Roseanne and Repentance
After flinging a racist tweet into the netsphere, Roseanne Barr wants to take it all back. In case you are one of the few people who have not heard about the controversy, she tweeted that former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett looked like the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.” In the day and half after the tweet she blamed the sleep drug Ambien for her tweet, said she was an idiot, tweeted a picture of Jarrett beside a picture of an ape, posted tweets from her supporters and threw herself on her sword. “I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me-my joke was in bad taste.”
The “joke” was in very bad taste, but Roseanne is not the first, nor will she be the last person to insult through drive-by tweeting. It happens with less famous people every day.
She asked for forgiveness. Should she get it? If so, when? Can a person ever be forgiven for their wrongdoing? What does it mean for her to repent? What would she have to do to prove that she is a “changed person,” and not just someone who got caught.
Before you answer that question, take a moment and think about a time you hurt someone. Did you want forgiveness? If you were forgiven, did you deserve it? If you weren’t forgiven, do you think the people who held back forgiveness did the right thing?
This is a tricky subject, and especially so for many people of faith for whom forgiveness is part of the way they relate to God and other people.
How do we get a handle on it? When should forgiveness be offered and when should it be withheld? If repentance is part of the process (and it really should be) what does that look like?
Considering the growing influence of the #MeToo movement, this becomes doubly important. While we might not want to create a caste system, with sexual offenders being the new untouchables, we certainly don’t want to excuse actions that damaged people. How do we thread this needle?
To get a handle on the issues, let’s take a look at two events. First, what happened with the president of a Southern Baptist seminary, and second, the story of a female rocker who was part of the Richmond, Virginia punk scene.
Another One Bites the Dust
Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was ousted May 23 by the Board of Trustees of the seminary. The announcement was done quietly as possible. Patterson was removed as president and named President Emeritus and Theologian in Residence. Along with the title he was given a physical residence, and now lives in housing provided by the seminary.
This announcement is strikingly different from other recent actions sparked by the growing #MeToo movement. Patterson is NOT accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or having an illicit sexual encounter. His transgressions were more subtle.
In a 2014 sermon he said that women were created by God “beautifully and artistically.” A little strange maybe, not certainly not a fire-able offense. But then he went on to add a story about a conversation he had with a woman while her son and one of his friends were standing nearby. A female student walked by and the friend said, “Boy is she built.” The woman scolded the student, but Patterson intervened and told the woman (and these are his own words from the sermon) “Ma’am, leave him alone. He’s just being biblical. That is exactly what the Bible says.”
I am pretty sure that is NOT what the Bible says. Perhaps Patterson forgot the part where Jesus tells his followers if they look upon a woman with lust they have committed adultery in their hearts.
But the story does not end there.
In 2000 Patterson spoke at a conference, where he told the participants that abused women should not file for divorce.He stated he had never counseled a woman to divorce her abusive husband, although in some circumstances he recommended a temporary separation. Instead they should pray for their husbands, and be submissive “in every way you can.” Patterson recounts a story where he told a woman to pray for her abusive husband, but warned her that might set her husband off again. It did. She came to church with two black eyes one Sunday morning, and said, “I hope you’re happy.” As Patterson recounts the story, “I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I am happy.’ What she didn’t know when we sat in church that morning, was that her husband had come in and was standing in back, first time he ever came.”
Apparently for Patterson, its admissible for man to beat his wife, as long as that brings him to church the following Sunday.
The story gets even worse. While he was President of Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, a female student came to the administration of the seminary charging a fellow student with rape. As she recounts the story to the Washington Post, it was a date rape incident. A meeting was set up with Patterson and four other people who peppered her with specific questions concerning the rape. At the end of the interview she was told, by Patterson, not to report the rape, and school officials did not report it to the local police.
Patterson told her she should forgive her rapist instead of reporting it. (Think about this–the man is probably a minister in a Southern Baptist Church right now.)
