Lance Armstrong confessed to doping on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. The king of cycling said he had lied for years and used drugs to enhance his performances.
Stripped of seven Tour de France titles, asked to return an Olympic medal and rejected by corporate sponsors, Armstrong’s TV confessional dominated the news.
It provided a splendid opportunity for a meaty conversation in the public square about sin (both individual and systemic), confession, forgiveness, redemption and restitution.
It was a time to think morally. But given the increasingly secular nature of cable TV shows, that conversation was largely missing.
Instead of moral reflection, one observed on CNN a sharp note of bitterness from those Armstrong had injured, litigious speculation and babble about public relations.
Such was not the case with a piece that appeared in the weekend edition of USA Today.
National reporter Rick Hampson interviewed agents, ethicists, psychologists and theologians. I was one of the ethicists he called.
Hampson wrote that Armstrong “had to complete four stages in two hours” in his interview with Winfrey: confession, contrition, conversion and atonement. He asked his readers to judge how they thought Armstrong did.
In preparation for the interview with Hampson, I jotted some notes.
Americans have a forgiving spirit that celebrity athletes and others sometimes confuse with a forgetting attitude. Forgiveness and forgetting are different values that shouldn’t be confused.
If we, the public, forget, we enable celebrities to repeat the same pattern: cheat or behave badly, confess and seek forgiveness on a high-profile TV show. Then, hope that the public readily forgets.
Moral amnesia corrupts culture. Moral memory builds social capital.
Regrettably, moral amnesia may be the American way. Hampson underscored this with his reference to Gore Vidal who once said the United States was “the United States of Amnesia.”
Indeed, note how quickly the sitcom TV personality Charlie Sheen regained his celebrity status after having habitually behaved badly, not to mention the degenerate nature of the TV show he lost.
Or consider how quickly Western Kentucky University hired the morally compromised football coach Bobby Petrino.
Or reflect on the former governor of South Carolina, who cheated on his wife and lied to the public about going to hike the Appalachian Trail. Mark Sanford now wants the public to trust him to another public office.
We, Americans, do seem to adhere to the idea of “forgive and forget.” That, of course, isn’t a Christian value, even though Christians recite that mantra with some frequency.
Certainly, the biblical story about King David highlights moral memory. Forgiven for his sin, the memory of his shedding blood was retained. Consequently, he was denied his desire to build the temple.
Forgiveness is anything but cost free. It comes with a price.
In the USA Today piece, Jesuit priest James Martin made a needed point in asserting that wrongdoers should do penance.
“Penance is not blaming others, or sending them to jail. That’s like going into the confessional and telling the priest about other people’s sins,” said Martin about Armstrong’s alleged commitment to testify to the authorities about the doping of other cyclists.
Since I like to frame issues in terms of biblical stories, I referenced to Hampson the story of Zacchaeus. I noted that Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus led to his conversion and his commitment to restitution. Zacchaeus said that he would restore fourfold what he had obtained wrongly.
Now that Armstrong has confessed to wrongdoing, will he engage in restitution?
I said to Hampson that I thought restitution was an important step for Armstrong. I even speculated that former president Bill Clinton has sought to do good works through the Clinton Global Initiative as a type of public penance or restitution for his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky.
I wish I had added that Clinton’s efforts today might be a form of penance for his public policy failure to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda. After all, Clinton’s moral failures were more than personal and sexual.
America prides itself as a place for second chances. Christianity defines itself as a forgiving faith.
Would that we avoided the muddled moral confusion that conflates forgiveness and forgetting.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.