Brian Williams, Mark Driscoll, and the Discipline of Forgiveness

The Christian faith has at its core the forgiveness of sin. We are all sinners against a holy God, who by his great grace and compassion to unworthy sinners provides forgiveness of sins through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. We have all sinned and we all deserve God’s wrath and condemnation, but we receive salvation instead. And as forgiven sinners we are called upon to forgive others.

We forgive others not because they are worthy of forgiveness, or demonstrate a changed character rendering them fit for forgiveness, but because we are ourselves unworthy recipients of God’s gracious forgiveness. We must forgive if we are truly Christians. No other option. Consider Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer:

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.    Matthew 6:12-15

Jesus teaches us to pray – forgive us as we forgive others. He then offers a commentary on this petition lest we miss the import of the words. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” But if you don’t forgive…you won’t be forgiven! The forgiveness you seek from your heavenly Father in the vertical dimension is only available to you if you forgive your fellow sinner in the horizontal dimension.

Connecting this notion to current events – I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent New York Times column reflecting on the public response to the Brian Williams scandal. Williams demonstrated an unfortunate tendency to play a bit fast and loose with the truth in his personal reminiscences of certain events such as hurricane Katrina and his travel by helicopter in Iraq over a decade ago. Upon being caught in these whoppers Williams has been thoroughly vilified and now suspended in his role as NBC News anchor and managing editor.

Brooks writes:

The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy. By now, the script is familiar: Some famous person does something wrong. The Internet, the most impersonal of mediums, erupts with contempt and mockery. The offender issues a paltry half-apology, which only inflames the public more. The pounding cry for resignation builds until capitulation comes. Public passion is spent and the spotlight moves on.

I’ve only spoken with Williams a few times, and can’t really speak about the man (though I often appear on NBC News’s “Meet the Press”), but I do think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.

While everyone would acknowledge that Williams deserves some penalty for his failings, I must confess that I share Brooks’ sentiments concerning the piling on that is all too common and predictable in situations like this. Whether it is a newsman, a politician, an athlete, or (in our context within the church) a religious leader, it seems people are all too willing to loudly declaim the villainy of the guilty party. Within the Christian community, see the example of the former pastor of Mars Hill, the much derided Mark Driscoll.

There are times for moral outrage certainly, but what about times for grace? Mercy? Forgiveness? Restoration? We all prefer to receive the benefit of the doubt from others, but are not always so quick to extend the same to those who sin against us. Golden Rule, anybody? Or have we created a whole new class of unforgiveable sins?

As arrogant and vexing as a Brian Williams or a Mark Driscoll may be, they deserve something better than to be cast with loathing on the dustbin of history. From a Christian perspective these are people that we are called upon to forgive, demonstrate grace toward, and ultimately hope to see restored. Delighting in their downfall seems far less than the Christian response.

To a certain degree it matters little what we think about Brian Williams or Mark Driscoll. Chances are you haven’t met them and never will.  What difference?  But, on the other hand, if we pile on the public sins of celebrity newsmen and pastors, aren’t we building habits of character that will later be lived out with real flesh and blood sinners whom we do know? If I can’t be gracious and forgiving of those I’ve never met, am I likely to overflow with forgiveness to my boss, neighbor, friend, brother, spouse, etc. when they sin against me?

Practice forgiveness. It is at the center of your identity as someone who follows Jesus.