Archive for the 'Forgiveness' Category

Cosby,Character, Congruence, Christ

“‘As surely as God lives’ [David]  said to Nathan, ‘the man who did this ought to be lynched!’… ‘You’re the man!’ said Nathan.“ –2 Samuel 12:5, 7 MSG


I didn’t want to believe the ugly stories  about Bill Cosby. He’s one of my all-time favorite comedians. I’ve liked what I’ve known of his offstage life. He’s supported his alma mater Temple University. He’s stood up for civil rights when that stance was costly. He’s worked toward increased opportunity for African Americans and other minorities. He’s spoken with no-holds-barred honesty about the need for black people (especially young men) to take responsibility for themselves and their actions.

I’ve hoped that the ugliness would somehow be explained away. But the evidence continues to accumulate. I have to admit that at least some of the charges have credibility. I’ve looked for honesty, if not apology, from Cosby. But he and his advisors have thus far chosen not to address these matters except with denials and as required to in court.


This longtime Cosby fan struggles with the chasm separating Cosby’s highly-regarded reputation and the dramatically different revelations regarding his character. Reputation is our public image. We (and/or our PR staff) craft our “reputation” with the vast array of tools available to 21st-century image-smiths. Reputation may be crafted to suit ourselves. Character, on the other hand, is lasting, authentic, and not subject to manipulation. .

Suddenly Bill Cosby’s character and his long-time reputation seem to belong to two different people. Of course he’s hardly the first public figure whose character and reputation contradict each other. As the Watergate affair came to light, President Richard Nixon tried to do business as usual. To his credit, he ended the Vietnam conflict and opened up US-China relations during that time. But the deteriorating cover-up revealed the widening gap between Nixon’s well-publicized reputation and his increasingly dubious character. He’s hardly the only president who was sometimes less than “presidential”. Extramarital affairs marred the reputations of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Clinton. Beyond the White House, General David Petraeus resigned after his affair not only crossed the line of marital fidelity but raised national security issues. And beloved (at least in Cincinnati) baseball player Pete Rose’s reputation suffered severely when his betting on his own team’s games came to light.

We expect national leaders and other public figures to be the same person privately and publicly. But my “let’s-get-real” side says let’s stop kidding ourselves. Consistently congruent lives are increasingly rare commodities.


Two geometric figures are “congruent” when they are exactly the same size and shape.  You can lay one on top of the other and they fit perfectly. I worked hard in high school geometry learning to prove the congruence of various geometric figures. Living a congruent life means our life is one seamless piece. Our walk and our talk match perfectly.  We are the same person at work, at school, at home, driving, playing, in church and out. We thought Bill Cosby’s life showed reasonable congruence. But he’s as fallible a human being as the rest of us.

David was Israel’s greatest king politically, militarily, and spiritually. One day David looked out from his balcony, saw a beautiful woman bathing on her balcony. He wanted her. Kings got what they wanted back around 1000 BCE. David had Bathsheba brought to his palace. Her husband Uriah was away fighting in King David’s army. David had his way with Bathsheba and sent her back home. A few weeks later she sent him this message: “I’m carrying your child.” Actions have consequences—even for the King!

David went into full cover-up mode. He brought Uriah home on leave. David welcomed him at the palace and urged him to go home and see his wife. Uriah refused. He would not enjoy the comforts of home while his men were in harm’s way. He slept in the palace with the king’s servants. Plan A failed miserably. So David initiated Plan B. The king sent Uriah back with sealed orders for his commander: “Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die.”  (2 Samuel  11:15 CEB).

Sometime after that fatal battle the prophet Nathan dropped by the palace. He told David a story about a rich man’s outrageous treatment of a very poor man. David exploded with outrage– “…the man who has done this deserves to die…” “You are the man!” Nathan replied. (2 Samuel 12:5, 7) Nathan shined a million-candlepower spotlight on David’s congruence failure. Psalm 51  is the song of repentance David may have written after his encounter with Nathan—and Nathan’s God.


I don’t presume to know Bill Cosby’s spiritual state of affairs. I have no desire to preach to him or judge him. I do believe this word might well shape our perspective on Cosby, ourselves, and whoever happens to be the media’s Sinner of the Week :“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB) Paul claims the title for himself based on his pre-Christ persecution of Jesus’ followers. All of us who follow Jesus have had our moments. We’ve all laid claim to that title: “I’m the biggest sinner of all!” We seldom made headlines or video clips with our wrongdoing. But Bill Cosby’s globally-proclaimed sins are no less deadly than our less public misdeeds.

