Finding Forgiveness in the Post-Truth Era
From Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to actor Liam Neeson, our news is filled with people seeking forgiveness for the misdeeds of their past.
In this week's podcast, Cameron and Nathan wrestle with the ambiguity of what secular apologies actually mean and whether or not our nation believes that people can actually change. Is our character fixed in the past or is progress and redemption possible?
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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. This is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host, Cameron McAllister,
Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your co-host Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: Well, we thought today we would talk to you about the topic of forgiveness. It's kind of a fraught topic these days, in a sense, of course, if you're following the news, you're seeing a new controversy every single day where somebody finds themselves embroiled in kind of an escalating situation where they've misspoken, or they haven't misspoken, they actually meant what they said, and some misdeed of their past has come to light again. And even when there's finally an admission on the part of the person, or if they're really wrestling with what they've said or what they've done, and they're sorry about it, it's still difficult for the public to reckon with it.
And, often, we find that just forgiveness seems to be very complex because are they supposed to pay for what they've said in some way? Should, if this is a politician, should they resign? If this is a person who's an actor or in some kind of major role, should their career be sidelined? Many questions surrounding the issue. And it's happening every single day. There's a new case just about every single day. And especially in the realm of politics where everybody just keeps on digging into the past. And I think the Internet has made this a little bit more intense in recent years because it's just easier to go back through and just drag up stuff. So we were thinking about maybe just talking about forgiveness this time and it can be a painful subject. So, Nathan kind of had this idea, I think it's a good one. So I'm going to kick it over to Nathan a little bit and have him weigh in here just a wee bit. But it's a topic that we think is important.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So, well, it's important, but I think probably, first, we should discuss whether or not it even exists.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, sure.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And that's sort of where I was going with this. Looking at the fact of, as you mentioned, right now we're looking at governors of states, we're looking at actors, comedians, congresswomen, people apologizing, tweeting apologies. Then I got to thinking, "Okay, so there's apologizing, but then ..." I'll just kind of throw all my cards on the table here of what's popping into my mind along this and then you kind of helped me tease through it. So there's apologizing, but then there's forgiveness, and those things seem to me to be inherently different in some way. And then I started thinking about the fact, "Well, if you grew up in a religious context, specifically in Christian circles, forgiveness is a huge part of our understanding of human interactions, but do we actually have a grounding for secular definitions of forgiveness?"
And if we don't, do we think people really can change? What's the role of repentance as it comes to apologies? Do we believe that somebody can actually ... You see the language sometimes, evolving views. "I've grown out of that. I was at a different place." Do we really think that can happen? Do we actually want them to apologize or do we see our demanding they apologize as a power play where, "Ha, now we've got you and defamed you." Is that part of it? How does justice then fit into this? I think you alluded to it.
And so these are just some of the things that popped into my mind. You can see it's a whole kerfuffle of vocabulary, competing ideas, and, of course, so much of it is politicized. It becomes a way of actually you're digging into somebody's past, not because you care about the truth, but because you went to demean them for your own gain somehow. This is not solving anything right now. I'm just kind of spewing here, verbally, of just ... I think, what a lot of us have been sort of subconsciously thinking about when we read the news.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. I don't know that there's many cases that I can think of where there's actually been reconciliation that's taken place publicly in one of these cases. In fact, I can think, if I call to mind, there's really only one instance, and I'm sure there are more, but I remember one. The creator of the show Community. Community was a comedy show and had been a long running series, but there were some allegations made by one of the actors and she had accused the creator of the show of basically making inappropriate remarks to her. And he admitted it and they actually spoke on a podcast together and she actually forgave him publicly and she was surprised. She didn't know that he was going to respond in that way. So, obviously, it was an unplanned exchange and it was pretty remarkable. I think that was about two years ago.
But I remember when it took place, everybody was so genuinely surprised. Everybody, because that kind of exchange is so rare. There usually isn't the talking. Well, the admission, and then the talking and then the repentance and then the actual forgiveness. All of those elements happened right there in real time and also it was a very public thing. But, usually, you're right, we don't. It's almost as though we don't know what we need. On the one hand, let's try to separate some issues here or let's categorize it. On the one hand there's the cynical kind of power play issue, right? Where it's this, you mentioned, I think this sort of "gotcha" language.