Sins of Omission
Patterson was called into account, not because he had committed sins of commission, but because he brushed the sins of others under the carpet. This takes us to a new level of accountability. It was Patterson’s sexual attitudes, not his sexual activity, his inaction, not his actions that came back to bite him. No one is saying he harassed them, no one is accusing him of improper sexual relationships. His “good old boy” attitude concerning sexual roles and behavior was the impetus that sparked his vocation implosion. If men act improperly, well, that is to be expected, because “boys will be boys.” Women are just supposed to suck it up, forgive, and forget. A young man who turns women into sexual objects is just acting according the nature God gave him. A husband who gives his wife two black eyes has committed a minor pecadillo, which should be seen as a call to prayer, not a call to the police or social services. A man who rapes his date should be forgiven, not prosecuted, so his path to pastoral ministry should not be impeded by unnecessary legal complications.
I wonder how Patterson would have responded if a male student gave one of his professors two black eyes, or if it had been a male student who was raped by another man. I seriously doubt the response would have been a call to prayer and forgiveness. But because these incidents all happened to women, they were considered trivial and the men were excused from their bad behavior.
The #MeToo movement has changed the landscape in more ways than were imagined. As a first step, women can tell their stories of harassment and abuse and there is a much better chance they will be taken seriously. They are less likely to be automatically disbelieved, or dismissed when believable. (At least that is true for some women. There are surely workplaces, schools, churches and the like that have not caught up with the times, but the tide is certainly changing.)
Patterson’s ouster now plants a flag firmly on the second step–it is no longer acceptable to be indirectly complicit. Even though he was innocent of overt harassment, he did not condemn those who were, and for that he lost his position as president of the seminary.
There are those who felt Patterson’s ouster went too far, that this is a case of political correctness gone berserk. “Because Dr. Patterson has not said some things exactly right in our extra sensitive climate, he is being condemned by his enemies,” said one of his supporters in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Who of us could withstand withering criticism and publicity of any misstatements we have made over the last several decades? Who of us could withstand having our statements taken in the absolutely worst light?”
Dr. Patterson “has not said some thing exactly right”? Telling a woman who had been abused to go back to her abuser, telling a woman who was raped she should simply forgive the man who assaulted her is not a misstatement–it is a severe misdeed for someone in authority, an oppressive sin of omission. This is not a case of overzealous “political correctness,” but of under-zealous enforcement of a safe environment for women.
It is encouraging that more than a thousand people e-signed a letter demanding his removal, and most of them were Southern Baptists. The letter says, “This pattern of discourse is unbefitting the sober, wise, and sound character required of an elder, pastor, and leader. It fails in the call to protect the helpless, the call of Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the biblical standard of sexual purity. These comments are damaging, sinful, and necessitate a decisive response.”
There was a response, but at first it was not exactly decisive. While Patterson lost his position as president, originally he was going to be be able to keep his income, and was going to be given a place to live. He was going to be quietly put out to pasture as a theologian-in-residence. But the seminary did an about face recently, and essentially fired him, as any other employee would be fired.
Had been able to function as a theologian-in-residence, I wonder what kind of theology he would be pondering.
There’s another aspect to the story that raises some important issues for Christians who are supportive of the #MeToo movement–forgiveness. Patterson urged people to forgive those who had trespassed against them. What is so wrong about that? After all, the carpenter who founded Christianity forgave the people who killed him as they were killing him. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith. Those who are forgiven by God, are in turn are called to forgive others. Millions of Christian pray every week, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or as they say in the Presbyterian church, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In other words every week Christians pray and ask God to forgive them only to the extent that they are able to forgive other people. No forgiveness given, no forgiveness received.
So what was it that Patterson did that was so bad? He urged one woman to forgive her rapist, and another to forgive her abusive husband. He is just telling them to be good Christians, right?
At heart the problem her is that the Church has an impoverished understanding of forgiveness, one that has been transmitted to the culture at large.
I was a whole three months into pastoral ministry when my neighbor, who had previously made it clear to me that she was not in any way religious, came to me for advice. She had been hurt by her partner. The hurt was deep, and was inflicted at a particularly sensitive time in this person’s life–while she was dealing with the death of her father, which had led to her coming out to her family. “Usually when stuff happens to me, I can just forgive them and move on,” she told me. “But this time is different. She really hurt me. I can’t let go of it. I can’t forgive her.”
“In the past,” I said, “you didn’t really have to forgive anyone. You could just brush it off and move on. That’s not forgiveness. That’s just not letting little things bother you. But this time you were really hurt, and forgiveness is going to be a lot harder.”
