On Disciples: Forgiving George Bush And/Or the Church

I ran across a website yesterday via Good Magazine called “Forgive George.” It’s not really surprising to see something like this, with the inauguration only a few weeks away, the end of Bush’s presidency is on every one’s mind (there are a number of “tribute” sites to Bush like this). This particular site promotes something we all need to consider: forgiveness. And it’s not just forgiveness towards George W. Bush, but towards anyone in your life who might need forgiveness. The site is very simple, click the radio button that states you will forgive Bush, though you don’t have to, and while you’re at it you can also write in someone else you’d like to forgive.

The first time I tried it, I wrote in something silly and didn’t check the box saying I forgive George Bush, I wanted to see what would happen. Instantly a little message popped up saying, “Are you sure you don’t want to forgive George Bush?” So I did it again, and thought when through the motions more seriously this time.

I forgive Bush and The ChurchOf course one initial and obvious insinuation is that Bush has done something that needs to be forgiven. Some will press that this is a highly debatable point, that he did the best he could, or that he did the right thing and so suggesting he needs forgiveness is offensive. But on the surface his current approval rating, the state of our economy, the overall demeanor of our country, and the depressing situation that’s come of the Middle East since Bush took office all hint at at least the possibility that he may be guilty of something. Surely, many would agree with Anne Lamott who once said that the most subversive thing she could do as a Christian was to pray for George Bush, whom she felt was an enemy of hers. Another question to consider is whether Bush even wants forgiveness, whether he sees himself as being guilty and having “missed the mark.”

Forgiveness is an Integral Part of ‘The Way’ For Christians

To forgive others (at all cost) is certainly a distinctive of the Christian way. Jesus was very clear about the importance of forgiveness throughout his entire ministry, and signals it’s importance by embedding it in the prayer he meant for his disciples to (forever) make their own.

“And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins…” (Matthew 6:12ff).

There should be no question about whether or not Christians ought to seriously consider what it means to “forgive George,” and if he does indeed need our forgiveness then we ought to offer it to him. But I’m concerned that this whole, “I forgive our President (nation’s leader, etc) for royally screwing up,” glosses over a far more serious issue. It is a subtle, or not so subtle, attempt to sidestep any responsibility we may have as the church in what has happened. Shouldn’t we first be asking:

Is the church in a place to forgive one of its own?

I wonder if before we, the church, go about considering whether we ought to forgive George Bush, we need to first examine our own implicitness in the climate that created Bush: a 21st century version of a Constantine-like leader. How has the American Church led its disciples to be committed first to nationalism, violence as a means to peace, the thirst for unilateral power and so closed off to the Other. Nationalism is a deeply religious issue in our country, as John Howard Yoder wrote:

It has always been true that people have many loyalties, many attachments to groups or causes for which they are wiling to sacrifice. Such loyalty may be to a family or a school, a sporting club, or a business firm. Yet the overwhelming loyalty of most persons in our age is to the nation. Whether under the long-established governments of Europe and North America, or in those other parts of the world where national independence is a recent attainment or a goal still sought after, it is to the nation that young [as well as old] persons give their enthusiasm. For the nation young people will risk their lives. For the nation they will, if need be, kill and destroy in war.” ((John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace, 1985:21))

It was loyalty to our nation (among other things) that formed Bush’s presidential Christianity, rather than the other way around. This is why we so often heard Bush utilize religious rhetoric to underwrite a “war on terror” a war in the name of peace for Americans. And even worse, words like “axis of evil” and “terrorist” became code-language for the Other, one who is to be feared, suppressed and excluded at all cost. The problem is that “terrorist” has been at best a moving target, Bush’s objet petit a, the very thing that we endlessly seek after and always evades us; and subsequently, thousands, who were not terrorists, have died in this war. This is not the way of Christ, or the way of the Christian disciple, these responses reflect an failure to make Christian disciples who seek to live like Christ:

No one created in God’s image and for whom Christ died can be for me an enemy, whose life I am willing to threaten or to take, unless I am more devoted to something else – to a political theory, to a nation, to the defense of certain privileges, or to my own personal welfare – than I am to God’s cause: his loving invasion of this world in his prophets, his son, and his church. ((ibid, p. 20))