So if we're talking about politicians, where, increasingly, the rule of thumb just seems to be whatever is politically expedient, let's go. Because this cuts across, when it comes to some of these major issues involving racism and all that, we're saying, let's take Virginia for instance, we're seeing now, with recent developments, that it's cutting across party lines. Yes. There happened to be three major democrats who are really under a lot of scrutiny right now, but now there's been a little digging has been done and now there are some Republicans who are being exposed as well.
And so in this sense, even though there's some genuinely terrible stuff that's happened in the past, what seems to be happening is a little bit more, "How can we, basically, take control politically of the situation or how can we use this sort of to our advantage?" That sounds, again, so incredibly cynical. And I think that there's mixed motives here of course as well, but there's those instances, where you've got kind of a power play dynamic going on. And then there's other instances, where there seems to be genuine outrage and then the concern is how does this person pay? Or how do we deal with this now that this has surfaced? Does the person lose their career?
You think about somebody like Aziz Ansari and some of the developments there, or Liam Neeson as well recently. On and on we could go. So there's the instances where there seems to be a power dynamic and then there's, really, there's an instance where there seems to be real moral outrage and we wonder is there some form of, you try not to use too much religious language, but what atoning that needs to take place here? And how far ... Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, but that word does sneak in. If you look at some articles, it's very difficult for people to write about this without co-opting religious language. I think even Trevor Noah uses the word atoning in speaking about the Liam Neeson thing, so it gets in there, it gets in there.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Yeah. Again, we're not solving anything. I mean we genuinely are thinking out loud about this because it's perplexing to know, as Christians, when you sit on the sidelines and you watch all of this unfold, then there's also, let's complicate it further, though, there's also those who will say, 'All right, before you go immediately screaming for we need to think about reconciliation, forgiveness, let's deal with the fact that so many of these misdeeds, particularly where racism is concerned, for instance, have not been dealt with in the past." And there's a lot of doubt about whether people actually feel real remorse as well. Nathan, I think you were kind of alluding to this because this stuff hasn't been openly confessed often. It's been uncovered.
So that adds another element of complexity, right? Because had it never been uncovered, had the public never found out, we wouldn't be talking about it in the first place. It wouldn't be all over Twitter. Apologies wouldn't be demanded. So how genuine is this in the first place? I think that plays a part here. So a lot of people will say, "Whoa, Whoa, whoa. Before you start talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, how can there be true forgiveness and repentance and reconciliation if there isn't real repentance in the first place?"
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, and I think we see this with our children. They say I'm sorry. And you're saying, "Well is it sorry that you're ... Are you sorry of the deed or you're sorry that you got caught?" What's the real? And so I think we just amplify that up a couple of generations and that covers a lot of it there. So, all right, well, now that we've dumped all the legos on the table here, let's see if we can put some stuff back together here. And I think the tension that we're seeing is that, as Christians, our minds will deeply and immediately go to very redemptive themes, religious language. And I think Jesus Christ does make the most sense of these concepts that we're wrestling with.
But we need to frame it a bit more before we jump into that. So maybe to do that is to say, you were saying about how some controversies cut across political lines. And just to reiterate that and to say, "you know what? Just because you're Republican or a Democrat doesn't mean that you're not human." And so this isn't a political partisan issue. This is a human issue. And anybody who's old enough or wise enough to figure out how to listen to this podcast has done things in their past that they deeply regret.
Now, that's a pretty bold statement to categorize everybody that way. And there's possibility, it's possible, not probable, that perfect people listen to this podcast. So, to start by framing it as a human condition, as something that I myself need to think about and I can look at it, I can use my own life sort of as the test case for then how I want to begin thinking about some of these themes might be a productive way to move forward here. So, for me, the question is, and I was with a bunch of guys recently, and the conversation, came up about, "Okay, yearbook photos from the past." And this was in a Christian context of people who became Christians maybe later in life, who were all saying, "Man, if you wanted to skewer me, go back and look at my life 30, 40 years ago."