While we condemn Cosby’s sexual misconduct, we who are people of faith also affirm that we are equally “Congruence-challenged”. Even more important, we dare to claim that “biggest sinner of all” is not the end of the story. The last word—for Paul, for you and me, Bill Cosby, for every human being–is the limitless love described in Paul’s previous statement: “Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14 MSG)

Forgiving–and Remembering–Dylann Roof

Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  Colossians 3:13 CEV

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Charleston shootings, families of the nine victims declared their forgiveness for Dylann Roof , the alleged shooter. Public reaction included

  • Admiration–“Glad they can do it. I couldn’t.”
  • Affirmation–“Tremendous testimony to their faith…”
  • Skepticism–“Really? Easy to say it now. But how long before the pain and anger overwhelm them ?”
  • Outright resistance–“How can you forgive the coldblooded murder of nine people?” “Isn’t there a limit? Aren’t some crimes just too evil to forgive?”

Roxane Gay is one of the resisters. The author and Purdue University English professor wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “I do not forgive Dylann Roof…I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice…some acts…are so terrible that we should recognize them as …beyond forgiving.” She affirms and respects the faith of the victims’ families: “I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.” But she harshly criticizes the way “…the dominant media narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness…” 

“Forgive and forget” is a platitude we mouth almost automatically when somebody mentions forgiveness. Like many platitudes, it’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t always go far enough. Unforgettable evil requires a deeper understanding of forgiveness. We can’t forget the Charleston shootings, Nazi concentration camps, expressions of racism in this country and elsewhere, and so much more. “Forgive and forget” can become a recipe for perpetuating an unjust status quo and ensuring that you’ll get kicked harder every time you’re knocked down. No wonder Ms. Gay, an African-American woman, writes that “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is…Black people forgive because we need to survive…We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.”

Can we forgive without forgetting? Pastor and Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes thought so. So he wrote a book entitled—you guessed it—Forgive and ForgetSmedes says that when I forgive you, I help myself at least as much as I help you. Releasing my claim against you liberates me: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  A grudge is a heavy burden. Carrying one requires enormous emotional and spiritual effort. The families and others who loved those nine folks understand that. Carrying a grudge traps us in that terrible past and slams the door on the future God has for them.

Forgiving a significant hurt doesn’t happen quickly or easily. The process  takes months, years, a lifetime. Forgiving Dylann Roof will evolve as people move through their grief. For most the journey will include missteps, false starts, and significant relapses. “You will know that forgiveness has begun,” Smedes writes, “when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” Forgiving Dylann Roof clearly doesn’t mean we wish he could just skip all this legal stuff and hang out with us at Starbucks. It does mean praying for him even though we don’t know how. He is, after all, God’s child, admittedly a child gone terribly wrong. Forgiving Dylann Roof also means lifting up his family in prayer as they live through the future they never asked for or anticipated.

Smedes rejects any notion that forgiveness means accepting, whitewashing, or tolerating evil: “When we forgive evil, we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.” A cheating spouse cannot be truly forgiven until the unfaithfulness has been fully exposed, the wronged person in the relationship has felt the full weight of the damage, and has shared the extent of his/her pain. Forgiveness ultimately may or may not include reconciliation and restoration of the marriage relationship. We forgive the other. We don’t hold the misdeed against him/her forever. But that person’s past behavior is part of who he/she is. We need to see a consistent pattern of changed  behavior before we trust him/her as before.

Roxane Gay and others rightly point out that “[Black people] have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive.” Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean forgetting what he did. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean pretending nothing happened. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean covering our eyes and closing our ears to the racist/white supremacist ideology that infected him along with so many others. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves missed the signs of trouble as he grew—teachers, friends, family, church. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves could have made a healing, life-saving difference—but nobody did. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean boldly naming the fear- and-hate-based ideology that poisoned him and assertively offering a grace- and love-based incarnational alternative. (In English, that means we embody the extravagantly welcoming love of God in Christ for all within our reach.)

Forgiving is an essential practice for transforming our polarized and fragmented society. Who better to practice and model it than followers of Jesus?  Listen once more to Lewis Smedes:

“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”

“The Holy Spirit, thank God, often enables people to forgive even though they are not sure how they did it.”