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In Theory: Do Americans have the capacity for forgiveness?

Roseanne Barr, whose eponymous TV show was canceled last spring and then retooled without her after she posted a controversial tweet many described as racist, chose to participate in a forum on Yom Kippur eve in October entitled “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” hosted by the World Values Network and the Jewish Journal.

During the event, Barr said, “The joy is in knowing what you did wrong. It’s the bravery and courage and self-reflection to get down to it and make it as right as you can. I’m someone who is interested in healing my own soul.”

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Barr’s fall from grace is one of many for celebrities, politicians and others in the public eye whose words or actions — or allegations thereof — have cost them their livelihoods. The list includes those who deny wrongdoing and those who have apologized, as Barr has, but nonetheless saw their careers evaporate.

Q. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, may have seemed the perfect occasion to the ejected star of her own sitcom to discuss these issues, but the question remains, is America a forgiving nation? If so, what are we to make of the firings and seemingly inexhaustible public appetite for watching stars fall?

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Forgiveness is unnatural. That is, it is unnatural to fallen people living in a fallen world — us, if the truth be admitted. Our knee-jerk reaction, and often the counsel of those around us, is to punish the offender, take retaliation against the person who hurt us, remove and prevent the perpetrator from further operation. This is common to humanity across the world, America included. I’m not convinced we’re a forgiving nation, or even persuaded that we are, but I believe at the least we’re a forgetting nation, soon distracted from older controversies to obsess about the latest. Following media reports about celebrities’ moral failures is our way of bringing them down to our own level, as we consciously or unconsciously deal with our own failings and disgraces and compare ourselves to them. Forgiveness, in contrast, is divine. It comes from God, and it is ultimately expressed by the Apostle Paul’s simple statement: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Our sins, or personal controversies and failings before God, separated us from fellowship with him who dwells in absolute holiness. But God kept loving us, despite our personal offenses against him, and desiring to reconcile us to himself sent his son Jesus Christ to pay the full penalty for all of our sins on the cross. God now makes one simple requirement — place your trust in what Jesus Christ did for you. God’s forgiveness is full, complete and eternal. When we are reconciled to God, he gives us a new nature, one that can be forgiving of others as he has been with us. But apart from his direct work in our hearts forgiveness is indeed a foreign concept to America and the world at large.

Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank

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I have always thought this observance of a Day of Atonement was an important ritual to practice. In the Christian church we often talk about repentance as the way to turn our lives around, to turn away from sin and turn towards the light of Jesus. Whatever our religious practices, it is an important part of life to recognize how we fail to love unconditionally, how we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, how we fail to love ourselves, how we fail to love God with our whole being. But getting stuck in that failure is not healthy spiritually either, so what are we to do?

Repentance and atonement are the practices that allow us to find a way forward for our lives. The sense that we look to God to guide us, to inform us, to see a way out of the darkness is important. Of course we are forgiven, that is the promise of God, Jesus repeats this promise over and over again.

But do we have one set of standards for another and us for those in the public eye? Yes, we do — well, as a collective nation we do. We tend to hold up our politicians, our celebrities, athletes and the like to a higher standard, one where we are more willing to judge than forgive.

I am not sure why, but I would guess forgiveness is often withheld due to the severity of the actions that caused harm to others. Public figures can harm more than those of us who live our daily lives. On the other hand, we often overlook the wrongs of a public figure if we align with them strongly. Further, we take note about the way the apology is stated and look to see if that person is taking action to right the wrong in some way. Perhaps judgment of others is a reflection of our own inability to fully accept the gift of forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus teaches.

Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church

Montrose

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Let us imagine a country in which elected officials and other celebrities don’t apologize or atone for wrongdoing. And if they acknowledge it, they double-down and blame the victim for getting what was coming to him. Now let us imagine a populace so beaten down and unfamiliar with actual justice that they slow down to gawk at car accidents, literal and metaphorical, because hey, “I may be miserable, but at least I am not that person.”

This unhealthy combination makes America a hostile environment to both atonement and forgiveness.

Wherever you encounter it, “atone” is a beautiful word. It literally means “at one.” In many faith-based and secular traditions, a transgressor can’t truly be “at one” until that person also makes some kind of restitution, or amends, to the victim. This personal sacrifice, or acknowledgment that the sinner “feels” the pain of the person wronged, is supposed to both ease the victim’s burden and also chasten the wrongdoer. It is a leveler, and suggests that, but for the circumstances, the roles of the perpetrator and the victim could just as easily be reversed.

Often we hold on to our anger because it is the only thing we have control over, because the people who hurt us simply won’t atone for what they’ve done. This Ouroboros prevents forgiveness and perpetuates victimhood. We can’t be a forgiving nation until we also learn the power of delivering a meaningful apology.

Marty Barrett, Board President

Unitarian Universalist Church

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of the Verdugo Hills

La Crescenta

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Stereotypes sometimes have a grain of truth, and people with a lot of shared experiences may share some personality traits. But to say that a nation as a whole is forgiving or not is too far of a stretch for me.

So no, I don’t think our healthy appetite for celebrity gossip defies our overall forgiving nature.

Not all stars are equally closely watched. Roseanne Barr made herself thoroughly addictive to both fans and detractors: grabbing her crotch while singing the National Anthem; extreme swings politically; and both embracing her Jewish heritage and defending Holocaust denial.

Particularly here in the Southland, where entertainment is a key engine of our local economy, interest in show biz news is high, and is encouraged by the industry’s pervasive, persuasive publicity. Sadly, Roseanne the person seemed to me like an emotional slow-motion train wreck for years, and the unwise combo of drugs and social media made it all viewable via the same entertainment media that sold us Roseanne the celebrity.

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose

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America is not very forgiving. We are sinfully competitive, self-centered and aggressive, judging others for the aggrandizement of ourselves. Will forgiveness hurt my party, will I be able to profit or increase my fame or popularity? This is pretty much us. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fallen short” (Rom 3:23). “All” means nobody can stand before God innocent of wrongdoing, and I would venture a guess that most could not stand in the presence of public opinion if a cadre of investigators were assigned the task of digging up every dirty deed, off-remark, questionable dealing, damning photo, or unpopular association any of us may have had from childhood on.

The Bible teaches that we should be very slow in taking offense, and if we are truly wise, we’ll overlook offenses rather than finding umbrage at once and immediately insisting on retaliations (Pro 12:16; 19:11; Jam 1:19). Currently, I fear we have become an embarrassing culture of snowflakes, all offended at everything. One cannot question some subjects without being censured for merely inquiring, and if one stumbles in adolescence and it is discovered, the grown adult will suffer the wrath of self-appointed cultural watchdogs who will seek to destroy the person’s capacity to earn a living or serve their fellow man. We Americans are so ridiculously soft in our own feelings, our own business, our own-ness, that when we are remotely offended, or we perceive someone else is offended, or that somewhere in Netherville offense may possibly be found, we tattle, rail, ostracize and protest until we can comfortably return to our own heroic sense of mushy self-righteousness. Yuck!

There’s no doubt that some people need to be held accountable for past crimes, but the vast majority of offenders should probably be handled according to Christ’s prayer asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, and then forgiving them. I’m not saying that we should just ignore abusers and bigots, but I don’t like my America becoming a nation of overly sensitive piranhas.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem

Tujunga

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