And just in many, like, that was totally unacceptable, inappropriate. All kinds of stuff that I did in my past, that if my character today was judged off of who I was then, I would have no integrity or no respect at all. And so, one of the things that we're wrestling with, there, is the question of can a person actually change? And that's the big one I think of we ... On one hand, we don't believe in integrity. The other hand, we demand it to the point that we think if somebody lacked character 30 years ago, they still do. So that's the big cultural question I think. Can somebody's character change for the better? Can there be true transformation in an individual's life that they're no longer the person they claim to be?
Now that only is a categorical question and the one of stuff that surfaces from 20 years ago. "I thought this, I felt this. I thought about doing this, too, yesterday, I tweeted this." Those are probably categorically different, but I do think that that matters. Do we expect to see a change? Does the change come from the apology or does the apology come from the change would maybe be another way for me to try to wrestle through that in my mind. Am I expressing remorse because I recognize that my life is qualitatively different, or my thoughts and emotions or my feelings of other people are different and so then I verbalize that? Or do I verbalize it and then try to prove it? Maybe some of the authentic questions would revolve around that order. What do you think about that? Do you think the question, fundamentally, of is it possible for transformation in our character?
Cameron McAllister: Well, I think so. I mean, I also ... There's another issue that I've, that I've noticed about just the way we carry on conversations these days in public and otherwise. There's a real push toward kind of a self-righteous anger that comes over and over again. And awhile ago, Alan Jacobs had written a blog where he basically said one of the, what he believes, one of the besetting sins of our age is the sense of moral superiority that we like to cultivate. And it, often, it keeps us in this ... It leads to a kind of moral blindness. And it's one that's very familiar to all of those who read scripture. Of course, we read a lot about the kind of hypocrisy that takes shape when we begin to point out all the faults of others exclusively without recognizing our own penchant for making mistakes as well.
I mean just like you, like you said, Nathan, when you talk to somebody, when you talk to anybody and you think, "Gosh, the way we ransack people's pasts. Yeah, if my past were up for scrutiny like that and all of it were available, man, there would be a lot of really incriminating stuff there." But I think that's true of many of us across the board. Now, I can hear some objections already, "Yeah. Whoa, whoa, whoa Cameron." Because there are some people who, especially if they hold public office or who are in some sort of a public role where they're spokespersons or ambassadors in some way and they've done something like this, it carries a lot of weight. That's true. But again, back to what you've said, Nathan, we are all human beings and so, yeah, it does seem to turn on the fact that there seems to be a fundamental skepticism about the ability for people to genuinely change and for real transformation to happen.
I mean, after all, I think, again, to go back to kind of put our Christian cards on the table again here, not to excuse any of these terrible deeds that have been done or some of these, especially some of the ... One of the areas of controversy that's been kind of specific to many of these politicians for instance, has been the whole blackface costume. I mean there's no excuse for that, but to look back and to see when somebody becomes a Christian, for instance, that the picture of conversion is so interesting because even baptism, I mean all this ... Christianity comes with this wealth of symbolism, this rich symbolism about turning completely, dying, the old self dying and the new self being being born in Christ.
And again, that doesn't change our responsibility as human beings. Of course it, in many way, the responsibility to our fellow human beings is more urgent than ever, but it creates a kind of capacity. There's room to actually look at human beings in a more optimistic, less kind of narrow fashion because you recognize that there can be genuine repentance. There can be a genuine turning. But yeah, I guess in a secular kind of arena, where we sort of view ourselves as religiously maybe amorphous, or religiously neutral, or, in some cases, not religious at all, it's hard for me at least, Nathan, and maybe I'm painting with too broad a brush here, but it's hard for me at least to see what even genuine forgiveness would look like in that kind of a context.
