Public requests for forgiveness have been on parade lately, given the slew of sex scandals involving public officials (like Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Bob Filner) and performance-enhancing-drug (PED) scandals involving professional athletes (like Alex Rodriguez and a host of other recently suspended MLB players).
But as praiseworthy and important a concept as forgiveness is, there's always the danger that it's being applied in a self-serving manner.
Take a quick look at what forgiveness is supposed to be about. When one person harms another, we have a perpetrator and a victim. Forgiveness is the process by which the perpetrator fixes that harm. It involves admitting what they've done and apologizing for it as well as compensating for the damage and changing their behavior so they don't repeat the mistake in the future.
How this process of forgiveness applies to a given situation will vary, because there are lots of ways that people can harm and mistreat each other. If I break your window or scratch your arm, there's a dollar amount we can put on compensation, or an obvious place to put the bandage. But, when we betray one another's trust — by lying or cheating, as Weiner and A-Rod have done — the harm done is intangible. It's real, but it's not the sort of thing a check or a bandage is going to fix. Credibility and trust is very easy to break, but very hard to rebuild.
Now, Weiner and A-Rod et al. have made a show — often, a very big, public show — of asking for forgiveness. But even as they're seeking forgiveness, they insist on holding onto the public positions in which they misbehaved.
A-Rod, along with many other MLB players found to have used steroids, wants to keep playing Major League Baseball. Sure, he lied and fooled fans into thinking that his achievements were the result of skill and talent. But he doesn't think he should have to step down from being a major league player in order to remedy that harm. No, he seems to think that the appropriate place for him to earn forgiveness is on the ball field where he cheated.
Meanwhile, Weiner and Spitzer may have resigned from the House of Representatives and the New York governor's mansion, respectively, after their sex scandals came to light. But they still think that they deserve a place in public office, now running for mayor and comptroller (respectively) of New York City. It's not like they've done anything to earn our trust back — rather, they think that holding public office is the place for them to do that. And, of course, Filner doesn't think he needs to step down at all, as he apparently believes that San Diego City Hall is the best place for him to deal with sexual harassment allegations from his time in the House of Representatives.
I'm not saying that you should have to resign your position in order to earn forgiveness for mistakes you've made while holding that position. In marriages, for instance, spouses often make amends for mistakes they've made as spouses without getting divorced. The same goes for mistakes made between parents and children.
But even in those cases, there is something of a probationary period, or at least some sort of trial separation, right? And it's not like these guys don't have other forums available to them.
Weiner could, as a private citizen, speak out about the dangers of sexting and the importance of public officials answering questions honestly and immediately. Instead, he's running for mayor even as we find he's still hiding details about other illicit online encounters. He displays little shame for his brazen lies from 2011 (e.g., saying that the scandalous photos might be "the point of Al-Qaeda’s sword").
Spitzer could, as a private citizen, talk about the evils of prostitution and work to keep people from viewing it as their only economic option. And yet he's running for NYC comptroller, serving no time after breaking a law that he himself signed into effect, a law which others have done jail time for breaking. And he had to be prodded into admitting that his scandal involved lying about illegal activity, not "personal" affairs. "Politicians dissemble all the time" he says.
A-Rod could, as a former professional athlete, talk to kids and prospective athletes about the dangers of using steroids and PEDs, warning them about the risk to their health and their integrity. But instead he's trying to add to his impressive batting statistics, numbers that he accomplished with some unspecified amount of chemical assistance.
There are lots of paths to redemption, because there are usually many ways and forums for people to earn back our respect and undo (or outweigh) they harm they've done. It only takes some dedication and imagination to stumble on them.
It's disappointing that Weiner, Spitzer, A-Rod and others have chosen a path that involves them getting to do exactly what they want to do anyway.