Disciples Gone Rogue

When Bush “went rogue” it was the church’s responsibility to set the record straight, after all he is one of its disciples.  Yes, there were many who chastised him through various venues but the majority of the church for long enough justified his acts, “surely he’s a man after God’s own heart” and therefore discipline should be withheld. And even those who chastised, usually at some distance, and with little influence in the political structure itself, rarely embodied a faith that mirrors Matthew 18’s call to rebuke and discipline the unfaithful in our midst. In other words, if Bush failed, it is because the church failed to make faithful disciples, disciples who, when given the reigns of power, remain first committed to Christ’s peaceable kingdom. ((This subsequently brings up questions about whether or not Christians should ever get involved in politics, a topic I’ve written about extensively and won’t discuss here (see this article for one take on my view).)) For all our talk about being faithful to the Gospel call of peace, we need to be equally faithful to the Gospel call to being a community of (graceful and reconciliatory) discipline. The church needs to recognize and accept responsibility for the failures of its disciples. In large part because of a modern-liberal theology of individualism we see the result of the church attempts at disciple-making that is not rooted in the accountability and formation of a faithful community.

I’m convinced that before we, the Church, can “forgive George” we need to ask the world to forgive us for not making faithful disciples to “The Way” of Christ. When we see something like this we all need to take a step back and consider our own guilt. Even those of us, like Lamott, who were critical from the beginning need to be among those finding avenues of forgiveness, something I’m suggesting is linked back to how we “bind and loose” as a church community. We need to take our cues from Jesus, who’s own ministry consistently challenged unfaithful behavior, sought to make true disciples of the Way, and always worked for reconciliation and forgiveness, all these acts were rooted in the profound love he received from God. Any separation between love, forgiveness, as well as rebuke, only cheapens costly discipleship.

And isn’t the virtue and practice of forgiveness the very thing that was missing from a nation blindly attacked by terrorists? We, the church and we, the United States, could not respond in forgiveness, because we do not live lives of forgiveness on a daily basis. Forgiveness is not a regular part of our language, culture and habit as Americans. It’s not entirely absent but neither is it an underlying theme in the American narrative (thus we have bumper-stickers that say, “I will never forget.”) Forgiveness was the very thing, and the only thing, that could have kept us out of a seven year war.

So, I’m not sure when I will or whether I should “forgive George,” but I do know that as a part of the church I need forgiveness for not helping to better make faithful, forgiving disciples. Forgiveness is a practice the church needs to get better at embodying, and hopefully through our faithful witness, the world will learn this practice as well.

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17 responses to “On Disciples: Forgiving George Bush And/Or the Church”

  1. Martin – thanks for the comment. And I agree with what you're saying. I like the point about Bush's role in the media, it's true of every “celebrity” whose lives are on display all the time for us and yet they are not actually ourphysical”neighbor.” This makes it, as you say, much easier, and cheaper, to say we'recondemningthem, praising them and even forgiving them. I think it's always the Christian response to first look at the speck in our own eye, and to turn the question back on ourselves. It's really easy to dance around the issues.

  2. Lewis,great comment on the radical nature of forgiveness. I think we often believe forgiveness is equal to being excused but you're right, that isn't what is entailed with forgiveness, even if being excused is a by-product. I also appreciate you tying this back to Quaker conviction, that the seed of God is in everyone. Christ's call to love our enemies is rooted in the reality that God's kingdom is here now, and has taken away all occasions for violence, in the same way it has given us the command to live a life committed to forgiveness and I think a life of forgiveness nurtures that seed in people.

  3. Just in case my reply didnt' get throught , i will say this again, C Wess i agree with you 100 percent.

    Forgiveness is not the same as being excuse, you excuse people for accidents, you forgive people when they do somenthing intentionall wrong, Moral misdeeds are mistakes , but in in thse sense of being acccidents.

