Change, Justice, and the American Way

When I was younger, I had a hard time running. My chest had a deformity that didn’t allow me to breathe fully, so I quickly ran out of breath if I ran too much. Sprinting was fine, but every time I had to run long distances I would have to stop and start over and over. The doctors always told me that the deformity was something I could grow out of, but by junior high it got worse. I went to a new doctor that told me the only way to change my circumstances was through surgery. It was going to be painful and require a lot of patience, but I could become better if I chose to go through the change. Not perfect, but better.

I have been thinking a lot about change in the past few months. How change is a central idea to the Christian faith, and in many ways to life in general. Christianity rests on the notion that through the grace of God we are made new and our sins are taken away. That as we grow closer to God, we become more like Him. There are plenty of scriptures that say things similar to this: “put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self,” (Ephesians 4:22-24a). Scripture is constantly telling us to change and be more like God. This would strongly imply that people can change then. Even if it’s difficult and takes time we do not have to stay the way we are. I take this as a good thing, right? So why then does it seem like change is unwanted? Or, if we change how does grace and justice fit into it?

Change is an idea that society does not want to allow people to go through right now. The person you were two, twenty, thirty years ago is the same person you are today. It doesn’t matter if you have taken steps to improve; you aren’t allowed to change what you are. The past few years in America have been a highlight of this. Prominent public figures have had their pasts come back to haunt them. Things they thought they buried have risen again to eat their careers. Many of these people did not go through a change, so when their past was uncovered their present became all the clearer. We saw this with people like Kevin Spacey who’s past showed a pattern of continued action. But others claim to have changed and they have supporters championing their new attitudes, and somehow it has not been enough. This has been seen in people like Kevin Hart who adamantly claims his change without a desire to apologize for his past. We have also seen those who claim they have changed, show remorse for their mistakes, and ask for forgiveness even if that forgiveness comes slow. We saw that with James Gunn who was fired from a prominent movie franchise only to be reinstated several months later after a long-fought battle of repentance. In these three instances, and many others, the first reaction by society isn’t to forgive but to fire.

The part I have been struggling through with all of this is the balance between forgiveness and justice. If we see that someone has changed and turned away from their past should we not forgive them, or are they still accountable for the wrongs they committed? Based on the reactions I see on Twitter and Facebook I would say people are still accountable for what they did. It doesn’t matter if you go on a talk show or launch a reconciliation tour you should pay for what you did, or said, or wore, or were. Is that really the right response? Are we not supposed to forgive just as God forgave us? It’s way easier to tear people down than it is to forgive. I have the hardest time with this. I’m great at holding grudges and really, really bad at allowing someone to grow and change. But that’s not healthy. A world that holds onto pain will only ever experience pain.

When I went through my chest surgery the doctors told me that it was even worse than what they could see on the x-rays and MRIs. When they opened my chest up like open heart surgery, they had to cut away cartilage that was dragging my rib cage down and break my ribs to put them in their proper places. A metal bar was inserted to hold everything up while it healed for six months. I wasn’t allowed to run, or jump, or do any of the things I loved. Eventually, though, my body was strong enough to move forward without the metal bar, so the doctors did a minor procedure to remove it. They told me that I healed really well and that if I did things right, I shouldn’t experience anymore pain.

If we are to forgive and allow someone to change, does that mean they don’t have consequences for their actions? In the cases of Kevin Spacey, Kevin Hart, and James Gunn many argued that even if there was change, they should all have to deal with the fallout of their actions. It’s not hard to defend that logic, especially when some of the wrong doings were crimes. I’m not here to say that people should get off scot-free. I do think our notion of justice and the justice of God is different. “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely,” (Proverbs 28:5). God looks to the heart, whereas, we can’t see the heart, but Christians understand justice completely because we have seen the physical manifestation of perfection justice, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life,” (Romans 5:8&10).

Even with the justice we have seen we still have to answer for what we have done, “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body ,whether good or evil,” (2 Corinthians 5:11). However, we also know that Jesus stands with us as the mediator during our judgement (1 Timothy 2:5). Here on Earth, justice is trickier. We want justice for those who have done wrong, and we want it now. Jesus’s teaching show forgiveness in ways like turning your other cheek so you may be stricken again and forgiving someone seven times seventy times. We also know that during this time, along with Jesus’ teachings, people still had consequences for their actions. Jesus forgave the thief on the cross next to him, but he didn’t save him from his immediate fate of dying on that cross. When there is true change of the heart Jesus steps in as our advocate, but this doesn’t mean all earthly consequences are taken away.

Change is not an easy process to go through. Just like with my surgery, you start to open up the wounds and find out there’s more that needs to be cut out than you originally thought. You have to remove the bad stuff that is holding you down, keeping you from breathing. And then you can’t go back to doing what you were doing before. You need support to hold you up and something to fill the area that was taken out. Even after everything seems to be okay you need to make sure you keep doing things right or else the problem comes back.

With Spacey, Hart, and Gunn each of them did something wrong. Each of them had something in their past that society called them out for, and each of them reacted differently. Spacey basically said this is who I am and I’m not sorry. Spacey is now going through countless law suits. Hart confessed to his past, said he has changed, and he’s not going to keep talking about jokes that got him to where he is now. Hart was fired from hosting the Oscars. Gunn apologized for his past and took active measures to demonstrate he had changed. He went through the period of cutting things out, finding support, and making sure that he was in fact changed. Gunn was fired from directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but he was eventually forgiven for his actions and rehired.

People can change. Who they were in the past is not always who they are now. It takes both sides to allow that change to happen. The first reaction can’t be to call for someone’s resignation (except in exigent circumstances) and the alternate reaction can’t be callousness. We can’t just point fingers and demand justice, and the other party can’t just stand their ground and be defensive. Both sides need to let the other have grace and work the problem together. Growth can occur if the person is willing to go through the process and if society is willing to help them through the process. Sometimes that process is getting fired and sometimes it’s fact checking to see if the person really committed an offense. Change isn’t fun, vulnerability is invasive, and growth is painful. But the end result is that you can take a deep breath after a long run.

“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.”
― Katherine Hepburn

 

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