The Road Back for Pariahs

It is hard to know how much of his tongue was in his cheek when […]

Larry Parsley / 12.13.17

It is hard to know how much of his tongue was in his cheek when Politico’s Jack Shafer penned “The Sex Pariah’s 6-Step Guide to Rehabilitation.” Yet the questions he addresses in the wake of Weinstein and Lauer and O’Reilly (and so many others) are both serious and timely: once the pariahs have served their punishments, “can we, should we, allow them to return to public life and their careers? And by what avenue?” The advice which follows is laced with explicit Catholic pastoral care and 12-Step best practices. They include unqualified confession, a season of retreat, submission to a “credible sponsor,” acts of penance, “verbal acts of contrition,” and restitution.

I should be happy, I know, when political journalism borrows heavily from Christian resources and “higher power” wisdom. And I certainly agree with Shafer’s inclusion of Chuck Colson’s repentance and prison ministry as a shining example of rehab done right. Still, I could not help feeling queasy when reading passages like this: “Acts of penance don’t wash away sin. To give credibility to the sinner’s plea for forgiveness they must convey a message that is genuine, heartfelt, and meaningful…Nobody expects the shamed to devote their lives to a department store of good works like Mother Teresa. Just a boutique should be enough, if it’s the right boutique.

I totally agree that “acts of penance don’t wash away sin.” But for that matter, neither does “credibility” nor a little shop of honorable deeds. Setting aside the key distinction between the forgiveness God offers and that which the public may eventually grant, there is something disturbing about this advice. It can send an unintentional message to the “pariah” — “You know that shrewdness and ingenuity you used to build your movie empire or journalistic dominance? That same shrewdness you used to abuse victims and intimidate them into silence? That shrewdness is your ticket out of your troubles as you manipulate a gullible public into taking you back into their fold.” From the standpoint of your PR, that advice can be useful, but for your soul it is nothing less than deadly.

Somehow the message I want all the “pariahs” to hear is the message I want to internalize deeply myself: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). If we take the apostle Paul at his word, he knew he had done nothing to earn his status as an apostle (“persecuting the church” does not look good on a would-be-apostle’s resume). There was indeed a refreshing humility and honesty about his words. But make no mistake — the grace of God has made the difference, even in a hardworking restitution-maker like Paul. It’s all grace. Grace trumps. And whether an industry lets you back in, or the public lets you back in, or your family lets you back in, Jesus rehabilitates. Jesus restores. And it is not, ultimately, because you take your steps, as healthy or as impressive as they may be. Let’s all say it together: “by the grace of God I am what I am.”