The story of Western religion is a story of redemption: of human beings sinning and then seeking redemption in repentance. Every year, Jewish congregants attend Yom Kippur services, where they confess their sins before God and pledge not to sin again. They also ask for forgiveness from those they have harmed. Catholics and Protestants believe similarly. Repentance is a key element in bringing man closer to God and in self-betterment more generally.
As the West abandons religion, then, it is no surprise to see the West returning to a pagan standard of justice — a standard by which repentance is impossible and by which we must assume the worst about everyone else.
How else should we read the national reaction to the case of Virginia governor Ralph Northam, and the international reaction to actor Liam Neeson? Northam, you’ll recall, stated last week that he stood in favor of a law that would essentially allow abortion-on-demand to the point of dilation during labor and even after the baby has been delivered — a position indistinguishable from infanticide. For this, Democrats didn’t bat an eye. Then it came out that Northam’s medical-school yearbook page carried a picture of two men, one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the other in blackface. The world caved in on Northam, with members of both parties demanding his resignation.
Here’s the truth: Northam did something reprehensible 34 years ago. (He now says, notwithstanding his initial apology, that he is not actually in the yearbook photo.) That reprehensible thing is racially insensitive at least, racist at most. (As Robert A. George points out, lots of people are racially insensitive out of ignorance and stupidity rather than outright bigotry.) But he then spent 30 years living a professionally and personally meritorious life on racial issues. Should we discard his entire life’s record because of a racist picture from the Reagan era?
Perhaps Northam should be ousted for botching his apology. That’s plausible. But it’s difficult to believe that even if he had given a prompt, sincere apology, it would have been enough for those calling for his head.
Similarly, actor Liam Neeson did an interview this week with The Independent (UK) in which he discussed his revenge-seeking character from his new film. “There’s something primal — God forbid you’ve ever had a member of your family hurt under criminal conditions,” Neeson said. “I’ll tell you a story. This is true.” He then explained that a close friend had been raped.
I asked, did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person.
I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] “black bastard” would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could . . . kill him.
He then stated, ruefully:
It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid. . . . It’s awful. But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, “What the f*** are you doing,” you know?
This is a story about a man thinking of doing something completely evil, dealing with his own demons in the shadow of an evil crime — and it’s a story of a man realizing that his demons are indeed evil, and that he must fight them. Yet Neeson was immediately hit with a tsunami of outrage, including broad-based attempts to label him a racist now.
Repentance is simply not possible in our outrage culture.
Normally, when people do something in their youth of which they are ashamed, there are three possible responses.
First, they can seek the first opportunity to publicly confess their sins. This is the Barack Obama option. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama confessed to using cocaine in high school, thereby taking the air out of any scoops about the issue. Such confessions may be sincere, or they may be cynical attempts to inoculate one’s record from scrutiny.
Second, they can do the human thing: cringe inside, hope that nobody remembers or was affected by their sin, and move on. They may repent to God and pledge themselves to better behavior. When reminded of their sin, they can immediately apologize. This is the option most commonly utilized by non-politicians, whose lives are not subject to public scrutiny, and who have no plans to make them so.
Third, they can double down on their original sin.
Here’s the problem: Right now, there is no incentive to people to engage in the second option, which means that either they will preemptively confess or they will double down. And if, like Liam Neeson, their preemptive confession is deemed evidence of evil, they’re stuck.
Which means that, increasingly, the only people who will be able to engage in public life are those with no shame or those who are entirely pure. And no one is entirely pure.
A world with no mercy or grace is an ugly world indeed. And we’re building that world for ourselves, brick by brick.