation to work.
At its deepest — and this is part of what I mean when I’m talking about what has to happen in local communities — forgiveness has to be understood as a way of life. It’s not something you put in your hip pocket and pull out when you want to. In the New Testament, Peter asks, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother or sister? As many as seven times?”
You think that Peter is expecting to be patted on the head like a teacher’s pet because — I don’t know about you, but I’m good for maybe one, occasionally two, but you mess me over twice and I’m ready to end the relationship, if not bring bodily harm to you.
So Peter says as many as seven times, and he’s ready to be patted on the head. And Jesus says, “No,” — depending on how you translate the Greek — either 70 times seven, or 77 — the actual number isn’t the issue. What Jesus is saying there is you have to be prepared to do it always. It’s a way of life. It’s not something that you can count.
Back in the old days there was this movie, Billy Jack. I don’t know if you remember that movie from the early ’70’s, but Mad Magazine had a thing — because Billy Jack was supposedly in this Native American reservation that was all about peace — and Mad Magazine had a thing where Bill Jack said, “I don’t ever use violence. I count to a thousand instead,” and then about two thirds of the way he’s going, “998, 999,” and then he hauls off and wails on everybody.
There’s sometimes you think that, okay, if it’s 77 times, I’m going to keep notches on my wall and when I get to 77, then I can wail away. That’s what he’s talking about. It’s about a way of life, and that way of life means that you’ve got to shape not just what you think or what you do or how you feel, but all of them bound up together.
So a commitment to forgiveness is a commitment to a way of life that involves tutoring your thinking, your feeling, and your living in their interrelations. So it’s not something you can just — that’s the problem with the way we do it in politics: We think it’s something you have in your hip pocket, that your PR has a way to manage, when it’s really something that requires habits and practices that have to be cultivated offstage. It’s a lot like trying to come up to bat in the 7th game of the World Series and you haven’t been taking any batting practice beforehand. It just doesn’t work coming out cold.
So it requires tutoring of the ways you think, the ways you feel, and the ways you live, which is why it has to be learned in local contexts in families, in communities, in churches and synagogues and mosques; that it’s a way of living where you learn that the aim is toward the restoration of relationship.
Now, what I would say is that that way of life is rooted in a sense that I think — in a way that would be shared by the monotheistic traditions, the Abrahamic religions — is that forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves toward reconciliation in the wake of sin, evil, and brokenness. So that forgiveness is the means; it’s the face which love takes in the wake of brokenness and sin and evil, and so, what you’re learning to do is to tutor your thinking, your feeling, and your actions.
Now sometimes — and it depends on the temperament — I know people for whom words come easy but the emotions and the actions lag way behind. I know other people for whom the words don’t come at all, but the emotions lead and the actions lag behind. And then there are people for whom the actions may be easy, but the emotions and the words don’t come. And the trouble is, if you focus only on one of those things, the other two can undermine even your actions or your feelings or your thoughts.
So, you know, when my kids — I have two boys and a girl — the boys are close enough in age that I can tell you Cain and Abel is an empirically verifiable story — and there would be times when my younger son, when they were little kids, one day would just haul off and whack his brother on the side of the head for no apparent reason. And I’d say, “Ben, you need to apologize to your brother.” And he’d have the words right there. He’d say, “I’m sorry,” but his fists were clenched and you could tell he was about ready to haul off and cold-cock his brother again. The words were there, but the emotions were going to undermine any capacity for that relationship.
Sometimes the emotions may lead. Susan, my wife, when she was a pastor in Baltimore, had a retired Marine colonel who was estranged from his daughter. If he said two words to you when he greeted you it was an incredibly intimate moment, and he didn’t know how to say anything to her, but his heart really wanted to reestablish a relationship, and he didn’t know how to do it because he didn’t have the language. So the emotions were there, but the words were lacking.
Sometimes it’s actions that may lead. This is part of the significance of religious rituals. In the Jewish tradition, getting ready for Yom Kippur, you’re obligated to go three times to those from whom you’re estranged. In the Christian tradition, it’s the passing of the peace during worship, or getting ready to come to the Eucharist, the sacrament in the Catholic tradition of reconciliation, penance, whatever you want to describe it.
But it’s about weaving together thoughts, emotions, and actions, which means it’s going to take rehearsal and practice in a local context that equips you then to be able to act gracefully in a political or public context because then it’s a natural behavior.
Just to show you how broad-minded I am I’ll use Michael Jordan as the example, a UNC grad. When we see Michael Jordan play basketball, what would we say? Look how graceful he is. Why? Because he had all the practices and the habits that had gone on in rehearsal, in practice, that enabled it to look natural in the public sphere.
What I think you see, for example, when John Paul II went to the prison after the attempted assassination of him. It seemed natural.
The same thing with the current Pope Francis. You see an embodiment of a way of life that’s been nurtured in habits and practices, in quieter settings, that now can be drawn on.
That’s dramatically different than an Eliot Spitzer, or a Mark Sanford, or a Pete Rose, or a Lance Armstrong, all of a sudden trying to do 180° and manage a new kind of perception from a narcissistic kind of perspective. So it’s a way of life.
A couple of other key things: It’s hard work. It’s challenging. A Welsh poet put it this way: “Forgiveness involves walking through thorns to stand by your enemy’s side.” You’re going to get hurt. Not just emotionally. It’s going to have a cost, and so it’s challenging.
One of my favorite sermons from Saint Augustine, when he’s preaching just to his ordinary folks in Egypt — he has this wonderful passage where he says to the parishioners, “Friends, you see that Jesus says you’re supposed to pray for your enemies, and so I noticed that you do. You pray they’ll die.” He says, “I don’t think that is what Jesus meant.”
It’s hard work, and we don’t really want to be involved in that work of either apologizing or offering forgiveness.
It’s not only hard work and challenging, it’s timeful. The process takes time. C.S. Lewis, in one of his letters to Malcolm, “chiefly on prayer,” says this: “Last night while at prayer, I finally discovered that I had forgiven someone after 30 years of praying and trying that I might.” Thirty years. Ronald Reagan was President in his first term 30 years ago. You just think about that, and then you think, okay — and C.S. Lewis actually had habits and practices that, I don’t know about you, but I would say were far more virtuous than my typical habits and practices, and yet he said it took 30 years of praying and trying that he might.
So it’s a timeful process and the ways we sometimes short-circuit — I’ll come back to the Amish community at Nickel Mines. Susan and I had the privilege of spending an evening with them before I spoke at the 5th anniversary of the school shooting. And one of the things that was striking was the guilt that some of the Amish parents had, that the world thought that forgiveness comes easily and quickly because that’s how it was presented to the world during that week.
And they actually talked about having gone down to Virginia Tech to be with people in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, and a father at Virginia Tech said, “I don’t think it will be as easy for me as it was for you.” And that’s when he said, “Oh, my goodness. What kind of message is out there?” Because one of the couples told us that it took them 22 months before they laughed. Twenty-two months to laugh. And when they finally laughed — we actually had an interesting experience of them sharing with us inner Amish humor, which was quite enjoyable — but 22 months to laugh gives you a sense of the timefulness that is involved in this work.
And yet forgiveness is also necessary. You probably know Annie Dillard’s wonderful line that “refusing to forgive is like taking a poison pill yourself and waiting for the other person to die.” That it is often the case that when we are wounded and we harbor bitterness and vengeance, we nonetheless let our own souls get eaten away. There’s a poignant —
MR. CROMARTIE: Say that again? Annie Dillard?
DR. JONES: Annie Dillard. “The refusal to forgive is like taking a poison pill yourself and then waiting for the other person to die.”
There’s a poignant episode in the book Dead Man Walking. The movie is well done, too, but the book is much more powerful because it actually portrays two different fathers and two different sets of dynamics, but one father you empathize with all along the way because he’s rightly wanting justice against the perpetrator of the murder against this man’s step-daughter. And the killer is unrepentant and he’s a real jerk. He actually spits on the father during one of the pretrial hearings. And the father –so you empathize with him all along the way. And when the guy is finally executed, the father feels empty, and he says, “I have become a shell of the man I used to be.”
Even though you empathize with his concern for justice, and even — in my case I kind of felt like he was right to want some vengeance — he became a shell of the man he used to be. And so, you see that it’s — we’re made to want reconciliation, even though it’s often challenging.
The next thing I’d say is it requires a rich interior life. It requires a rich interior life, both to apologize and to offer forgiveness.
This is the problem of narcissists: They lack that kind of interior capacity to empathize with another, to take the perspective of another, to listen to another, to feel what another feels in those sorts of ways.
The most compelling tale on this topic that I would commend to you is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, The Remains of the Day, and the book is ten times better than the movie in this case because the butler in the book is trying to come to terms late in life with the fact that he had been serving the wrong lord — with a small “l” — the lord in England who turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer.
But the trouble and the pathos of the book is that the butler can only speak of himself in the third person. He doesn’t have an interior life that is capable of absorbing that sense of remorse and regret and thus repentance. He lacks that interior life.
Now, in the Jewish and Christian traditions this would be deeply connected with the virtue of humility, of that sort of interior life. The Book of Numbers, in Chapter 12, has this wonderful theme where Miriam and Aaron are complaining about why Moses is the one who has been chosen to be the leader, and the narrator says, describing God’s response, “Well, it’s because of his humility” and you think, have we been reading the same stuff in Exodus about Moses? That’s not the word that comes to mind, but it’s about an intimacy with God that is what is at the heart of that conviction about humility, that the closer you are to God the more you are aware that you are not God, something narcissists have a hard time imagining.
And that humility conveys that sense of an interior life that actually has a rich, symbolic, and powerful political effect. Just think of the effect of a John Paul II, or now of Francis, and that sense of humility and how that is conveyed.
Forgiveness both presumes and recreates a culture of trust — part of the problem we have in American culture — but it presumes and it recreates so that it works when there’s been a culture of trust that’s now been breached. And what forgiveness does slowly over time is recreate a context of trust. And finally what it does is — Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness suggests, at its heart, it creates a possibility for the future not bound by the brokenness of the past. It enables a future not bound by the brokenness of the past. So what it does is create the context in which you can find a genuine and authentic future, though it’s hard work. And it’s hard work because there’s a tension between forgiveness and repentance, and this is a place where particularly Judaism and Christianity have some tensions about how much forgiveness ought to be offered, even in the absence of repentance.
But the heart of the problem is that the person who is wrong and is, let’s say, explicit about wanting to repent, is probably going to take longer to do it than the person who is wanting the person to repent.
So the victim expects to see a transformation overnight. The perpetrator is probably, even at their best, in a process that’s going to take months if not years where there’s going to be some backsliding, because in all likelihood, it’s not just a one-time thing, but it’s been repeated over time. And so, unlearning a bad or destructive habit is going to take time. C.S. Lewis also said he thought it would be easier to forgive a single murder than to forgive 20 years of accumulated slights.
The real problems are in relationships where you see a pattern, and the other person, even if they become sincere — now there’s the problem of the prisoner’s con, which goes back to spinning sorrow. You know, the ways in which prisoners all of a sudden get religion and become repentant right around the time of the parole board hearing, and parole boards are quite appropriately cynical about whether there’s any authenticity to it. The convicts often are spinning sorrow to try to get parole in the same way that public figures are doing it to try to manage their reputation and maintain power. So how you actually can discern that the repentance is authentic is a timeful process.
