What Faith Sanctions Instant, No-Effort Forgiveness? Only Pop Religion

Christianity,Ethics,Journalism,Judaism & Jews,Morality

Of the banal New York Times columnist David Brooks it has been said that he is “the sort of conservative pundit that liberals like.” Not being a conservative (or a left-liberal), I find him consistently wishy–washy and inane. There is not a controversial or interesting thought in that head of his.

True to type, Brooks gushes banalities about NBC’s Brian Williams. Suspended for six months, the iconic managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News, it would appear, lied a lot about the events he covered during his limelight-seeking career.

Although it comes close, Brooks’ latest, “Act of Rigorous Forgiving,” is not a complete dog’s breakfast of a column. The aspect of the Brooks column that piqued this scribe’s curiosity is that of forgiveness.

But first, “Williams’ troubles,” as chronicled by The Daily Beast, “began with his false account of a March 2003 helicopter ride during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he told, with dramatic variations, on David Letterman’s late-night talk show and Alec Baldwin’s radio show in March 2013, and repeated on his own Jan. 30 newscast—only to recant it and apologize five days later after Stars and Stripes blew it out of the sky. Now he’s also facing scrutiny for stories of possibly untrue exploits during his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and even whether, as a volunteer teenage firefighter in Middletown, New Jersey, he saved one (or maybe it was two) puppies from a burning house.”

Brooks’ trouble is that the public has not even received a full account of Williams’ transgressions. Yet Brooks has shifted to a discussion of forgiveness. Is this not premature? Brooks, moreover, is preachy and sanctimonious—almost as though writing with himself in mind (along the lines of, “What if the Williams fate befalls me?”). Brooks is also plain wrong. He claims that transgressors are treated barbarically when they “violate a public trust.” Nonsense on stilts. In a culture steeped in moral relativism, this is simply untrue. Paris Hilton debuted her public life with a self-adoring pornographic video. It only increased her profile. Likewise Kim Kardashian, who has been bottoms-up ever since that maiden performance. Her sister, almost as bad, has visited the White House. Barack Obama lied intentionally when he vowed, “You can keep your healthcare if you want to,” but all was forgiven and forgotten. Ditto Genghis Bush on the matter of WMD. On and on.

In any event, boilerplate Brooks is tempered by some good points about the necessity to perform penitence before being granted clemency:

… the offender has to get out in front of the process, being more self-critical than anyone else around him. He has to probe down to the root of his error, offer a confession more complete than expected. He has to put public reputation and career on the back burner and come up with a course that will move him toward his own emotional and spiritual recovery, to become strongest in the weakest places.

… It’s also an occasion to investigate each unique circumstance, the nature of each sin that was committed and the implied remedy to that sin. Some sins, like anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Some sins like bigotry are like stains. They can only be expunged by apology and cleansing. Some like stealing are like a debt. They can only be rectified by repaying. Some, like adultery, are more like treason than like crime; they can only be rectified by slowly reweaving relationships. Some sins like vanity — Williams’s sin — can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.

Indeed penitence, especially in the case of a sustained pattern of abuse, can “only be [achieved] by slowly reweaving relationships.”

To simply demand forgiveness because one has said sorry without convincingly and consistently acting sorry, and to proceed further to conduct one’s self like a victim because the victim has failed to extend an instant pardon: This is despicable. To shift the guilt onto the injured party for not granting that minute-made (or is it “minute-maid”?) clemency: That too is beyond the pale.

Jews too, it would appear, have moved into the realm of pop religion. “According to the Talmud,” I was recently instructed, “a person who repents is forgiven his past and stands in a place of righteousness.”

No mention was made of the hard, lengthy work of “slowly reweaving relationships.” The demand was for forgiveness in a New York minute.

My guess is that instant expiation flows more from the values of the 1960s than from any doctrinal Christian or Jewish values. Whichever is the case, the corollary of the current practice of no-effort forgiveness is that “it not only abolishes the necessity of repentance; it abolishes sin itself,” to quote Ted and Virginia Byfield.