I couldn’t tell her to just forgive her partner and move on. She was not ready for that. She was still deep into the territory of her pain, and could not see her way out.
Too often forgiveness seems to mean that we try to minimize the hurt and then move on. It is one thing to forgive someone who has taken your parking place at the grocery store, or said something bad about you behind your back. It is quite another thing to forgive someone who has run the knife deep in your gut. Forgiving someone who has given you two black eyes, or who has raped you is a totally different situation.
Forgiveness does not mean we just forget about it, and move on like it never happened. That is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace.”
My neighbor was eventually able to forgive the women who hurt her, but that only came after she had worked through the issues that led to her pain. During one of our talks I asked her if her relationship with her partner had been a healthy relationship. She hesitated a long time before answering, and finally said, “I have no idea what a healthy relationship is.” This is not to say she was at blame for her pain, but if she was going to get anything out of the process of forgiveness, she had to find a way to make sure that kind of pain did not visit her again.
Two months later she came knocking at my door. “I have a new girlfriend,” she said. “And it’s healthy!” It was from this new vantage point that she was ready to try forgiveness. Now she really could move past the pain.
Patterson was not advocating forgiveness. He might have used the word, but he was really asking the women to justify the sin of their attackers by accepting their actions, and then acting as if the sins had not happened. He was trying to brush things under the rug, not make a place for forgiveness to happen.
He failed miserably. Instead of offering forgiveness as a process that could enhance healing, he short circuited it by portraying it as cheap and easy–just forgive your rapist, just forgive your abuser. Brushing sin under the carpet is not forgiveness. Forgiveness, real forgiveness, changes people. It changes the forgiver by having them realistically assess the pain they have received, and what they will do with that pain. It can change the person who needs to be forgiven by confronting them with their transgressions, and encouraging them to deal with the consequences of what they have done.
A recent episode on NPR’s Invisibilia, focusing on the Call Out process in Richmond, Virginia’s punk rock scene, is good illustration of why we might need forgiveness and possibly even redemption as a part of the #MeToo movement. In the story we learn that a person is called out when they have violated community norms, especially norms surrounding sexual harassment and assault. (Who knew the Punk Rock scene would be ahead of the country on this?) This episode followed the story of Emily, a young woman who grew tired of the misogyny she had experienced by her fellow punk rockers. She started her own band, which had a decided feminist bent, and participated in several initial call outs of men who had behaved inappropriately with others, including a fellow punker who had sexually molested her. When someone is called out, they are shunned and isolated. They are no longer allowed to participate in the scene. They are banned from concerts and all social events. No one else in the scene will talk to them.
A pivotal point for Emily was when one of her good friends was called out. On the one hand she had a big part in forming the call-out culture. On the other, this was her best friend. In the end she participated in the call out, and shunned her friend. She felt bad about it, but what could else she do?
Then Emily herself was called out. It turns out that in high school (at the time of the story Emily is in her mid-twenties) she posted nude pics of another girl without her permission. She had routinely slut-shamed other girls on-line, and was, in her own words, something of a bully. She was tried and convicted in a process she helped invent.
She lost everything. Her friends avoided her, her band fired her, and her whole social scene was now off limits. “I just feel like I’m in a limbo,” she said.”It consumes me. I lay awake. And I’m like… this is my life now. Nobody’s around. I have nobody to talk to.”
Here’s where the story gets even more interesting.
Herbert was the man who launched her call out. He knew of her high school bullying, but for him there was more to it than that. She insulted him personally. After Herbert initially called her out, Emily went to confront him. In Herbert’s memory, Emily told him she was surprised at the call out because it happened so long ago, and she also said that she was nice to him because he was a person of color. Emily remembers that encounter differently, but the damage was done. Because of what she said to Herbert that day, he felt she deserved to suffer, and suffer hard. When Herbert was asked if his reaction was harsh, he agreed it was. “I knew that this was, like…a very harsh way to, like…take someone by the shoulders and just put them underwater.” Later in the interview he likens his feelings about the power he welded in the call out to ejaculating. He said he was getting high off of it. And he felt bad about that. But not enough to lay off her.