When Jesus at the beginning of the gospel announces the kingdom of God is at hand — most English translations say “Repent and believe in the gospel,” which is actually a bad translation in the sense that the Greek verb there is better translated, “Keep on repenting and keep on believing in the gospel,” that it’s a process — that’s a daily process — so that if you receive forgiveness it becomes a commitment to a way of life where you are going to need to repent daily, not as a burden but as a desire not to repeat the destructive and broken habits, so it’s around that positive sense.
An authentic sense of forgiveness in the political or public sphere always will involve some measure of accountability. There needs to be some way that you indicate that you’re serious about changing the conditions.
Forgiveness doesn’t merely look backwards at managing the past, it also looks forward to changing the conditions that existed. I just happened to be reading Sports Illustrated on the plane down here and there was a story about Notre Dame’s quarterback from last year who is not playing this year — Everett Golson — and what was remarkable about the story is a 20-year old guy who has owned that he cheated, that he was suspended from school, he’s taking the autumn to actually improve both his studies and his play, and wants to reenroll at Notre Dame. He’s accepted the accountability. He’s accepted the wrongdoing. He’s admitting it. There are no excuses, and now he’s looking for the second chance.
I applaud that kind of serious sense of accountability without this kind of just spin of, “oh, mistakes were made” — all the kind of, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” — all the ways we spin things as if there’s really nothing to be responsible for.
You know, Kathleen Sebelius last week in her testimony about Healthcare.gov just said, “I’m sorry.” Full stop. Now, the evidence is whether or not there’s accountability and improvement and whether or not that’s just a measure of competency, or whether there was other forms of wrongdoing. But there’s something to the power of owning the responsibility and taking accountability and accepting that there are consequences to that that’s involved in learning forgiveness in a new way.
I want to just highlight a couple of examples of communities that I think have public significance for how you think about learning forgiveness and what it means to look at that on the public stage.
The first is the Amish community at Nickel Mines. We all were transfixed when that happened — the grandfather talking about forgiveness. They were quite clear — if you go back to my saying, it’s a way of life and it involves thoughts, emotions and actions — they were very clear that their emotions were a mess.
Five years later one of the fathers said to Susan and me that the last five years have been a rollercoaster of emotions. He was saying that five years later, so there was an awful lot of work. But it was a commitment they made because they felt they were obligated to that — so that there was the public statement that was acknowledging a commitment to a way of life of relationships.
Interestingly — and here you get into the relationships of perpetrators and victims — the shooter’s mother took responsibility and was so troubled by it that she’s developed a relationship with the families, with the Amish families. She goes every Thursday night to bathe one of the victims who’s in a wheelchair and has significant brain damage. She goes every Thursday night to feed and bathe her.
When I talked, the mother of the shooter was sitting with the families in the front row of the hall. It’s an extraordinary story of new relationships being formed, but it’s hard work that’s been done, largely out of the public eye. It’s carried them, they said, into new vocations. So, you know, Amish folks don’t like to travel, but they went down to Virginia Tech because they felt obligated in the first instance to pass on a peace quilt that had been sent to them from people in Katrina who sent the peace quilt up to them, and they felt obliged to pass it on to people in Virginia Tech. They developed relationships with the parents of some of the Virginia Tech victims. Two of the fathers and the mother of the shooter travelled in a van to go up to, I believe it was New Hampshire, where there had been a murder in a community that had divided the town, and they went there just to share their story.
Even though they don’t like to travel — they’re not really drawn to being in the public eye — it was part of what it means for them to learn a new way of life and to share that with others. It’s quite an extraordinary story and much more complicated in terms of the dynamics of forgiveness and healing than we as a culture imagine because as soon as the funerals were done, people were off to other stories and other activities and other work.
The second community that I want to point to is Homeboys in Los Angeles. Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, was appointed to a Catholic Parish in L.A. that had significant gang issues. What he has done is to create a community that’s also involved with economic empowerment to try to change the conditions so that these kids don’t feel like they have to be involved in gangs. He’s got a wonderful memoir called Tattoos on the Heart that talks about his relationships with these young people.
They started Homeboy Industries that has a bakery, a silkscreen t-shirt, and all sorts of different activities. He says there was one business that didn’t work. He tried Homeboy Plumbing and he found out that most people didn’t want gang members coming into their homes with copper wiring involved, so that business didn’t work so well.
But what he’s done is he’s called people out of a gang way of life and loved them into a new relationship. There’s accountability, but he says to the kids, “There is nothing you can do that would ever make me stop loving you.” And you know, for a lot of these kids, they don’t believe that because many of them come from really troubled environments. But he’s created a community and a culture and he does the kinds of things that involve walking through thorns to stand by the enemy’s side. He got two guys from rival gangs to both commit to drive up with him from L.A. to San Francisco to sell t-shirts at an event Boyle was going to be speaking at, and he didn’t tell either one they were going to be in the car for however many hours it takes to go from L.A. to San Francisco, and they had to figure out how to get along. Now they work together.
But he’s been involved in this very concrete, specific work on the ground —
MR. CROMARTIE: Say his name again?
DR. JONES: Greg Boyle, B-O-Y-L-E. Father Gregory Boyle.
There’s an interesting story also in Fast Company about how — Greg Boyle’s an amazing guy and very generous; he’s a horrible business man and Homeboy was about to go bankrupt, and then a guy named Bruce Karatz, who is an accountant who had gotten himself into trouble with the law, came along. He started volunteering for Homeboy Industries and actually has put it on a solid business model and actually helped reform Karatz’s life. He started out wanting to do it as a way to try to get out of prison time, but then he became so convinced of the value of this project that he stayed on and worked with it.
The third example I just want to gesture toward is the village of Nyamirambo — I think it’s pronounced — N-Y-A-M-I-R-A-M-B-O.
MR. CROMARTIE: Spell that one more time.
DR. JONES: N-Y-A-M-I-R-A-M-B-O. It’s a Muslim community in the heart of Kigali, Rwanda, and it was known as the safest place in all of Rwanda during the genocide. Ironically, it was a Muslim minority community that was the place that was the safest place for Christian Hutus or Tutsis to flee. We have talked with people who fled to their church where their priest or their pastor allowed the violence to come in — in one case, actually, a bulldozer to bulldoze the church. We met a guy who had fallen out of the bell tower and somehow had been able to survive, and it was his pastor who was the one who was implicated as the primary person who killed the rest of his family.
But this Muslim community in Nyamirambo that was the safest place — they took their Muslim identity to be more important than being either Hutu or Tutsi. They had cultivated those habits and practices, a way of life that enabled them in a crisis to offer a different kind of vision and relationship.
I want to just conclude by pointing to several examples of artistic renderings in the public sphere because I think there’s an awful lot of power in the arts in terms of displaying the power of forgiveness in some of the themes that I’m talking about what forgiveness is, why it matters, what’s at stake for it in a variety of ways. And the first is a novel that I commend to you to read during December just because it’s a beautiful story and it was written by a friend of mine who died just a few weeks ago named Oscar Hijuelos.
Oscar won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” and then he wrote a novel called Mr. Ives’ Christmas. It’s a beautiful story about a man learning to develop a relationship with the teenager who killed his son somewhat randomly on the streets of New York City right before Christmas.
MR. CROMARTIE: Spell his name.
DR. JONES: H-I-J-U-E-L-O-S, Hijuelos. Oscar just died I think about two weeks ago.
MR. CROMARTIE: And the book is called?
DR. JONES: Mr. Ives’ Christmas. It’s an incredible story, and the scene toward the end when Mr. Ives actually encounters — he corresponds with his son’s killer in prison, and then when the guy is released there’s several overtures for him to meet the perpetrator and he doesn’t want to do it, and he doesn’t want to do it, and then he finally does it. And the scene, as Hijuelos describes it, is absolutely stunning because it describes Mr. Ives some decades later meeting this guy for the first time, who he’s already forgiven in letters and he’s developed a relationship with and correspondence with over time, and when he finally sees him face-to-face, he says his stomach was turning flip flops. Was it rage, pity, forgiveness?
That’s the complexity of the emotions. You don’t always know when you actually come face-to-face what those emotions are going to be, and yet the habits that he had developed over time are quite extraordinary. And, by the way, there’s also a beautiful description of the struggle between Mr. Ives and his wife, who have different dispositions about how to deal with their grief, and at one point the narrator says the marriage had dissolved into a partnership, a corporate partnership. It was no longer that intimate relationship, and it was because they had contrasting ways of dealing with their sorrow and their grief.
In terms of movies, I’d lift up Invictus, the story of Nelson Mandela actually “playing” the enemy. Playing the Enemy is the book on which the movie is drawn — it’s going to sound like I always prefer the book, which tends to be the case. But Invictus describes this extraordinary event where Nelson Mandela quite publically and symbolically dons a rugby jersey. Rugby was identified with the Afrikaner community, with the white community, and he quite publicly identifies with the white community as President. In the book there are also some extraordinary stories about when, in a highly charged political environment right before the election, one of the right wing Afrikaners calls into a radio show live with Mandela and just starts reaming him out. And this is a time when violence was about to erupt and it was just at its most fragile, and this guy starts just going after Mandela, calling him all sorts of names. Mandela recognizes the guy’s name, and he says, “Well, you know, come on. I suspect if we got a cup of coffee and talked, we could probably find common ground and we could find a way to move forward for the sake of the country.” And the guy is so disarmed by that he goes, “Uh, uh, I guess we could have a cup of coffee.”
Now, that’s something you can’t invent on the spot. That requires practice where that becomes the natural response. Nobody was surprised that Mandela responded that way because he had developed those habits while he was in prison — those sorts of perspectives.
In terms of musicals, here again, I like the musical better than the movie — Les Miserables. You have this extraordinary story of the Bishop forgiving Jean Valjean, but then it takes him some time, but ultimately he becomes an agent of forgiveness that Javert can’t sustain, that Javert ends up committing suicide because he can’t bear to live in a world where forgiveness is that real.
There are two pieces of music that are extraordinary and they come from very different genres. One of them is a setting called “Seven Last Words from the Cross,” where the Scottish composer James MacMillan has sacred chants, that are set — the music to those sacred chants are the background, and they are juxtaposed with Ariel Dorfman’s poetry from Chile of the Mothers of the Disappeared. So it’s poetry about mothers who have lost their children, and what you have is this extraordinary juxtaposition of sacred music pointing toward Christ and the cross linked to this unresolved pain of mothers, laid bare by Ariel Dorfman, the great Chilean poet and writer. It’s an exceptional piece that draws that together.
