In addition to listening to NPR’s reports on the Confederate Flag controversy, we also listened to the Diane Rehm show for part of the drive across Ohio. Her guest on Monday was Evan Thomas, the author of the new biography of Richard M. Nixon. This was a great interview and sounds like a brilliant book. The reason is that Thomas doesn’t flinch from Nixon’s despicable side. But he also finds Nixon to be a fascinating and a remarkable political figure. In which case, Nixon’s wickedness doesn’t put Thomas off. In fact, it’s the mix of bad and good that makes Nixon such an intriguing character. In other words, Thomas is not too good for this world.
Of course, the mix of bad and good is also what makes The Wire arguably the best motion-picture production ever made. Every character is honorable and selfish, commendable and despicable. That mix is what is characteristic of human existence. And I would also argue that it even characterizes the lives of saints; I don’t say this as an excuse for Christians to do evil; I say it to prevent saints from pride. (And let me be clear that I don’t recommend The Wire to all people; if you have trouble with nudity and crudity — you may want to lay off Shakespeare, opera, and the Bible — stay away from The Wire.)
This is a way to raise questions about Matt Tuininga’s piece (where comments are closed) about the forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by the families of his victims. I am not sure why anyone would feel compelled to comment on those tragic deaths. Unless one of us has insight into Roof’s character or the African Methodist Episcopal Church or black Protestantism, it seems to me that white Reformed Protestants should simply pass by and let others do the conversing. But Matt did not make that call:
These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
For one thing, I’m not sure that the gospel and ethics should be so closely identified. I believe the gospel is about what God does in Christ for sinners and ethics has something to do with the way the redeemed respond to God’s grace in their lives by following God’s law. So granting forgiveness to Roof is analogous to what God does in the gospel, but taking up the cross and losing our life is a form of what we do. Which is it? Forgiveness or ethics?
For another, I’m not sure that Matt can make a case that the self-denial taught by Christ should take the form of the forgiveness granted by the AME families. I can well imagine a Christian not granting forgiveness (especially if not requested) and arguing that the lex talionis still applies — an eye for an eye, a life for a life. That rule doesn’t give Christians permission to practice vigilante justice. But it does allow a believer to hope that the criminal justice system will convict and punish a murderer. That’s not vindictive if God himself is going to judge all people by their works on judgment day.
And so I wonder if Matt had a better sense of the conflicted nature of human existence — the Wire View — maybe he would have been less prone to tidy up this tragedy with such a happy ending. This is an event with repercussions yet to come and it seems to be very dangerous to take away from it reassurances about how good Christians are (not to mention no consideration of differences between Calvinists and Wesleyans about sanctification, though, perhaps, this is not the time to bring those up).