Selective Forgiving

Attorneys General and States Attorneys across the nation must think they’ve been given special selective powers by the post-resurrection Jesus.

How else can we explain why these chief law officers – along with those in positions of power within the wider criminal justice system in this country – decide to forgive the sins of those in our national community who have inflicted (and continue to inflict) great suffering across the nation and around the world and refuse to grant that same forgiveness to those whose primary offense is against themselves (that is, not others)?

My assumption here is that these legal authorities believe that Jesus had them specifically in mind when he appeared to the disciples huddled in a locked-door house and said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven those sins; and if you don’t forgive the sins of any, those sins remain unforgiven.” (John 20: 23)

This represents, by the way, an old problem in the history of the Christian church. Early on, those with high offices in the primitive church held that they alone had the power to forgive sins and defiantly refused to share it with the rest of their sisters and brothers in the faith. And that meant that these church leaders had the right to determine who could be admitted into the Christian community through baptism and who should be left outside unbaptized. It also meant that these leaders had the power to decide whether those within the community-of-the-baptized were forgiven their post-baptismal sins or if they were to be banished – excommunicated – from the community for their post-baptismal misdeeds. The issue reappeared at the time of the emergence of Protestantism, when the Reformers interpreted the words of post-resurrection Jesus to apply to all the faithful as a part of their commission to preach the Gospel, while the Council of Trent reaffirmed that this power to forgive or not to forgive could only be exercised by an ordained priest through the Sacrament of Penance.

If it can be safely assumed that everybody sins – well, yes, with a few famous exceptions according to standard Christian orthodoxy – the ramifications of being forgiven or remaining unforgiven has to do with the possibility of leading a fairly fulfilled life-in-community or being condemned to a life of deadly isolation. And that’s the case whether we’re talking about religious communities or civic ones.

That is, to be excluded from religious communities usually means disqualification from redemption in the here-and-now as well as the hereafter while forgiveness of sins means life-giving inclusion in those communities of the faithful now and from now on. Similarly, being imprisoned for civic sins means, by definition, that one is cut off from the vitality and benefits of civic life for a set time or a lifetime, while freedom from imprisonment – whether by being law-abiding, or by having served a sentence, or by being granted amnesty – means having the social conditions of existence in place for human flourishing. In this sense, both religious and civic communities assume the social character of the fullness of life and punish the sinful by eliminating or restricting that sociality.

“The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States,” released at the beginning of 2011, provides detailed and damning evidence of the sins of the professions and professionals associated with the banking, investment, rating services, housing, and related industries – along with the government offices and officials creating the conditions that allowed for the misdeeds – that led to incalculable suffering and loss for people in this nation and across the globe.

The conclusion of the Report in a sentence: “The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire.”

Yet the National Commission referred only “a handful of cases involving potential wrongdoing to the Justice Department” and it is generally conceded there wouldn’t likely be any criminal charges but only civil investigations. (New York Times, 1/24/2011)

Yes, the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted by Congress last year to create more and tighter regulations in the hopes of avoiding a recurrence of such a national and international crisis in the future. But already that legislation, which isn’t as strong as many experts thought was needed, is being attacked by those whose belief in rational and self-regulating markets remains unshaken.

I think it’s fair to say that most Americans have to swallow hard in order to sputter “all is forgiven,” but clearly the very industries that caused such great suffering and loss have now, for all practical purposes, been given a pass. Profits are rising in these business sectors despite the fact that the economy as a whole is recovering slowly; financial reserves are piling up despite the fact that there isn’t enough money in the economy to fuel job growth; executive salaries are climbing again – even if the ratio of base pay to bonus has been reversed – despite the incomes of the lower and middle classes remaining flat and the plight of the unemployed worsening.

Compare that kind of forgiveness, dished out largely to the most privileged of Euro-American descent who caused millions of others to endure sustained suffering and loss, with the plight of those, largely African Americans and Latino Americans, who have been imprisoned over the last three decades for the crime of drug use inflicted only on themselves (in distinction from selling or dealing drugs to others).

Talk about the unforgiven!

As described by Michelle Alexander in her devastating book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” the so-called War on Drugs was first declared when illegal drug use was actually on the decline. But once declared the arrests and convictions skyrocketed, “especially among people of color.” Alexander writes:

“The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran…The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.” (p. 6)

Although illegal drug use is fairly uniform across all segments of the U.S. population, African Americans are in the range of 9% more likely to be imprisoned than Euro-Americans. Moreover, many times those arrested are never prosecuted but the arrest remains on their record, negatively impacting employment possibilities for the rest of their lives. And for those convicted of drug crimes, there is no forgiveness once a sentence has been served: they are permanently prohibited from receiving food stamps, living by themselves or with their families in public housing, receiving public assistance, or securing employment because of their criminal record. It is a life sentence, in other words, which often has the consequence of their landing back in prison for the same or related crime.

Understand: I normally don’t have a lot of sympathy for those engaged in illegal drug use. I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my 69 years of life and am firm in my commitment to remaining “clean” in that sense for as long as I have breath.

But I’ve become convinced that the abuse of drugs, while probably a sin, is not a crime, and certainly not a crime for which there is no forgiveness. It does surely represent a serious health issue, especially for addicts, and as such deserves and demands a constructive response from the health communities, including the public health communities. If illness is something one needs to be forgiven for, then I’m also fully prepared to have such health treatments be creative ways for us to forgive those who are harming themselves and thereby those who love them.

That, however, still leaves the question open of what we should do with those in religious and civic communities who, with the power granted to them, mete out so-called justice by choosing to forgive those who harm many and keeping forgiveness from those who harm only themselves. Or, to put it another way: what should we do with those in religious and civic communities who, with the power granted to them, mete out injustice through their abuse of selective forgiveness?

Here I reaffirm my Reformation and democratic commitments. Forgiveness, whether it has its grounding in God’s mercy or in the provisions of constitutional democracy, rests not with a set-aside priesthood but rather with we the people – especially we the people who have experienced forgiveness for what are surely our religious and civic sins.

It requires of us – we the people – our own selective forgiving and unforgiving of those who abuse not so much the drugs of illegal substances but instead and a lot more often the drugs of greed, prejudice, and power.

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