And then I wanted to lift up a piece from the hip hop art world. The Canadian hip hop artist Shad, S-H-A-D, has a remarkable piece you can find on YouTube. The lyrics are called, “I’ll Never Understand.” Shad is from Kenya, born to Rwandan parents, and his mother has poetry that he then sets to music and he juxtaposes it. And Shad begins with his mother saying:
You’ve invaded my nights
Singing your haunting lullaby
Drowning other voices
Choking, suffocating, numbing
Sending me to sleep
You’ve awakened me many mornings
Like an unexpected alarm
Shattering my dreams
Confusing, terrorizing, traumatizing
I’ve talked to you in tears and anger
Spat on you in rage
Whispered to you in sorrow
Tied you in chains
Thrown you in jail
I’ve pulled you out
Asked you many questions
Knowing there would be no answers…
And then Shad has this musical refrain: “I’ll never understand,” and he goes through it all, and then his mother has another series, and then he has another refrain, and then here’s the last stanza of what he sings:
I’ll never understand how people can go on and live
The miracle of finding the strength the forgive
To resurrect peace, to close up wounds so deep
They pierce souls beneath heart beats
To be a willful slave to a loving God’s commands
The key to a freedom that I’ll never understand
There you get out of hip hop culture an extraordinary mashing together of the pain of a woman who saw many of her family die, juxtaposed to a sense that there is a key to freedom, and he’s not going to understand it and yet he yearns for it.
I suspect that the biggest problem we have is that now culturally, politically, in local communities as well as nationally and internationally, there are lots of reasons why the past gets in our eyes.
And that creates hauntings of memory, that the past gets in our eyes. It doesn’t work to spin sorrow. It doesn’t work to try to manage it and pretend it wasn’t all that big a deal. What’s a little wrongdoing among friends? What’s a little brokenness?
The pain is real and it gets reanimated often in forms of vengeance and violence and destructiveness. And yet, I would suggest that the religious sensibility shared by multiple religious traditions is that we are created for reconciliation, and the great challenge and opportunity is to find ways in which we can nurture that for the sake then of finding a future that’s not haunted or bound by the destructiveness of the past.
KAREN TUMULTY, The Washington Post: I was sort of interested in forgiveness in the public sphere in the way that we have seen it with politicians. You know, a lot of them can’t get by with it, but we’ve seen Mark Sanford, we’ve seen David Vitter. Many years ago it was Gerry Studds, the Congressman from Massachusetts, who did not show even a hint of contrition about having had a sexual relationship with an underage page, and yet keeps getting reelected.
So my first question is, is in fact what’s going on in the electorate anything akin to this process of forgiveness, or is this just people divorcing public behavior from private behavior, or deciding that a flawed guy from my party is better than a perfect guy from the other party?
And the second thing I’m interested in is sort of forgiveness validators, because one thing we keep seeing in the political sphere, and something that I personally find revolting, is the sad-faced wife standing next to the politician, the message being, “I forgive him so you should too.”
So how does — is this in fact a process of forgiveness with politicians or is it something else going on?
DR. JONES: No, I think it’s not a process of forgiveness, it’s a devil’s bargain that we have in American culture that because we don’t know how to practice it in personal, local contexts, we don’t know how to understand it in public context. And so you see it — it’s largely assumed that forgiveness involves excuse, and so we actually don’t think it has much power, and I think it’s largely — that’s what I mean by spinning sorrow — it’s a PR staged event and the wife — it’s usually the wife — I can’t think of any notable event where it was a woman who — maybe with financial wrongdoing, but hardly ever with sexual misconduct.
But as near as I can tell, it’s clearly just a kind of excuse that’s reflective of the ways in which forgiveness language is a trope in our culture, but is disconnected from remorse or repentance in any meaningful sense, and so we’ve trivialized it.
It’s not only an American phenomenon. I mean, this is not unrelated to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship in the 1930’s about cheap grace. He said that’s where German Christians go to have their sins forgiven in one hour a week on Sunday morning. It’s completely disconnected from the rest of life.
And so I think it’s the fact that we now still have the language and we’ve lost any sense of the seriousness of the practices or the cost that is entailed thereby, and I think the validators are there to help stage that in a way that says — the wife says, “Well, I’ve forgiven him,” and so then who am I not to do the same, in that same kind of context.
And so what you do is you get — if you don’t have a wife who is ready to do it then you get a couple of friends who become — you know, it’s almost like the spin doctors. After a political debate you have all the people who are ready with their talking points —
After Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah — he didn’t have a wife because his ex-wife and his girlfriend both were part of the accusers against him — so he had a couple of friends who were ready to go out on the next morning’s talk shows and try to spin his side of the story.
But it’s all an elaborately staged ruse in my view. It has nothing to do with authentic practices of forgiveness.
MS. TUMULTY: And therefore you don’t think that what goes on with the public is anything that resembles forgiveness?
DR. JONES: No, because it communicates to others there’s no risk and there’s no consequence to the behavior.
Now, I would add I do think that it’s also the case of what you said about “I’d rather vote for the guy in my party than the other guy.”
A good friend of mine’s parents live in Sanford’s district in South Carolina, and they’re devout Christians, and my friend tried to persuade them — but my friend was trying to persuade them that on Christian grounds they ought not vote for Sanford, that this was just really problematic.
And they said, “Yes, he’s a louse and we don’t believe anything about his character, but we’ll never vote for a Democrat.” So there’s some of that, too — at least in some circumstances.
MR. CROMARTIE: Tim Dalrymple and then David, and then Peter.
TIMOTHY DALRYMPLE, Patheos.com: I was just curious, amongst public figures, whether there are any in recent years that you think have done a laudable job, not managed it expertly, but who have shown some authenticity in their public repentance?
MR. CROMARTIE: Could you repeat that? It was muffled at first.
MR. DALRYMPLE: Yeah, whether amongst public figures there have been some more noteworthy efforts at public repentance?
DR. JONES: I’ve thought a lot about that, trying to — I suppose you could — I’d probably give a small amount of credit to Clinton, long after multiple failed efforts, and I thought that — I wrote a piece actually comparing his famous four-minute apology on TV to Psalm 51 in David, and suggesting that they were kind of like mirror images of each other because Clinton’s was carefully worded and managed, whereas David was “Create in me a clean heart, oh, God, a broken and contrite spirit you will not despise.” And I thought actually kind of the low point for Clinton.
And I think that part of the difficulty I have — not to be too cynical — is that we tend, in our culture, to be drawing into the public arena and featuring more and more people who bear narcissistic tendencies, and so that’s a — that makes it harder to give a positive answer to Tim’s question.
That’s why I ended up talking about the Notre Dame quarterback. There’s a guy who took accountability and was admirable, but I don’t see as many examples of it, so if there are examples, I’d love to celebrate them.
MR. CROMARTIE: David Rennie, you’re next, and then William Saletan. I’m sorry, David’s up, then Peter, then William.
DAVID RENNIE, The Economist: I’d like to ask you to explore the denominational sort of breakdown of this because — I cover politics on four continents, and I’m back in the States for my second time.
When I see someone like Sanford, there’s a very sort of born-again sort of aspect to the way that it’s presented. You know, when he says, “God is a forgiving God,” that looks like a very sort of American born-again kind of model.
When I was covering politics in Brussels for a few years, it was very striking that the big divide in terms of political scandals and forgiveness was around attitudes to hypocrisy. I remember an example of — the top European official who was in charge of climate change and regulating greenhouse gasses turned out to drive an enormous SUV, and this was reported in sort of furious terms by the German, the Dutch, the Swedish, the Brits.
He was from Portugal, and the Southern Europeans just couldn’t get it. They just didn’t understand what the fuss about because — and it was explained to me by this guy’s sort of top flack that this was in his view a Protestant/Catholic divide. The Catholics take to view that everyone is a sinner, and the guy was passing good laws and regulations which were going to improve climate change, so how could it possibly matter what he drove, one car?
Whereas the hypocrisy drove Northern Europeans — Protestant Europeans — kind of crazy, and I think even within that you can see the difference between secular in the U.K, where I’m from. I’d say Newt Gingrich is a classic example of a politician who would have no chance of any comeback in the U.K.
The politicians who have just been kicked out of Parliament for expenses scandals in the U.K. will never come back because of the secular kind of — originally sort of Protestant acts, Protestant tradition, there’s no tolerance for hypocrisy. There are no comebacks. So tell me about the American context and the sort of denominational aspect of that.
DR. JONES: Well, I want to complicate your question. It’s a great question. I want to complicate it slightly because I think there’s both the cultural and a theological set of dimensions to it.
So the question about hypocrisy has cultural contexts that may overlap with religious or denominational sensibilities, but I’m not sure it is quite as clean as the notion that it’s because he’s Catholic and the difference between Catholic and Protestant.
I do think that there’s a problem, particularly in American culture, of a kind of born-again rhetoric, where what really matters is what you say about your conversion that goes back to the revivalist tendencies across the American frontier, where it’s what you say on the day you’re saved, not how you live afterwards. And so there’s a peculiar Protestant problem that’s born out of this notion that you don’t want to talk about habits, you don’t want to talk about virtues, and so — I remember one guy once said to me, “I don’t care how high somebody jumps the day they’re saved, I want to know how they walk once they land.” And that’s something that Protestants have a peculiar aversion to talk about, whereas Catholics actually are far more bound up with habits and practices, and you know, sacramental penance or reconciliation.
And so I think that there is something. It’s not so much a question that Catholics think everybody’s a sinner and Protestants don’t. I actually would have thought the sensibilities would have been described rather differently. The Protestants tend to think more about everybody being a sinner. It’s more about the kind of rhetoric that accompanies it.
Now, the question of hypocrisy is an interesting one because I think there is a sense of sincerity and earnestness in a certain kind of evangelical Protestant culture that seems to substitute for actual behavior. How can I be wrong when I’m so sincere? And so if you have this kind of sincere rhetoric you can get away with other sorts of things. There are problems that would be correlative with Catholic tradition, though in terms of confession.
One of the great scenes, by the way, in Dead Man Walking is an early scene where the Catholic Priest, who is the chaplain in the prison — and this guy goes and he finally wants to unburden himself of all of his sin and so he asks to go see the chaplain. And so the chaplain says, “What known sins have you committed since your last confession?” And the guy starts in and he says something like, “Well, rape and murder and arson, and rape, and another murder,” and then the chaplain, just kind of going through the formula says, “And have you had any impure thoughts?” No, those were all pure.
But I think that the notion — I actually think that both in the public sphere politically, and also in private life, if we don’t have a certain tolerance for what hypocrisy, or inconsistency — I mean, hypocrisy is a pretty loaded term. But all of us are inconsistent. I hold views about all sorts of things that I don’t practice very well in my daily life. I have convictions about wealth and poverty that I don’t live into very faithfully. Does that make me a hypocrite? Well, at some level. It also makes me human in that sense.
And so there’s a greater sense of I’d say relaxed communal life in more established cultures. That would be the case, I think, in particular parts of Europe, for example, whereas we have a kind of petty moralism that is peculiar because, in terms of anybody — Mark Sanford, or whoever — there are only some things that really count as sins for which you might get into trouble. There are all sorts of other activities that people don’t seem to have any hesitation or worry about. In America it’s largely sexual misconduct that will get you into the deepest waters, although that now is changing with Sanford.
MR. CROMARTIE: I have a little dilemma here because we’ve got like ten people on the list and some of you want in right on something you just said just now. I get that sense from you Jennifer, but Peter has been waiting. And if you’d pull the mike up to yourself, Peter. I’ve got you on the list, Jennifer, and don’t lose that thought.
DR. PETER SKERRY, Boston College: I apologize for my over-eagerness. Perhaps you should have a session on professional competitiveness and etiquette, and I could lead it or follow it.