If you've done something that is inexcusable, and, again, human beings do things that are inexcusable all the time, but if you've done it, you're in a public kind of role, everybody knows, you've been exposed, and we're in this secular kind of space. We've kind of bracketed, explicitly, religious questions, especially Christianity. So, in that setting, I don't know what ... Can you picture what genuine repentance or forgiveness would look like there?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Well-
Cameron McAllister: I mean, I don't think of a picture.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Right, yeah. This like, right ... What's the most recent news story that you saw that really modeled that well? And go.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right. Exactly.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Most of us will probably ... The wheels are spinning for awhile. I do want to throw a little caveat in here of that idea of death and rebirth and transformation of character and all of that as beautiful and rich and true. And then I think that's what makes the challenge of hypocrisy within the church that much more difficult and brutal. And so for people who are listening who want a treatment of that, Cameron's other podcast, Vital Signs, has a good series on hypocrisy. And so we won't go down that important rabbit trail here, but just to know that we're aware of that category. You asked, so what does this look like then? My biggest fear actually is ... Well it's a thought along this line of we talk about being in a post-truth culture, and I wonder if that isn't a byproduct of a post forgiveness culture?
Cameron McAllister: Oh, interesting.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And that's what made me start thinking about this question. So let me kind of play this out here. So let's say, for example, that you've done something in your past that you're not proud about, but, if it came out as true, there's no way for you to be forgiven of it. Then if you're accused of something, your only option if you want to remain as you are, is to claim that you're innocent because you can't accept guilt because then you're skewered alive in public. And so you don't have the option of telling the truth in a way that maintains, maybe, a position you're in, or a leadership role or something. And so our inability as a culture to forgive means that we have an inability of our leaders to confess. And so are we creating some sort of feedback loop where we have to maintain our innocence at all costs because it's our only option, and that leads to us being untruthful about who we are in the facts of our past? Does that make any sense? Is that possible?
Cameron McAllister: Wow. Yeah, that does make sense, Nathan. And actually, interestingly enough, we're ending up in similar territory here again, as often happens, but I hadn't thought to link the post-truth moment with forgiveness. That's really intriguing. But I have been, and it, actually, interestingly enough, it gels quite well with some of what I was saying earlier about politicians and kind of expediency taking precedence over integrity. I've often thought, as I've heard post-truth, that phrase gets used a lot these days. But I've often thought, most of us know that it doesn't mean that people don't believe that truth exists or that it's shorthand for extreme relativism. I mean you, you go around, this is kind of like when we were talking about millennials on that one show. You hear words like post-truth and people are relativists, but if you actually meet somebody, I've never actually met somebody who would say, "Hi, I'm Joe and I'm a relativist." Just doesn't work like that.
But usually what I've found is that post-truth is a kind of mindset where you go with what works. It's very, very pragmatic. In other words, whatever works, whatever gets results, that's what counts. And the truth needs to take a back seat to that. And I think in the United States, we've always been such a pragmatic nation. This is the place where if you're going to give a talk like we do, we're apologists, you're going to get all the how does this work questions in the United States. How do we actually do this? How does this work? That sort of thing. I mean that's just our bread and butter. And I think, in this day and age, most people are really concerned about staying in office, keeping the status quo, or basically just getting ahead.
I mean, Americans, the way they answer the question, what's the good life or what do we do is, "Well, get your way." And the way you get it done is through, usually, through politics, through some form of power really. And so in that sense, post-truth and forgiveness, if you link them together, you get, I mean, again, this is a fairly cynical reading, but again, if it's accurate, it's not cynical. And I think this is actually fairly accurate. When you're dealing with public figures, usually the case ... Look, let's get specific again and take Virginia. I was reading one op-ed piece about Virginia. Now when it was just the governor, when there's these stories coming out about the governor and the yearbook photos and all of that, then, initially, everybody was immediately calling for Ralph Northam's resignation, right? Just on general principle.
But then when the two other Democrats in office, when it became clear that all ... When there were controversies and one involving allegations of sexual misconduct, I mean very serious, but when it became clear that that would take all three of these major Democratic Party members out and clear the way for Republicans, then suddenly the accusations grew scarce and things got a lot more circumspect and I think some people were actually on record of saying, "yeah, I mean now it really gives you pause for thought because if we call for the resignation of all of them, then we're just basically giving things away to the Republican Party."
