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I’m afraid I don’t follow the logic of my Beliefnet colleague Diana Butler Bass, who refuses to entertain the idea that the disgraced Republican congressman Mark Souder should be forgiven for his adultery and related shameful behavior. Excerpt:
So, Rep. Mark Souder, I can’t particularly offer you forgiveness or let you off the hook. Not only have you hurt yourself and your family, you have hurt me–even if I never voted for you, never agreed with your politics, and don’t share your version of Christianity. Just because I am a Christian, albeit a progressive, mystical, social justice Episcopalian one, I have to bear the burden of your sin–and that of George Rekers and Ted Haggard and the current Pope…and sadly, on and on. And I hear in my memory the voice of my grandfather and all the invective he’d pour out against the church because of the likes of you.
To all you fellows, I can only offer you the insight of the 18th century British essayist, William Hazlitt: “The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
Are Christians really offered the luxury of refusing to forgive even the repentant sinner? Really? This seems like an awfully problematic position for a Christian to take. And endorsing Hazlitt’s idea that hypocrisy is the only unforgivable sin is similarly a bizarre point of view from a Christian. Because where does it stop? Is DBB refusing to forgive a liberal Christian like former Milwaukee Catholic archbishop Rembert Weakland, who resigned in disgrace after it came out that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying off his gay lover? Weakland was a roaring hypocrite, but even though I am not a liberal Christian, I do not see how I have the right to withhold forgiveness of him if his repentance is genuine. Similarly, whatever we think of Mark Souder, a family-values tub-thumper who carried on extramaritally with a (married) staffer for five years, how can a Christian ever say that it is impossible to offer forgiveness to someone who has been a hypocrite? If that were true, how could any Christian ever be forgiven? Are not all sinners hypocrites, in that we do not consistenly live up to the moral values we proclaim? True, some sinners are greater hypocrites than others — it takes a lot of chutzpah, to say the least, to film programs advocating morally conservative values when your interlocutor is the married woman with whom you are conducting an adulterous affair — but all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So who’s not a hypocrite, at some level?
Democrat John Edwards deserved extra scorn for the same reason Souder does: because he, like Souder, made his family values part of his public appeal. That said, once a hypocrite like Souder or Edwards admits what he has done, and willingly accepts some sort of meaningful penance — including at the very least relinquishing his role as a leader — I don’t see what grounds anyone who calls herself a Christian has for saying that forgiveness for that person isn’t possible. I’m not saying forgiveness has to be instant — serious sins cannot be simply forgotten, though I doubt very much that either Rod Dreher or Diana Butler Bass could have picked Mark Souder out of a line-up until yesterday — but it has to be possible.
In the case of a hypocrite like preacher Ted Haggard, I don’t see any justification for withholding the possibility of forgiveness, though given how quickly he ran through his so-called “rehabilitation” period, and how quickly he’s stepped back into ministry, I think it’s more than fair to question how seriously he’s repented. I would say in such a case, if I were in Haggard’s community (which I’m not, so it’s not my business, really), “Ted, I forgive you, but you have no business in ministry. It’s not going to kill you to get a normal job. It might save your soul.” One thing that gives forgiveness a bad name, and why we are right to be suspicious of it, is it seems to be used by scoundrels as an instrument of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” — that is, forgiveness without real repentance. If a politician, preacher or other notorious hypocrite asks forgiveness in a cheap grace sense, we are wise to be wary of being too quick to offer them forgiveness, because we should be careful about being manipulated by them. In a case like Souder’s, though, I see no evidence that he’s playing this for cheap grace.
The man lived a lie for years, and finally got busted. I don’t know what more a man in his position can do except to say, “I’m guilty, I was wrong, I’m ashamed of myself, and now I’m going to resign my job and leave public life to do penance.” Which is exactly what Mark Souder did. Now, we have to see if he’ll stick with it, but I’ve gotta say, if he does, and there’s still no hope for Mark Souder on the forgiveness front, what hope is there for Diana Butler Bass, or Rod Dreher, or any of us?