Well, speaking into the mike won’t help that. So, Professor Jones, I appreciated your comments but I’m left a little confused because I grabbed onto what you said in the beginning about the past getting into our eyes, but it seems to me that in the United States today — and I don’t know if this is unique to the United States or it’s got to do more with advanced industrial societies, but I think it’s unique to us that we forget quickly — and you’ve kind of alluded to this — and I’m not sure the past looms that large for lots of us.
Every time I see Al Sharpton on MSNBC I am struck that we are a very forgiving culture, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In many ways it’s a good thing. So, I’m not sure whether you’re talking — I’m not sure how you would deal with that.
And then related to it is that you weave back and forth between personal stories of forgiveness and public and political stories of forgiveness, and those clearly have to have very different dynamics. I wished you would sort of reflect a bit and delineate how those dynamics are different. What everyone thinks about the healthcare rollout — Secretary Sebelius may be guilty, but her guilt as the head of a large bureaucratic organization is a whole lot different than Al Sharpton’s.
So, how do you reflect on those two sorts of dimensions?
DR. JONES: Sure. Great questions. I would say that amnesia is actually the mirror image of haunting past, that they actually are mirror images and that it’s not a forgiving culture, the fact that we just ignore what Al Sharpton has said and done in the past or whomever. I don’t think that’s actually a sign of a forgiving culture, I think it’s a sign of amnesia, which is dangerous. And so I think those are actually mirror images of each other and that we’re are still haunted as American culture in very deep ways. I haven’t yet seen the movie, but Twelve Years a Slave is going to have this eruption of the haunting in a variety of ways.
I had a friend from South Africa who came to the U.S. who said, “You all pretend to keep moving on in a way that seems forgetful,” and yet if you just go about six inches below the surface there’s all this toxic waste that starts seeping into the public sphere.
So I don’t actually think that our amnesia is a sign of forgiveness. I think it’s actually the mirror image and reflects some of the dynamics of the haunting.
I think the haunting and the past getting in our eyes has more valence and power for persons, except it erupts in very public ways and it is a way in which, you know, you get initiated into particular traditions in American culture, but also around the world. And this is part of the reference to the former Yugoslavia — or when I was in Israel and heard the Israeli guide point over there and say, “That’s where we lost the battle,” and somebody else said 1973 or 1967? And he said, “No, the Maccabees.”
But it was spoken as if it was yesterday. And so there’s a certain sense in which you get initiated into traditions of conflict that are part of that haunting.
I do think that the speed at which things are happening is creating more amnesia, but I don’t think it’s actually taking away the hauntedness.
Yes, there are — well, I debated even mentioning Sebelius because I think that’s a very different dynamic, and part of what we have to do a lot better is spend a lot more time distinguishing forms of failure — moral failure from incompetence, and experimental failure — and there are different dynamics and there are different kinds of responsibility that ought to be — but that would be a whole different set of conversations. Partly I was just trying to gesture toward somebody taking accountability in a full-stop sort of way.
But I think that there are different dynamics, I think it’s not just a public versus personal because part of what I was talking about learning forgiveness is also pointing to communities that I think are really key because it’s in local contexts that you’re most likely to see forgiveness learned and practiced and lived in powerful ways.
And so that’s why I talked about the Amish, or Homeboy, or the Muslims in Rwanda, because there are powerful examples of how it is learned and lived in local contexts that actually enable, then, public figures to embody things in much more symbolic ways.
I think Mandela in South Africa is an example. He actually talks about what he learned as a child going to Methodist schools in the 1930’s as having helped to shape certain patterns and habits and dispositions that he drew on then when he was in prison. And so it’s focusing less on just heroic persons.
When Robert Coles told the story about little Ruby during the desegregation struggles in New Orleans — and you remember little Ruby as six years old and going to school and there were Klansmen and other folks on the other side of the street shouting all sorts of racial epithets at her — and Coles saw this little African America girl walking alone, looking like she was mumbling, so Coles went and interviewed her because he was worried that she was kind of unstable.
And he said, “What are you saying?” and she said, “I just keep repeating, Father, forgive them. They know not what they’re doing.” And everybody went, wow, what an exceptional story, and it was just kind of lifted up as this heroic little girl. And people didn’t spend much time talking about the fact that she knew those words because she spent so much time in her African American congregation week by week where she learned those words as a part of a prayer, and so those were what came to her lips.
So what we tend to do is either lift out this heroic person doing something in the public sphere and say, wow, look at that, or else we say everybody needs to be doing something.
We lose the formative power of local communities and of families that shape dispositions and habits and learn languages, and so what happens around the dinner table has huge implications.
How you raise your children to interact with each other has huge implications for what then happens more broadly.
I think there’s something really important about the symbolic power of public forgiveness by people in really significant places.
When the Irish and British Cardinals both had a joint gesture of apology; when a Black Pentecostal Bishop and a White Pentecostal Bishop washed each other’s feet; there’s something that’s powerfully symbolic about that. When John Paul II went into the prison cell and you know, the cover of every magazine that week was a sign of that — I think there’s something powerful about those sorts of things that are different than what happens offstage.
But I want to highlight the significance of what you might call mediating communities as the formative context, so that we don’t juxtapose in these false ways that it’s either personal or public, because if we privatize forgiveness, then we end up with a public sphere in which it’s all a sham, or we think violence is the only legitimate answer.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you for that answer there, and I have others on the list.
WILLIAM SALETAN, Slate: Okay. First of all, Dr. Jones, thank you for your presentation, which I thought was moving and perceptive, full of insights. Let me give you two questions. Answer whichever one you feel like answering.
One is about politicians and this builds on what some others have said. The conditions that you’ve outlined for authentic remorse and repentance — I just scribbled down a couple of things you said — that it needs to be — things need to happen offstage, that there needs to be humility, there needs to be empathy, not narcissism.
These conditions — I’m not going to say politicians can’t do it, but the political system almost makes it impossible. It seems to attract, cultivate, even enforce a degree of narcissism that — I mean, we’ve all know politicians who are nice people, but if you won’t take credit for things and won’t think enough about yourself, you almost can’t do the job or get the job.
So should we expect that — and certainly if you are giving a press conference to talk about your adultery, you’re already on stage, right? Should we expect that there will — what we see on TV will never be authentic remorse and repentance, that whatever is authentic would be happening offstage? And are there things we can do in the political system to change to attract a different kind of character or cultivate a different kind of character, even make possible the kind of character that could have authentic remorse and repentance? So that’s the political question.
If you’re sick of talking about politics I’ll ask you one about religion. Is there — on the subject of narcissism, is there a streak of narcissism in certain kinds of Christianity — where the idea of God’s love for you becomes less about God, less about others, and more about you — that cultivates or permits the wrong kind of character? It does not allow the cultivation of the kind of habits you are talking about, and does that have some connection to these TV preachers that we see whose repentance seems no more authentic than the politicians?
MR. CROMARTIE: I’d like you to answer both those questions, please.
DR. JONES: I plan to answer both of them.
There are honorable politicians who have the kind of character we’re talking about. They typically aren’t in positions where they have to go public with their adultery because they actually live faithful lives. So we don’t notice them.
I did a retreat a number of years ago that was off the record with a number of representatives from Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, that we held at Mepkin Abbey, the Trappist Monastery in South Carolina, and it was one of the most moving three days. It was around issues of forgiveness, and they opened up. And these were incredibly honorable and gifted people, many of whom are still there in Congress, and they probably don’t agree on the color of the sky most days, at least some of them with each other, but it was an incredibly moving context, and they actually lamented the culture of Washington on a whole bunch of different fronts.
So one of the things I would say is that the decline of people actually living in Washington — and one of them who had been in Congress for a very long time and is still there said that when he first arrived you spent a lot of time with members of the opposite party at soccer games, at dinner parties, at activities, where you just spent time talking about life. You talked about, “Did you like the movie?” or “How about the Redskins?” or whatever. But those sorts of relationships mattered, and he said with newer members of Congress they come in Tuesday morning and are gone Thursday night, and everything is political and everything is focused on votes.
Now, take it away from the political sphere. When I was Dean, when the faculty only gathered for votes it drives a dividing line between people. People are going to focus on whether you’re for it or against it, and so you then define people in oppositional terms.
If you’re spending time and you get to know people — John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit Theologian of the middle 20th-century had a wonderful line. He said what he longed for most was a meaningful disagreement.
That’s actually an accomplishment and you think about — you know, I mean, I was struck when Teddy Kennedy died just thinking about how many bills were Hatch-Kennedy, or Kennedy-Hatch, two guys who don’t agree on much and yet they found ways to do legislation together, I suspect because they developed a relationship over time, and I think that’s part of what has to happen in the political culture.
To your point about remorse and you know, how much of that is going to just inevitably be the case, I would love to see some people who are willing to take a stand and lose, and just not think that winning at all costs is what matters.
That’s what we’ve gotten into, you know, testing what the polls say and being afraid of what’s going to happen in the next election.
I think that right now we’re getting the politicians that we deserve so I don’t blame the politicians, I blame us as a culture in terms of what we’re looking for and what we don’t pay attention to.
I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think we have had periods where we recruited and encouraged more people who were actually motivated by public service. I think we’ve gone through a cycle of incredible cynicism about what it means to serve the public good. I see it in college students who are less inspired by the idea of public good in a variety of circumstances largely because the ways we’ve —
MR. CROMARTIE: Greg, what about his theological question about —
DR. JONES: I’m getting to theological question.
MR. CROMARTIE: Oh, you’re coming to that? Okay.
DR. JONES: I actually think you’re right that — and I would say it’s not that there are peculiar forms of it in most traditions, but there is a peculiar form that is associated particularly with the prosperity gospel, and a certain kind of entertainment kind of rooted Christianity, which is way more about “me” than it is about God, and it leads and fuels a narcissism that I think is very dangerous and self-destructive, but it seems to be pretty popular.
So, yes, I think there is that, and I think it’s actually more prevalent than I would wish to admit. And the ministry is drawing too many people who are narcissistic.
MR. CROMARTIE: William seems like he has a follow-up.
MR. SALETAN: I find that last comment, which suggested that instead of — that we could transplant over from the church to politics in terms of the cultivation of the people, it’s going the other way.
DR. JONES: I wouldn’t say it’s going the other way, but there are too many people that worry me on that score.
I do think actually — I think Pope Francis is going to have a huge impact because I think he is enchanting. I’ve had conversations with undergraduates, who have no background in Catholicism, who are just really enchanted and perplexed by this guy who seems to actually live his faith and who seems to be concerned about what God’s concerned about.
And so I think that that is a — young people are going to look at what’s out there, available on offer as public kind of exemplars, and we’re not going through a great stretch, or haven’t in recent years.
MR. CROMARTIE: We’re about to go into a break, so Clare, you’ll give the last question before we go into the break, and then I’ve got everybody else on the list.
CLARE DUFFY, NBC News: I’m wondering if there is —
MR. CROMARTIE: Please pull the mike closer.
MS. DUFFY: Sorry. I’m wondering if in this discussion there is ever any justification for grudge holding?
This seems to impose a huge burden on either the victim or the witness to the wrongdoing to have a sort of — like you mentioned in many of your examples, in the Amish community, what have you — a limitless capacity to turn away from holding a grudge and it just makes me think of the expression about the Irish, which is obvious by my name — you know, Irish Alzheimer’s — you forget everything but the grudges.
