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 Church

Of 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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