    Yes Jesus always Forgave his enemies, when Jesus taught us the Lord's Prayer , he said God forgive us our sinse as we Forgive those who sinned against us, the implication is that if we dont' forgive our enemies God will not forgive us.

    Jesus on the cross itself forgave the Roman soldiers about to execute him, by saying Father Forgive them , they know not what they do.

  4. George Fox , Margert Fell and the other early Quakers, show how people can forgive even the most horrible things. The First Quakers for gave both the Puritans and the Church of England for beating them and throwing them in jail , just for being Quakers, they even for gave the Puritans and the church of England for killing thier fellow Quakers, 300-400 Quakers were killed during the time of persecutions.

  5. I meant to say moral mis deeds are mistakes, but not the way accidents are mistakes.
    They are mistakes in the sense all human beings even the best of do things that are intentionally wrong some time, because Humans are not perfect.

  6. The first Quakers were very forgiving, because they used the example of Jesus and the First Christians, Also they belived in that of God in everyone, which means everyone has the potential forr good in them no matter how evil they have been.

  7. Thats part of the reason we should forgive Bush, he doesnt want our forgiveness , because it would mean he did somenthing wrong.
    As a pacifist i belive war is always wrong, but surely even folks who belive in so callewd Just wars agree that Bush was wrong to send troops to Iraq based on a lie.

    But we should love and forgive Buysh anyway.

  8. On a Personal note i forgave that person , i was having trouble forgiving. I know what its like to not be forgiven, i dont want to do that do anyonelse, though like George W Bush , this person doesnt want my forgiveness.

  9. Wow … Wess, I haven't come here in a while … just been reading along in Google reader. I love your new look.

    Very good look at forgiveness, mercy and justice here. Too often I think we humans like to segregate things and put them into tidy boxes. Forgiveness goes in one, mercy in another, justice goes over there. When we do that … well … then the art and grace of forgiveness loses all of its teeth. It becomes just a word, like a balloon with no helium … sort of flat and lying about on the ground. We can use it, it might accomplish something … but it won't really fly.

    Thanks for this …

  10. Forgiveness is always the correct response as a Quaker and for Christians in particular its the correct response.
    There is a person in my own life im trying to forgive, im sure i will forgive that person, after all i have been in sitautions where i needed forgiveness myself.

    If we belive there is that of God in everyone , we have to forgive , because not to forgive would mean hurting that of God within the person.

    Yes we should forgive Bush, forgiving bush is different from excusing Bush, Forgiving Bush implies he did somenthing wrong, that he needs to be pardonded for.

    so its really radical to forgive Bush since he didnt' think he did anything wrong, to be forgiven for.

  11. I've known plenty of mushy liberals who say we should all write love letters to the presidents we don't like. I don't know, I don't buy it. How's that saying go?: "Love without truth is sentimentality."

    Surveys were done when Bush began the second Iraq War, a war that we all knew (or should have known) was based on false pretenses and faked intelligence. I was just so sad when I read that Christians were more likely to support the war than atheists. The Sermon on the Mount and all of Jesus' teachings were really clear that it's our job to be on the side of the suffering and to be ready to lift up the cross. I'm worried a lot less about George Bush than I am with those who have met the Living Christ but still support war.

    I know I'm sounding absolutist but we were warned that it's a narrow path. I myself stumble off it *all the time* but the point is to get back on. We mustn't dwell in personal recriminations, but forgive ourselves, forgive our fellow journeyers, reclaim Christ's message, pick up that cross and find our way back to that path. Whenever I see one of these forgiveness exercises, I think of Matthew 7, where Jesus is warning us not to judge and to quit worrying over the imperfections in our brother's eye. I don't know George Bush except through the media. He's mostly a cartoon figure. That makes him an easy target to condemn, to praise, to forgive, etc. If you add in hints that Jesus drops in the Good Samaritan tale and the ever mysterious render-unto-Caesar bit, I think he's telling us to stop worrying about the powerful we don't know so we can focus on our flesh-and-blood neighbors, the people that we meet when we're walking down our street. How can we witness to Jesus' radical message and in our broken ways be used to point people back to that path?