This is part of human nature. Is there ever a point — or like the Dillard quote, is it the poison pill that’s going to kill us? How do you see the act of grudge holding and can it ever be justified?
DR. JONES: Great question. I was going to remind you of the Dillard quote, so you did it for me. I do think that if you’re justifying grudge holding, you’re taking the poison pill. However, I think we need to acknowledge the appropriateness of the suffering and pain that leads to grudges, that you don’t justify but you acknowledge.
So part of the point of the Lewis quote — about 30 years — is to say that for a significant part of that time he would have seen the other as an enemy. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to be reconciled. What he struggles to do is to pray for him, to learn to love him, but that may take ten years just to get to that point.
Now, when you start justifying the grudge holding, the door is no longer open and that’s where I get worried. I actually think that if it’s — I also think it’s the case that there will be people, both personally and more broadly, with whom we are never reconciled in this life, save a miracle — and I mean that literally.
And so, I think that to talk about loving enemies is actually a really important dimension in the whole picture, but it’s loving not hating, not grudge holding in that sense.
But what I would say is that part of that door opening — for me, as a Christian, it’s — you know, the commitment to reconciliation is 2nd Corinthians 5, that we don’t have any — we are not permitted any justifications that close the door.
Now, sometimes it’s hoping against hope, and sometimes it’s going to take a miracle, but then I think, you know, if you think at the public political level, in 1987 if you had told me that within a couple of years the Berlin wall would come down and South Africa would begin a peaceful transition to democracy, I’d have said you were crazy.
And a friend of mine in South Africa actually saw two confidential documents from the late 1980’s, both of which predicted a civil war in South Africa, one from the Afrikaner government, one from the ANC. Both predicted a civil war. Both predicted several million people — more than 10% of the population would die in the civil war before their side was victorious.
So both sides were prepared for civil war. Both sides expect a pretty high cost before they became victorious.
Three years later Nelson Mandela walks out of Pollsmoor Prison in an incredible public gesture that doesn’t seem to be motivated by hate or anything else — and you know, I don’t know if any of you have gone to Robben Island and seen his prison cell and heard the stories of the limestone pits where sometimes he was buried up to his neck and the guards would urinate on his face. The treatment that he received over three decades in those prisons, it’s astonishing to me that he walked out the way he did. I’m just amazed, but there was a miracle.
And so I don’t think grudge holding can be justified. It does need to be acknowledged, and if we — whether in journalism in the media, or pastors, or anyone else — put pressure on people to forgive prematurely, it’s a big mistake.
It’s a way of saying you need to be open to this process, but that’s what I mean when I say it takes time, because if we say, you know, “Oh, your child was just murdered, are you going to forgive?” It’s raw and it’s a mistake to press it prematurely.
I love the phrase in Ephesians, “Be angry, but do not sin.” I actually am more worried about people who think that being angry is always wrong, because anger is a sign of protest against injustice, against wrongdoing. It ought to fuel — if there’s not a sense of outrage — I mean, the Prophet Amos — the Jewish scholar, Michael Fishbane says that basically what Amos is is a story of God’s shriek against injustice, and so there ought to be that.
I’m more worried about people who have come to just passively or icily accept what has happened because then you’ve lost the passion that can be turned into life-giving passion. And so I think that we need to acknowledge the propriety of anger, but also worry about the ways in which that can flip into bitterness that’s the poison pill.
MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, The Federalist: One of the things I was struck by with your examples of communities that do a good job of practicing forgiveness is that they seem to be communities that have very robust understandings of sin, what is a sin and what is not a sin.
And I was thinking about how our culture doesn’t seem to have much of a shared understanding of what a sin is, and we also might have a revulsion toward calling something a sin. And I’m curious how you forgive in such a context? How do you forgive a sin when you don’t believe in sin?
DR. JONES: That’s a great question. Karl Menninger wrote a famous book about 40 years ago called Whatever Became of Sin which I don’t think was a commentary on how virtuous we all had become. It said we’d lost the language to note wrongdoing.
It actually gets to the issues around understanding of the self, and for me, the heart of sin is not pride or its reverse, the lack of a sense of self; it’s actually self-deception, which is the ways in which we mistakenly understand who we are, which can be thinking too highly of yourself, too lowly of yourself, or just problematically.
But that’s at the heart of the challenge, which is why I emphasize the importance of community because it seems to me that when you think about the people who are most formative in your life — they’re what Susan and I call the “holy friends” — and the way we describe what “holy friends” are is people who challenge the sins we’ve come to love, affirm the gifts we’re afraid to claim, and help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.
MR. CROMARTIE: Say those again, please.
DR. JONES: “Holy friends” are those who challenge the sins you’ve come to love, affirm the gifts you’re afraid to claim, and help you dream dreams you otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.
You know, the first part of that is your question, Mollie, about sin — but if you only have people who are around to help remind you that you are doing bad things, you may need them, but you don’t want them around.
The people who really are gifts are people who also help you affirm gifts you’re afraid to claim, who see possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise see, and help you dream dreams in that way.
And so I think that’s what you’re describing as a robust sense of sin because, you know, part of what happens is in the course of developing community and friendship, you only learn what sin is over time because part of the self-deception we have is we redescribe things as if they’re not really sinful. And so it’s just expressing myself — it’s all sorts of ways in which we find excuses and ways to describe things in other ways.
I don’t suffer from workaholism, I’m doing the Lord’s work. We redescribe it so it sounds really nice and flowery, and then I don’t have to repent of it, except my wife usually will remind me after I get sick with this really nice little phrase that if you don’t observe the Sabbath, sickness becomes your Sabbath, which is a really annoying thing to hear when you’ve just gotten sick.
But it’s nonetheless the case that we’re creatures created for rhythms of work, rest, and play, and if we don’t pay attention to those rhythms of play and rest, we’re likely to not only get sick, we’re also likely to do really destructive things to ourselves. That’s where a lot of bad behavior comes, is out of some of that workaholism. And so I think that there’s a — there are a lot of — for both Jews and Christians, the injunction about the Sabbath isn’t a suggestion in the Bible, it’s actually a commandment, and that’s something we’re hard-wired for.
So you don’t even have to get to a shared sense of sin about adultery, just think about the rhythms of the week and whether or not we honor them. And I think we’re uncomfortable because it sounds problematic, but the problem really is that we’ve become so moralistic about sin. So we don’t get to the deeper issues.
I sometimes joke about what I call the regionality of sin. I grew up in Denver in the shadow of Coors Brewery, so out there, everybody who went to church drank, but smoking was the sin. Then I moved to North Carolina to go to Duke, and in the shadow of Liggett & Myers — and everybody smoked outside of church, but drinking was the sin. And then I moved to Baltimore and they said, “Smoking, drinking, hey, what’s the problem?” So different regions of the country have different senses of what — but it’s a kind of petty moralism that somehow drinking was a deep problem, but racism wasn’t. And you kind of go, really?
So we’ve got to get away from the kind of moralism to a deeper sense, which will raise profoundly moral questions because there are conditions that are necessary to human flourishing, but we’ve got to figure out ways not to just turn it into the conventional ways that we get obsessed with particular things while we’re — we’re picking the speck out of our brother’s and sister’s eyes, and not noticing the logs in our own.
I agree with you. A rich sense of community and what — I would say friendships — in a deeply significant way. Remember, Aristotle and Aquinas both thought that friendship was the heart of the moral life, and it’s very difficult to learn to be a friend in a morally significant way.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Greg. I think part of her question, though, however, also was what do you do — not just among the religious believing community — but what do you do in a culture that doesn’t share the same framework you do about what is and is not sin. So you’re asking somebody for an apology that doesn’t believe that what they did was wrong in the first place.
DR. JONES: Well, I think we’ve got to have a — we need more kind of social criticism of the order that Christopher Lasch was well-known for, that actually kind of gets at some of these deeper issues that expose the challenges that we have and that can find the vehicles to break through, and I don’t think that’s a particularly religiously specific way. I think it’s a public role.
I was actually saying to Michael Gerson, I thought the piece wrote about the Tea Party as the mirror image of occupy Wall Street, and how both are opposed to a conservative temperament was a hugely important, very short piece that points to reclaiming moral traditions that we’ve lost in the kind of political context that lacked the kind of depth and sustainable argument about what it means to legislate, what it means to improve the world in which we live, which means that we’ve got to — even the language in invoking community is often reified into this static kind of nostalgia for some time that never was, and we’ve got to get into a much more robust sense of what communities are like, which is why I described these three rather very different communities.
To say the Amish — I’m not going to live like the Amish. Homeboy? I’m not going to live like Homeboy. The Muslim community in Rwanda? I’m not going to live like that. But somehow at the intersection of all of those is something extraordinarily powerful that suggests what communal life ought to be, that can point to, then, what is wrongdoing?
If you think of Rwanda, how is it that a country that was roughly 92% Christian, that was written in mission textbooks in 1990 as an example of the Christianization of Africa — it was kind of the signal image — nonetheless erupted in a genocide.
Well, it’s because it had become Christian rhetorically and on a superficial level, but it hadn’t gotten into the cultivation of the habits and practices of communities, and that’s what’s going to have to happen.
MR. CROMARTIE: Kirsten Powers, and then Paul Edwards, and then Dan Harris, and Jennifer. Kirsten?
KIRSTEN POWERS, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Fox News: Thank you so much for this. This is really fascinating.
One of the things that I often think about when we have these public displays of forgiveness is this uniquely an American thing, because it seems to me that it is, and why do we expect our public officials, whether their church leaders — take church leaders out of it — let’s just say public officials — to have to ask for forgiveness of us for something that is really a private situation between them and their spouse? We’re talking about infidelity — and should we expect them to do it?
To me it seems really something that should be private and we’re not trotting people out repent for their pride, or greediness, or sloth, or anything else, so why do we force them to go through this?
And you know, you said something about — people say, “Oh, well, the wife forgave. Who am I not to forgive?” Who are we to even think that it’s our job to forgive? Should we think that?
DR. JONES: That’s an important question. I don’t think it’s uniquely American, I think it’s distinctively so, but I would say that actually there’s a — in those countries that are both influenced by Western culture and Christianity in particular, there’s this kind of — so you see it happening. South Africa has gone through it with a number of high profile people, including Jacob Zuma, who arguably has the kind of most bizarre history — well, I don’t know; that’s a high bar for what’s most bizarre — but he certainly has a distinctively complicated sexual history as a political leader.
So the particularly American feature is that we want somehow — there is implicit — it’s fading but it’s still there — that our leaders, political leaders included, will represent Judeo-Christian values in some amorphous, complicated way.
And so what it points to is I think an ambivalence that we have about what’s the relationship between character and leadership? To what extent is leadership just being able to get things done, and to what extent is it a good person, a morally good person?
And so, you can think of people who are effective politicians and who weren’t particularly upstanding people, and you can think of upstanding people who weren’t effective politicians. So it’s not a hand in glove kind of dynamic, but it is an important set of convictions.
When you bracket church leaders that’s a particularly complicated issue because their character does seem to be assumed there.
But I do think that generally — I would say politically — in virtually any organization, there is classically understood the notion of leadership as occupying an office, and that there is a dignity to the office that matters beyond the private relationship of the spouses.