But see that illustrates your point right there. I mean, because, then, in the end, what looked like moral principle at first, and I want to tread very, very carefully, carefully here, but what looked like moral principle at first then turns out to take a back seat, it seems, when it means that we have to relinquish power, or when it means that it's the truth here, the actual truth is going to cost, cost us a position, costs us the office, costs us the influence. And I don't think that's peculiar to the Democratic Party. I think that's widespread. I think, in essence, that's post-truth culture right there. I mean, what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts here, Nathan.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, yeah. And so, I mean very few people listening to this are going to be in a political situation where that's ... That are like, 'Oh yeah, I really resonate with that." Well let's try this version on for size. How about in a relationship with another person? "If they really knew who I was, would they still feel the same way about me?"
Cameron McAllister: Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Can post-forgiveness ... Well, there we're coining a term.
Cameron McAllister: Post-forgiveness.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Post-forgiveness culture. Can a post-forgiveness culture generate loneliness then? Can I be known for who I really am and still fully loved? That probably hits a little closer home for us, right? If we think back through to the people that we care about the most or love us the most, are they the ones who actually understand us in a real way? Social media can play into that then where you do a projection of ourselves. And so there's that. Now, if I can spin this around though, Cameron. So I mean we've painted a pretty bleak picture here, but, but, and this is a big one, and this is important. I think the people that I've genuinely known and cared for and they feel the same for me, who have confessed to me things of their past or been brutally honest about who they are, that has actually not driven a wedge between us.
In fact, I can think of more opportunities and times than not that it's actually deeply, deeply helped the relationship. And so the clarity there, genuine forgiveness does happen with repentance and tears and I don't think it's something that we can pull off on our own, but I don't have a language to discuss that without getting Christian on it, but it's real. So I think I want to push this back to a personal level in our own lives, but then just not be bleak and forgiveness isn't a unicorn. It's a real thing.
Cameron McAllister: No, I would completely ... And I've been in the same circumstances myself. I've been forgiven and I've done forgiving as well. And it's been genuine. And again, yeah, tears and repentance, but also, Nathan, maybe another hopeful note to add here and just, I think, a very important piece of perspective. There's a big difference between the kind of major public world and then the spotlight and Twitter and social media and all that and our actual day to day lives, all of us. And I'm willing to bet that most of us have, at some point in our lives, experienced real forgiveness and forgiving others as well. I mean, when you talk to, again, when you talk to regular people in the day to day circumstances of their lives, human life is just fraught with all sorts of mess ups, misunderstandings. I mean, again, as Christians, we would say that's because we're fallen and we're prone to sin and that means we're selfish, we're prone to selfishness and that creates all sorts of hideous behavior.
But that also means that we are obliged, if we're going to lead healthy lives and have healthy relationships, we are obliged to say, "I'm sorry," a lot. And, in my experience with those around me, I again, I continue to see lots of that. So even though the sad part about our day and age is that there doesn't seem to be much room for genuine repentance and forgiveness in, sort of, public settings. And it's, certainly, as we see it played out on our televisions and on social media, there doesn't seem to be much room for it. And, even when you look at some of the terminology that's used, for instance, even for something as simple as disagreement, people will often say if there's somebody who's negative, negative is kind of a very nebulous word, but negative, or this person's a toxic person, just cut them out of your life.
And, of course, that would preclude actually working through issues. But again, there's a sharp disparity, I think, Nathan, between what we see on social media, what we see on TV, what we see in all these different channels, and just the day to day circumstances of our lives. Or, basically, if you simply want to get by and just conduct your relationships, you're going to have to occasionally say, "I'm sorry," and work through the issues that come up and the mistakes that you make and the things that people have done that are wrong in your eyes as well. So I think I would draw a distinction between public and private here a little bit. I don't know.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay. So let's draw that distinction, but then we still have humans in public office.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So are we saying that to live a life as a public figure is a type of rupturing community? And maybe it necessarily is because, I mean, I think when we talk about the private world, forgiveness is easier because of the intimacy. There's clarity about the infraction, who did it, whom it was against, that sort of thing, where when you do it as a politician, it's sort of ... I mean, so you have somebody addresses in blackface. Well that's not an insult to one specific person.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That's an entire category of ... It's impossible to track down everybody in the country who've you've insulted with that one and ask for forgiveness.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes, there's a categorical difference there. I don't know that we're coming up with a good public definition of forgiveness as we go about it.