It was for Emily’s own good, he said. “I’m super comfortable with the harsh because I want her to learn from this. If you’re trying to progress, you’re going to hurt people along the way.” If the punk scene in Richmond was going to progress, people like Emily had to be hurt along the way.
If the #MeToo movement is successful, if it is going to be possible for women to live and work without fear of being harassed and assaulted, people will be hurt along the way. Men who abuse their power in the workplace may see their careers go down in flames. Men who sexually assault women may spend time in jail, and some for a very long time. If things are going to get better for people who have had the fuzzy end of the lollipop for most of their lives, they are going to get worse for those who shoved that end in their faces.
But going back to the question I raised with Roseanne–what if they repent? What if they beg for forgiveness, pleading that they are changed people?
The problem that Emily faced was, when and how can people know she learned her lesson? When can she be forgiven for what she did as a teenager? Could she ever be fully integrated back into the punk rock scene? How would it be possible for Herbert to forgive her? Could she ever forgive the man who was once her best friend? All those questions are still left open.
The story ended with Emily slowly working her way back into the scene, but only marginally. She was not allowed in shows, but she could sell tickets, outside the venue. Most people still shunned her though, and she felt very, very alone.
If the first step of the #Me Too movement is calling out sexual predators, and the second is calling out those complicit in the behavior, can the third step be repentance, forgiveness and possibly reconciliation? (For those who are turned off by the language, we are talking about true regret and change, mercy, and settlement.)
If that is going to happen then we have to do away with the flimsy form of forgiveness offered by churches that are more interested in moving on than on affecting real change. We have to disabuse ourselves of the idea that forgiveness is quick and easy, cheap grace, where all is forgotten, whether the offender has learned their lessons or not. Can we start thinking of ways to bring redeemed sinners back into the fold?
This is incredibly dangerous territory. Hearing Emily’s story, I feel reasonably sure she has learned her lesson, and the slut-shaming of her past is lodged firmly in her past. Patterson? It is not clear he learned anything, and if given the opportunity will act in the same way again. Roseanne’s series of post-insult tweets almost prove that she has not learned anything at all and is highly likely to repeat her behavior.
Any road to forgiveness must include a process where the perpetrators are made fully aware of the damage they have done as well as convincing assurances that the perpetrator will not re-offend.
Currently there is not a process where Patterson can be authentically confronted with the grave nature of his behavior. Using church language, he should be able to repent of his sins, there is no process where that is possible. In his tradition all it takes for forgiveness is a simple walk up the aisle during the fifth verse of “Just As I Am.” This is a strange place for the church to be in.
I know it is hard to think that Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby might experience forgiveness from any of the people they assaulted. And it is not my place to tell any person who has been assaulted that they should forgive the person who harmed them. Perhaps there are some people for whom vengeance is the only avenue. And I certainly do not mean to imply that forgiveness of any kind excuses behavior, or the consequences of behavior. Some people will only experience forgiveness from a jail cell. That was the problem that many Catholic bishops had. They thought that Christian repentance gave offending priests a free “get out of jail” card.
The recent statement, Reclaiming Jesus, written by a group of diverse Christians, including Evangelicals, draws a clear line:
…WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.
It is good to hear those words from a group that has been traditionally loosey goosey on sexual misconduct. But there needs to be a movement to go even further, a movement toward true repentance and forgiveness.
Roseanne Barr asked for forgiveness, but shows no signs that she has learned anything about her behavior, no signs of forgiveness. After the insult she tweeted, “I’m not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.” Racism can be cured, but being an idiot is permanent, especially when that is used to excuse bad behavior.
It doesn’t look like she is going to get forgiveness, at least not from her network, because it was just announced that there will be a Roseanne spinoff—without Roseanne.
Whether it is racist jokes or sexual misconduct, there are things our society cannot condone, and must condemn. When people step over a line, there should be a way for them to work their way back, but the way should not be cheap nor easy. Forgiveness, when given, does not guarantee easy access back to the kind of behavior that got people in trouble in the first place. It should make it clear to the offender why they should have never gone there, and they should be able to guarantee why they will never go back.
Americans love a good comeback story. But to come back, you have change direction.