And so somebody who sullies the dignity of the office, it actually has a symbolic importance that’s relevant to the larger community. So I don’t think it’s just a private matter. I do think we’ve turned it into a bizarre kind of voyeurism into the bedroom in that sense.
MS. POWERS: On that point, though — but it’s our business if it’s sexual, but it’s not our business if it’s —
DR. JONES: Well, that’s where I was just going to go. The problem is that we think that only sexual misconduct sullies the dignity of the office. We don’t actually think greed or sloth or other sorts of things —
MS. POWERS: But you’re not suggesting that we should be trotting out our leaders and making them repent for these other things.
DR. JONES: Well, I think I’d be happier if we had some kind of loose but ongoing evaluation that included that way more centrally — I actually think greed is a much more worrisome problem, or the kind of peculiar form of Washington politics that everybody I know — I shouldn’t say everybody — almost everybody who claims to meet fiscal discipline are perfectly happy to create pork projects for their home.
MS. POWERS: Right.
DR. JONES: I’m more worried about those sorts of hypocrisy than I am sexual.
MS. POWERS: Yeah. I know I’m hogging a lot of time and I’ll stop after this, but it’s just that — in my experience of people who come to repentance, it’s not surprising that someone doesn’t repent within 24 hours of getting caught doing something.
DR. JONES: Sure.
MS. POWERS: Repentance is a long process, even for very Godly, very — people filled with integrity — it can take a long time.
DR. JONES: Yeah.
MS. POWERS: So I just don’t understand why this is done in the public and why we even expect it from people, and why we wouldn’t just expect people to be flawed individuals, especially as Christians, right? We should just expect people to do bad things and to repent for them and try to move on. So, yeah, I’m just —
DR. JONES: Yeah. No, I don’t want —
MS. POWERS: I’m just mystified by the fact that Christians in particular seem to be looking for this, whereas I feel like Christians, of all people, should understand and expect this, actually.
DR. JONES: Yeah, except that I don’t want to expect it in a sense that excuses it because — that’s why I do want there to be ongoing evaluation.
I mean, I want people around me, if I’m in a position of leadership, who hold me accountable. This is the kind of “holy friends” principle. I don’t think it’s primarily something you air in a press conference. We’ve turned it into a public spectacle when most of the work happens in local communities, and I think if we actually had a richer sense of the practices of what happens in local communities, and if you have friends who hold you accountable out of the public sphere, you’re much less likely to engage in the sorts of destructive behavior.
Because, I mean, I think that — I know David Brooks is working on a book on humility, and I’m really eager to read it because I think that humility is a profoundly important virtue for public leadership, and it’s one that we have largely lost and don’t have any rich understanding of what are the conditions that cultivate humility in public leaders.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Paul Edwards and then Dan Harris and Jennifer.
PAUL EDWARDS, Deseret News: We’ve talked a lot today about forgiveness or mercy in the public sphere. I’d like to look at some institutions.
I think it’s quite interesting what you’ve said about the strong psychic benefits and so on of forgiveness, and the benefits that it brings when it’s, in your words, it’s learned, it’s practiced, and it’s lived. And you’ve talked about that in terms of symbols and culture and community. I want to talk about it in terms of institutions because all of those things can be institutionalized. For something to be lived and practiced and learned, and so on, that can happen within institutions, and so this is very broad, and this could be three different books. But I’m curious to know if you see particular uses for forgiveness that could be institutionalized in places like criminal justice, civil litigation, and then organizational life.
DR. JONES: It’s a great question and I love it because I actually think that one of the deepest forms of pathos in American culture is that we have broken institutions pretty much across the board.
Niall Ferguson wrote a little book this summer called The Great Degeneration —
MR. CROMARTIE: Who is that?
DR. JONES: Niall Ferguson, and he has four chapters, one on politics, one on economics, one on law, and one of civil society, and I think that whether you’re thinking about — the current politics aside — you think government, healthcare, education, religion, economics — the Greg Smith memo of Goldman Sachs was, you know, that investment banks have kind of lost their purpose as an institution. We need investment banks to kind of provide the kind of infrastructure for our society, but they’ve lost their purpose in those ways, and so I think there’s a deep institutional problem that we need to rehabilitate. And I actually think that forgiveness is one of the mechanisms by which healthy institutions recreate and cultivate trust. And so that’s included in the practices of any great culture and any good organization.
Take your third example of organizational life. I think that any healthy organization has rituals of forgiveness built into it and means to both hold people accountable and restore people along the way. Unfortunately, we’ve turned them into — Ferguson, in his chapter on the law, says we’ve substituted the rule of law with the rule of lawyers, and I think that’s — we’ve substituted organizational culture with the rule of HR, which undermines the practices that are conducive to that.
Your first point was about criminal justice, and I think there are huge opportunities — alternative dispute resolution is a really significant movement within the law, and I think that there are a number of people involved in finding alternatives to straight incarceration, particularly among juveniles, in terms of restitution, in terms of rehabilitation and in terms of alternative sentencing methods.
There’s a program out in San Francisco called Delancey Street that offers an alternative to incarceration where you commit to going and living in a community that sounds an awful lot like a secular monastery. And what’s amazing is without a penny of state funding or federal funding — without a penny — they are self-sustaining because the people become a part of a community where there’s accountability and new possibilities. They are expected to work. The older people in the community mentor the younger people, and the recidivism rate is dramatically lower than for people that go to prison. We don’t know enough about those kinds of stories and those kinds of examples, and we need to be doing way more of that sort of work.
Interestingly, I’ve been involved with a project in Houston that works with gang kids, younger kids, who are already in crisis, so they’re already involved in the criminal justice system, and the leader, who’s working with them, has partnered with the juvenile justice system and part of what they recognize is that in order to get these kids out of gang life you have to provide them with alternative communities with alternative rituals.
So you can’t just say, “Don’t do that anymore,” you’ve got to provide an alternative set of communities — so this is where broken institutions is a problem. They are now working with KIPP schools because they realize that even if they gave them alternative communities with alternative rituals, if they spent most of their day in dysfunctional public schools it was going to put them in jeopardy again.
And so this is where — those local communities — but we’ve got to find ways to create the institutions that actually enable that kind of life to be lived. Healthy institutions cultivate much healthier people than we otherwise would be.
MR. CROMARTIE: Dan Harris, you’re up next. Please pull the mike up. It’s right back here. Dan Harris.
DAN HARRIS, ABC News: I apologize that my question may be a little nebulous —
MR. CROMARTIE: Give it a try.
MR. HARRIS: Yeah, I’ll try. But I was struck by something in the line from that Canadian Rapper. Michael and I were struck that there was a thriving hip hop scene in Canada. See, Michael is actually a big fan of Newfoundland rap.
About the freedom associated with forgiveness — I have a personal interest in Buddhism and there’s a lot of talk about, at its best in Buddhism, of creating habits of mind that lead to freedom, and I wonder what — if you see any connection between what’s talked about mental, psychological freedom in Buddhism and the things you can do to get there, and what you can do in this area of forgiveness that leads to some sort of free movement through life.
DR. JONES: Yeah. That’s a great question and I think there’s something profoundly important there.
I think what you would characterize in Buddhism or in various forms of prayer and meditation, there’s a kind of unselfing that eliminates whatever is binding you or holding you down or chaining you, in a sense, and that’s, I think, what he is pointing to. And it goes back to Clare’s question about a grudge, that even if you’re holding a grudge, it’s got a hold of you, too. And the kind of freedom that he’s writing about is a sense of liberation, that you’re not having to be held by or to hold onto anything that has psychological implications.
It’s associated in the same way that sometimes sin is associated with sickness or with grief. There’s a physiological association of that, that when you experience the freedom it actually is a liberation in really deep and profound ways, and I think it’s born out of that mindfulness, that unselfing in a profound way.
My friend Peter Storey in South Africa was a chaplain on Robben Island in the early days of Mandela’s imprisonment. There’s a poignant story about Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe, you may remember, was the main leader of the Sharpeville demonstration that led to the Sharpeville massacre that kind of launched the most repressive period in Apartheid.
And Sobukwe was arrested and he was put on Robben Island, and there’s a house where he was made to live by himself and he wasn’t allowed any visitors, typically, during the day, so actually his vocal cords atrophied because he didn’t have people to interact with.
Sobukwe was a Methodist lay preacher in South Africa, and Peter Storey, when he was chaplain on Robben Island, was the one person who was given permission to visit Sobukwe. He would go periodically to visit Sobukwe, and he was in a house that had a large fence around it with high bars so he couldn’t escape.
And when Susan and I were at Sobukwe’s house with Peter, he told us the story. If you’re standing at Sobukwe’s house you can see Cape Town over the water from the house. And as Peter was getting ready to leave one day with Sobukwe, he said to him, “You know how painful it is for me to walk out of these gates and hear the gates clang, and know that I can leave a free man and you remain imprisoned in this house?” And Sobukwe looked at him and said — and pointed to the halls of Parliament and Cape Town, which are red-roofed and you can see quite visibly across the ocean — he said, “No, those are the people who are imprisoned. I will always be free.” And I think he was pointing precisely to what Shad is saying and what you’re asking about that Buddhist practice.
This is a guy who had no communication most days, but he had developed a sense of mindfulness and prayer and unselfing, that he thought he was freer than the Afrikaners who were legislating in the halls of Parliament in Cape Town.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Thank you. Jennifer, and then Erica.
DR. JENNIFER WISEMAN, American Association for the Advancement of Science: I think the flow of the conversation has now moved beyond the question that I had, but — and you may have already addressed it — but I am concerned that we don’t, in our religious communities and in our society, don’t really understand what forgiveness is in terms of whether it’s simply dismissing the idea that what’s been done was really significantly wrong, or whether it is fully acknowledging that something terrible has happened, from the victim’s point of view, and yet still embracing some sort of release toward the person who has perpetrated it.
And I think about the biblical example that you brought up where Jesus says forgive 70×7 or 77 times — but in the context, the person says, “If my brother comes and asks me for forgiveness,” — or something — “then should I forgive him?”
Well, what about in the context where the person is not acknowledging that they’ve done anything wrong and is not asking for forgiveness, and is there a sense that just to have sort of psychological peace there needs to be an acknowledgement that wrongdoing is truly wrong, harmful, something terrible has happened and it was bad, and yet forgiveness does not in any sense diminish that severity of the wrongdoing, while releasing the wrongdoer from being continually held in ire by the victim?
And it think you may have already addressed some of this, but if there’s anything more along that line you want to say, that would be helpful.
DR. JONES: I think it’s absolutely crucial the seriousness of the wrongdoing is named as such. Without that, you lose what Mollie was pointing to — you lose any acknowledgement that there is such a thing as sin or wrongdoing. This is my worry about the kind of amnesia of our culture. We let people get away with stuff where it doesn’t really matter.
So, if I were a politician, you know, in a southern state, I’d be less worried about whether getting caught in adultery meant I was going to lose my job in the wake of Mark Sanford.
So I think it’s absolutely critical. Forgiveness doesn’t say what you did wasn’t that bad after all; it says what you did was awful and I’m still going to stay in relationship with you.