Cameron McAllister: I don't know that there can be one right now with the current-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well I think maybe that's what we're concluding here.
Cameron McAllister: Because I mean the way everything is set up, I don't ... Because forgiveness is a two way street and it requires, yes, the person to be ... I mean, it requires the person to genuinely repent of their behavior and all that. But then it also requires a reciprocal action from others. And as you said, when you have committed an act that is egregiously offensive to an entire group as well, that complicates matters also. But there's such a powerful cynicism about the motivations, especially of those who hold any kind of power. It doesn't just have to be political office.
And so I think speaking realistically, yeah, I don't know that there is, currently, a model right now for genuine repentance and for forgiveness. Everybody, we're seeing every day somebody new being tried in the court of public opinion. And I mean also that's why you just ... I mean, people are amazingly reluctant to host the Oscars now, to do any kind of public event from the Superbowl to the Oscars, because everybody's afraid. And it is this incredibly tense atmosphere.
I think what we can say by way of encouragement is that in stark contrast to that set up, the church is a place where we ... I mean, again, genuine forgiveness and repentance are possible, but also we need to face the hard facts of life as well when there are modes of behavior that are drastically indefensible. They need to be confronted. They need to be dealt with. But again, it's a place where the very, I mean, the very notion of becoming a Christian involves admitting you're a sinner. It's not just that you need to be saved and you need help. It's also that you're a rebel and that you need to get on your knees before Christ and repent. So it begins with an act of repentance itself. And so I don't see any precedent for that kind of behavior or attitude right now outside the church.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. But the other good news is that then, working within the framework of the tools that we have as Christians is what we believe that justice is real too.
Cameron McAllister: Yes. Absolutely.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And so forgiveness is real, but justice is too. And there are things that we won't be able to forgive and there are things that are unjust that we won't be able to sort out on our own human power. And so we constantly run into that. How do we, on earth, punish the violation of things that are divinely declared to be sacred? Somebody's race is sacred. Their body is sacred. That's something that's given an intrinsic value and worth by God. And so as humans, we politically and socially have restrictions to the degree to which we can atone for, redeem, fix, correct. And that's not at all to say that we throw up our hands. We work passionately for that.
But it's a reminder that we do have the capacity to forgive because, ultimately, justice will happen. Jesus gives us that model and 1 Peter talks about him entrusting himself to the one who judges justly. And so we do have room to give a bit of a benefit of the doubt or to forgive and still maintain justice because of that. And the other beauty of this is, is that oftentimes I've kind of wrestled with how does justice fit within time? And you hear the kind of the common justice delayed is justice denied sort of thing. But I think it's, as it pertains to this conversation, it's also been helpful for me to remember that the delay of justice is necessary for the reality of forgiveness. That the delay of justice is necessary for the reality of forgiveness because if we received immediate punishment for every infringement that we did, we'd probably all be dead by this point in the day.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Absolutely.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And so to live in a system that is just, that enables forgiveness because of grace is a way to live, as a Christian, in a politically, socially, culturally complex world of frail and broken humans, but to live with deep hope, and, as a model of what's possible, that the world can't give because of what Christ has done in and through us. And so I don't want this to do feel like, "Oh, the sky is falling." We do have hope in our own personal hearts as we respond and look at things that happen in the world around us. But it is true that we don't necessarily have a good secular model for forgiveness or justice or grace or mercy. And so this is a place where, as Christians, we have much to say in our world. Well, anyway, that's a whole mouthful. Appreciate you guys sticking with us. You've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, the podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.
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