And the worse it is — and by worse it doesn’t necessarily mean the more extreme the one incident is. Remember Lewis’ comment about “harder to forgive accumulated slights than one single murder.” The more habitual something has been the harder it is to forgive and to actually trust because the more — and this is a huge issue in domestic violence because there are cycles that get created by abusers who presume that the victim is going to forgive because they are Christian, or Jewish, or whatever — but mostly Christian, usually Evangelical. And so there’s this cycle where the presumption of forgiveness actually perversely “justifies” the violence — the cycle intensifies and gets worse. Authentic forgiveness has got to say, “This is wrong.”
In the absence of repentance, it may be absolutely critical to create space because the other person is a continuing threat.
All of that being said, though, this is where the offer of forgiveness needs to stay open and where I get worried about justifying a grudge or justifying — or demonizing the other. It doesn’t allow room for the fact that miracles do happen and people do repent.
And if we don’t keep the door open to that, if we harden ourselves, we’re the ones who actually end up suffering the most. That’s Dillard’s poison pill. And so I think it’s absolutely critical that we name it and identify it, and then figure out now what’s the best way to restore the person back into the community.
The logic — this is where culturally — and I know a lot of Catholics have gotten bad at it — the logic of excommunication in the Catholic church — even the logic of shunning in Amish or Anabaptist communities is not about just rejecting people. The logic of it is excluding them for the sake of them coming to repentance to be reinserted back into the community.
It’s practiced horribly in many cases, but the logic of it is naming it as such so that like the younger son in the parable of what I prefer to call “The Forgiving Father” — because there are two sinful sons in that story — but the younger son, when he comes to himself — and part of that is recognizing, “Oh, I screwed up.”
We don’t have very good practices, even in families, of saying, “Yes, you screwed up, and I love you. Let’s kill the fatted calf.” We have to say both things because sometimes there are families that say, “Yes, you screwed up and here is your Scarlet A, and we’re going to make sure you’re reminded of it for the rest of your life.”
MR. CROMARTIE: You must have been a preacher, too. Erica, you’re up next, and then Daniel and Michelle.
ERICA GRIEDER, Texas Monthly: Thank you. This actually is related to Jennifer’s question, and maybe I’ll try to ask it from a different angle.
When I think about forgiveness and repentance, I think of them as separate processes that often coincide or are caused by the same event, but if I’m trying to forgive somebody it’s because I was forgiven, and will be forgiven, from a religious perspective, not because of their actions.
So to your point about the importance of naming the injustice or the cause — maybe the way to ask it is do you expect the person who names the injustice to be the person who needs to repent? Or do you think it’s okay to separate those things so somebody else can say, you’re right, that was a — you’re right to be hurt, here’s why you’re hurt, without any expectation of what they’re going to do — the person who might eventually or might not repent?
DR. JONES: They are distinct, but I don’t think there is — at least religiously understood (and I would argue it ought to be the case generally) but clearly with Jewish and Christian traditions, it is a conceptual mistake to think there can be the fullness of forgiveness without repentance. It’s a conceptual mistake.
I mean, 1st John actually raises the question of how is sin after baptism possible because there’s a certain logical error if you understood what you’re doing and what you’re engaged in.
So Karl Barth once said, “Repent not because you must but because you may.” If you understand what it means to receive forgiveness, you’re actually — you would want to repent because you’ve come to realize that what I’ve done harmed another person or myself, or both, in a way that I ought to want to repent.
Now, in the complexities of human life there will be cases where the person who helps you name what you’ve done may not be the person who also is best able to help you learn to live into that. So that’s why there are communities of people and people play different roles along the way.
And you know, ironically, it’s also the case that forgiveness is often discovered as a gift in the context of other practices, so it’s not always the case when you just say, “Here’s what you did and let’s sit down and have a kind of Geneva conference and reach an accord.”
I mean, there’s the old Rabbinic tradition of the two Rabbis getting ready for Yom Kippur and the first one — they’ve been at odds forever — and so the first one comes to the second one and doesn’t want to really get too far out on a limb, and he says, “I wish for you what you wish for me.” And the other one says, “There you go again.”
Often when you get into actually kind of coming together, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of even good intensions happen.
So actually, the discovery of forgiveness sometimes happens apart from the person who was wronged, and sometimes apart from explicitly focusing on it.
I think of how often in the music that I experience during worship, my heart will thaw about something that has absolutely nothing to do with anybody in that context.
Or in the great movie, Babette’s Feast, it’s in the sharing of a feast that Babette has prepared that these Danish Lutherans in this isolated community actually start to discover forgiveness with one another, and you see cinematically that the color comes back into their cheeks in extraordinary ways.
So, yes, forgiveness and repentance are distinct and sometimes there are people who can help us repent who may not have been part of the original situation at all. What I don’t want to have happen is to either completely separate forgiveness from repentance, or forgiveness from reconciliation, because it’s too easy.
I had a guy I was estranged from in high school and I convinced myself that I forgave him and I was very happy about that and just kind of put it out of my mind, and then went back for my tenth high school reunion and he walked in, and I felt every bone in my body and every muscle tense up, and I wanted to go over and smack him.
You know, that suggests I maybe wasn’t really all that forgiving — because I can play all sorts of mind games myself, so I want to connect it to the potential, at least, for the restoration of the relationship.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you. Daniel Burke?
DANIEL BURKE, CNN: Many of the traditions and examples you’ve given of personal forgiveness are deeply rooted in religion and we know that —
MR. CROMARTIE: Into the mike, Daniel.
MR. BURKE: Sorry. One of the fastest growing groups in the country is the Nones — and so I’m wondering — these are people who are not attached to —
MR. CROMARTIE: N-O-N-E-S.
MR. BURKE: Right. Exactly. And are there secular examples of forgiveness that the Nones can draw on and do you see any of the newer Atheists or humanist groups that are popping up at college campuses or in big cities doing that?
DR. JONES: That’s a great question. The first thing I’d say is that I would distinguish between the Nones and Atheists, because actually the evidence — and this is actually something that Luis Lugo talked about in March, that actually if you probe very deeply into the Nones, what you find out is they are actually not Atheists, they’re just not involved in any particular religious tradition.
So they have a kind of spiritual disposition, in many cases —
MR. CROMARTIE: Remind everybody of the category again? The Nones are people who check off –when you ask their religious affiliation, they simply say “None.” And this has risen from like 8% to 20% in American society.
DR. JONES: Yeah. And particularly prevalent in the Northwest, where it’s growing very rapidly. So I just want to distinguish that from the kind of Atheist — convinced Richard Dawkins-kinds of folks — although even Dawkins seems to have backpedaled a little bit recently. He talks about how much he likes the Church of England’s liturgy and so there’s a kind of curious cultural — he’s not sure he wants to give up the culture that the Church of England has helped foster in England. It’s a peculiar position that is only, I think, possible in England, as near as I can tell — that kind of view, but —
There actually was a story once when I was in England of a church that was changing its membership requirements for people who believed this stuff, and there was a great outcry of having membership tied to actual belief. It was a — it was one of those funny kind of notions.
But anyway, back to your question. Sorry. There are — I think Mandela is actually an example of a Secular. In his later years he has great appreciation for his Methodist upbringing, but I am not sure he would consider himself a practicing Christian.
So I think he actually fits fairly closely into the kind of None tradition of somebody who would characterize themselves as vaguely spiritual, but I don’t think he’d consider himself in any serious way a practicing religious person.
I think there are — I’d actually say that I admire the kind of organizational culture — to go back to Paul’s question about organizations, there’s a very strong organizational culture that’s linked to accountability and forgiveness that I’ve seen embodied in Mike Krzyzewski’s basketball teams at Duke.
There’s plenty of wrongdoing, but he doesn’t tend to —
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s also at Carolina, too.
DR. JONES: That’s a little more dubious these days, my friend, both in football and basketball, if you read the papers. I used to believe that — Dean Smith had it, I’ll grant you that, but it’s in tatters currently in that school eight miles away.
But it’s a way of — now, I’d say his is religiously informed — I mean, Coach K is a practicing Catholic, but it’s not as if he expects all his players to be such — and it’s rooted in the ethos of a sports team, but he has ways of dealing with wrongdoing that I know happened and the ways he deals with it actually are pretty admirable and he finds way to restore people into the team, he just does it outside of calling a press conference, and so often you don’t know.
I’ve got a fairly recent example of a kid that I’ve worked with who will be playing on the team this year who went through that process with him, and it’s a pretty extraordinary example.
I think the military secular example is actually — the military, because it has more of a culture of honor, actually has better practices of how you deal with forgiveness issues than a culture — to go back to Mollie’s point — that doesn’t have any notion of honor and so no notion of sin.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Michelle Cottle, you’re up next.
MICHELLE COTTLE, The Daily Beast: Okay. So you were talking —
MR. CROMARTIE: And then John.
MS. COTTLE: You were talking earlier about a strain, a culture, within Evangelicalism that kind of focuses on, you know, these flamboyant professions of faith or redemption and how that might play into things, like when Mark Sanford has to get up and give his mea culpa.
But kind of playing off what Kirsten was asking about, do you think that because just in general we are an increasingly confessional culture, that the public is going to come more and more to expect these things, whether it’s religion-based or just, you know, like Jersey Shore? We like to know, kind of, and share, and we want to over share and we expect our public figures to over share as well, especially when they’ve done something as juicy as some of these guys do?
DR. JONES: I hope not, but you’re probably right. I actually think that one of the great needs we have is for a significantly greater measure of reserve, of not thinking that everything needs to be shared.
I mean, I was telling Michael, a lot of the stuff I read in essays and other forms are links that I find on Facebook or other kinds of social media, but I am so sick of finding out what people have for dinner and what they — I mean the level of telling me stuff that I’m just astonished by, and that’s from the trivial to the moral.
And, you know, I think one of the problems with reality TV is it’s confessional in a kind of exhibitionist way without any context of a story.
It’s kind of a funny notion, but if you think about the schlocky TV of a generation or two before, even the little ditties at the beginning were kind of mini stories, so even Gilligan’s Island had the people go on a three hour tour. You know, and Jed found black Texas tea, whatever it was called, for the Beverly Hillbillies.
You got a little bit of a story and you had a sense that you were participating in a story. The exhibitionism of our popular media now is devoid of any narrative.
Forgiveness makes sense within the context of a narrative, within the context of a story, partly because you want to see how — what difference does it make? How is it lived and embodied tomorrow? Does the person do the same thing? Are they just a repeat offender?
And so in the context of a story, you are much more likely to be reserved because you know that what you say is going to have implication tomorrow. This comes back to the amnesia that Peter asked about earlier. I think that, you know, the moral significance of remembering is deeply connected to forgiveness.
I hate the phrase “forgive and forget” because it’s psychologically impossible, it’s morally problematic and theologically confused, but other than that, it’s okay.
What forgiveness is about is learning to remember differently and well in a context of a story, and the confessional culture that we’re in in this exhibitionist kind of way is disconnected from any narrative where you could learn to remember well.
If you want to know the best moral manual I can think of, it’s actually the Benedictine Rules. Why? Because those were people who were committed to a vow of stability, so they were going to be accountable to each other for life. And if you’re going to be accountable to each other for life, you’re going to be careful what you say and do because people can remember it for the rest of your life.
The way we try to pretend, although in a perverse way — the other trend of our culture is that because of the Internet, now there is not the anonymity of being able to do stuff and then it get forgotten.
I was just reading about a woman who got fired as a teacher in Dallas, I think, because of Playboy pictures she had done in college, and she said, “Well, it was harmless.” But people can still access it, and so, you know, what students put on their Facebook page, or what they do is going to be tracked, and so it’s not going to be as easily forgotten by anybody who has a search engine.
I’m really depressed about the confessional culture, but I’m afraid you may be right that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
MR. CROMARTIE: Andy Ferguson? You want to pass?
ANDREW FERGUSON, The Weekly Standard: Kirsten asked my question.
MR. CROMARTIE: Who asked it?
MR. FERGUSON: Kirsten.
MR. CROMARTIE: She did? Because you told me a different one during the break.
Okay. Well, if it comes back in the way you expressed it, please come back to me. John Green, you’re up next, and then Mindy.
DR. JOHN GREEN, University of Akron: I was very impressed by your argument about communities being the appropriate place for forgiveness to take place, but that got me thinking about our public figures, particularly politicians, but maybe other kinds of public figures.
What’s the appropriate community for a political figure? I mean, is it their spiritual community, or religious community? Is it other politicians? Is it the voters in their district? Is it the news media that cover them? So I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.
DR. JONES: Sure. I don’t think it’s the latter two groups. I do think — I mean, there is this phenomenon that Michael Lindsay writes about in Faith in the Halls of Power, that the more people in a variety of vocations rise in their positions of leadership and power, the less likely they are to be involved in a local religious community, at least a Christian community, in his argument.
I think that’s a problem, but it’s an understandable one because the complexities of the stuff they deal with are often stuff that increasingly, unfortunately, pastors tend to either not understand, if you put it charitably, or be absolutely dismissive of, if you put it uncharitably, and so I think that’s a problem.
Ideally, I would say that any person of significant influence ought to be involved in a local religious community. That would be the ideal. And one with a certain measure of intimacy and accountability.
I would say that’s likely to be supplemented, hopefully by a community of what I call “holy friends,” who likely share at least some understanding of the peculiar circumstances they face, and also cross sectors, so it doesn’t just become a complaint session about how hard our life is.
So it would be a small group where you have someone who is a political leader, connected to an educational leader, connected to a business leader, so that there are people who are at a certain level of understanding of the complexity.
Because these jobs are hard. I remember visiting the Bush library of George W. Bush in Dallas a few months ago, and there’s a great simulation where you have choice of dealing with different crises that were faced, and our group chose Katrina.
And we were given options to push buttons and get information from things in real-time, and you know, you’re doing it, and I just pushed the button to find out what the Attorney General was going to give advice about the law, and then breaking news hit. The levies had broken, and it was like, darn it, I want this button — I was trying to get the information and I couldn’t get it.
And then you reach a point where you have to make a decision, and at the end I was like, whew, what am I going to do?
Well, I know that from my own experience, where you’ve got partial information, you’re struggling and you’re just trying to figure it out. Sometimes you make big mess ups in those ways. My level of empathy for what a president’s decision making process is like went way up.
Well, you need other people who can help you come to terms with both the good and the bad of the decisions that you face, and so you need people at that kind of level that can share that perspective of the difficulty.
So I’d say it’s a multiple sense of communities, that you want some people who share that sense of the scale and scope of the decisions and issues you’re wrestling with, or the temptations that you wrestle with, and also some ordinary people.
One of my favorite comments from George Bush, the elder, when he gave the commencement address at Duke — we were standing in the tunnel getting ready to walk in, and somebody said to him, “Oh, I’m just so thrilled to meet such an important person,” and he said, “Excuse me, I’m an ordinary person who held an important office for a period of time.”
And we all need an environment where we’re reminded that we’re all human beings, and local religious communities — or there are other vehicles that can be alternatives to that — but local communities where you’re just dealing with other people in a very ordinary way.
MR. CROMARTIE: Now, Greg, you’re aware, of course, of the fact that in Washington we do have this problem where we have what are called little fellowship groups that meet, and now certain politicians actually want everybody to know what the brothers are — the brothers are walking — “walking with” — and being accountable to, and they actually want it publicly known that I meet in this group with these people.
There’s a problem where a person is actually saying I am in a community — in a community — and there’s not a lot of accountability.
DR. JONES: The more anybody has to advertise what they’re doing, the worse it is.
MR. CROMARTIE: Yes.
DR. JONES: And I would actually say — that’s why I said also “crossing sectors,” because the communities tend increasingly I think to be like-minded people, and so it’s going to be less that cross-cutting accountability, and different sectors where, you know, you’ve got to have somebody who can say, “Why do you do it that way?” and that sort of dynamic.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. We’re charging up to lunch and we’ve got three more people, and I want to get them all in. So, Mindy Belz, you’re up — and we might want to accumulate the questions, in fact, Greg, and let you answer all three.
DR. JONES: Okay.
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s Mindy, and Molly, and Patton.
MINDY BELZ, World Magazine: Bear in mind this is a departure from some of the good discussion, but I’ll try anyhow. You mention the overlap between Judaism and Islam and Christianity, in talking about this whole idea of forgiveness.
It’s my observation from covering wars in the near east, attending a lot of dialog sessions between Christians and Muslims following 9/11, that kind of thing, that really, Westerners and people in the Muslim world seem to be talking past each other when you get to this whole idea of forgiveness.
It doesn’t — it isn’t apparent that it’s a concept in the Muslim world, and we see that being played out, not only in terms of terrorism against the United States, but what’s happening among Sunnis and Shiites right now.
It just seems to me a really huge issue that we aren’t dealing with and we don’t have a good understanding, and so I’m intrigued to ask if you can help us have a better idea of the concept of forgiveness in Islam, and is anyone talking about this within Islam? Are there places for journalists to go to get a better understanding of that?
MR. CROMARTIE: We don’t need to accumulate. I want to hear the answer to that right away.
DR. JONES: I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t differences and there aren’t tensions, but there’s plenty of material in the Quran — and I would not in the first instance want to claim to be an expert on Islam, so you ought to ask a Muslim, actually, on this.
But I would say there is plenty of material in the Quran that overlaps with both Jewish and Christian understanding. There are also tensions between how Jews and Christians talk about it.
I was actually part of a really fascinating conference in Jerusalem, of all places, at the Tantur Institute, which brought Jews, Christians, and Muslims together to talk about forgiveness.
It was an incredibly poignant and challenging set of issues, which ironically included some self-examination of the ways in which each tradition has developed practices which impoverish our own understanding. So it was a Rabbi from Jerusalem who was saying, “You know, we Jews aren’t very good at forgiveness.” And it was a Muslim Imam who said, you know, “We just don’t know how to practice forgiveness.” It wasn’t that we don’t believe in it, it’s just that we aren’t good at it. And then it was me and another Christian who said, “You know, we’re not so great at it as Christians.”
I think that part of the difficulty that we have to separate is the kind of dominant cultures in which Islam is being practiced. I would compare, perhaps with hesitation because there are other dynamics to the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, where the battle is not a religious battle, it’s really an ethnic battle that started with some different religious sensibilities.
But they’re not actually arguing about theological matters. This is now a politically charged set of battles that’s way more ethnically rooted than it is theologically framed, and I think something similar is happening within Islam and the ways in which Islam and the West has gotten framed.
I have a Muslim friend who talked about his house being targeted by other Muslims when he was living in South Africa, and he was bombed — he said — he draws the association to Martin Luther King being bombed by the Klan. Now, King being bombed by the Klan was in the name of Christianity, so to speak, of a certain sort. Well, that’s what happened to this guy, whose understanding of Islamic law deviated from these extremist Muslims. I think the problem is that what we understand to be Islam is associated with a kind of extremist understanding that has unfortunately become quite prevalent and dangerous and influential. So I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to just pretend that Islam is a simply a peace-loving religion without extremists, in a way similar to Christianity.
I think it’s bound up — a larger topic — it would be how forgiveness and power are related, and unfortunately — Andy Crouch has a wonderful new book out on Christian understandings of power called Playing God that I commend to you.
But part of the difficulty we have around forgiveness in thinking about Christianity and Islam and all the kind of big political cross-cultural issues is bound up with ways in which we’re not very good at thinking about the Christian exercise of power, which I think is connected also to forgiveness.
MR. CROMARTIE: If we had time we could find out from you — and we don’t have time — about the group in Rwanda that was the safest place to be whose name we cannot pronounce — Nyamirambo — but we can’t go there now because we have less than five minutes.
Molly, and then Pat.
MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic: My question is, how are we as journalists, to handle public officials’ demands for forgiveness?
You started out talking about spin and about this sort of charade of forgiveness that politicians go through, and this is always something that we have a hard time with is how do we approach that with the appropriate degree of cynicism and hold those people accountable without devolving into this sort of petty, prurient — sort of petty morality that you’ve talked about?
You know, I think too often we would just run a sort of thumb-sucky think piece about what forgiveness means in modern life, and call up Dr. Gregory Jones, who would give a quote saying, “Forgiveness is a process. It takes a lot of time.”
How do we afford these people their human capacity for absolution, while also not letting them off the hook?
DR. JONES: That’s a good question. I think in the first instance I would recommend finding ways to do stories that aren’t reactive to the latest celebrity scandal of the moment.
The trouble is, if it’s always a reactive story, the terms are always defined by the person and whatever their particular episode is.
And so it’s a reactive mode where I think there’s actually a larger horizon of cultivating a conversation about what are the relationships between trust, wrongdoing, and forgiveness that actually narrate stories that set a different context, so then when an episode occurs, whoever the latest person is, there’s a larger context to return to.
It’s kind of like — we’ve turned debates about forgiveness almost into the notion that sexual ethics is what you talk about in terms of the backseat of a car. That’s the last time you want to talk about it because the emotions are intense.
What you really want to be doing is setting a context so that when there’s actually inflamed emotions on one side or the other, you actually have something back to appeal to.
And there’s a larger horizon and a larger context that we ought to be figuring out ways to communicate more effectively, and we ought to be doing that in print, on video, in movies, in all kinds of settings, partly to lift up the really positive stories.
Karen came up at the break and suggested Chuck Colson as an example of somebody, and I think that’s a good example. He wasn’t an elected politician, but nonetheless did an incredible amount of good, and that made me think of Jeb Magruder, another guy from Watergate days who became a Presbyterian Pastor, largely out of the limelight.
But, we ought to be lifting up and narrating and finding ways to tell those kinds of stories, not in the kind of schlocky, sentimental ways, but in ways that actually are serious contributions to what we think is the cultivation of the kind of public goods that we care about as a culture, and then we’re in a position to be way less shocked — there’s gambling here — kinds of reactions when the latest celebrity goes through it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, Patton, you are going to take us right into lunch, and you can tell a good session, ladies and gentlemen, when we go overtime.
PATTON DODD, The Washington Post: Molly’s question was very much like mine, so I think we’re good, actually. I think he just spoke to it.
MR. CROMARTIE: What a guy. That’s terrific.
MR. DODD: We can all go eat.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay, ladies and gentleman, our lunch is where we had breakfast, right out the door here, and then we’re back in here at 1:00 o’clock. So thanks again to Dr. Jones.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, spelling, and grammar.