Donate to RNS

Healing and unity? Not yet

There is such a thing as ‘cheap grace.’ This is precisely not the time for it.

Demonstrators break TV equipment outside the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(RNS) — What’s that sound of “Kumbaya” you hear in the distance?

It is the sound of Trump supporters, or former Trump supporters (former, as of the other day), in the wake of the events of Jan. 6 — pleading for compassion, peace, forgiveness and moving on.

As President Donald Trump himself said after he was impeached for the second time on Jan. 13:

Now I am asking everyone who has ever believed in our agenda to be thinking of ways to ease tensions, calm tempers and help to promote peace in our country …

What is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another. All of us can choose by our actions to rise above the rancor and find common ground and shared purpose. …

I am calling on all Americans to overcome the passions of the moment and join together. As one American people, let us choose to move forward united for the good of our families, our communities and our country.

Really? Now you call for calm tempers, peace, listening to one another, joining together?

Let me tell you about my history of listening over the course of this presidency.

For the past four years, this has been a central message of my preaching and teaching — to listen to one another.

I have said it is a mitzvah to hear the pains and the struggles of those with whom we do not agree politically. To live inside their lives for just a little while. It’s called empathy. And, even when empathy was not required, I still believed it was important for me, as a liberal, to listen to those on the right, and to learn from them.

I asked Trump supporters to invite me into their hearts and souls.

From upper-middle-class Jews, I heard about how Trump supports Israel. I get it.

From middle-class rural people, I have heard they feel left behind, their economic bases routed, sneered at by the “elitists.” Like King Solomon, I asked God for a lev shomea, a heart and mind that could hear. I heard. I acknowledged. I got it. I felt empathy for them.

But, here is the problem.

“They” didn’t reciprocate.

They didn’t ask about my story, my point of view, my fears for this country. When I described those fears, what did I often get in response?

Snickering. Laughter. “You’re a libtard.” “You’re a snowflake.” “You’re an elitist.” “You’re a socialist.”

I do not want to hear from those people anymore. On Jan. 6, they forfeited the right to my time, my ear, my mind and my soul.


RELATED: Truth over power: It is past time for the church to speak plainly about the election


When I saw miscreants crashing through the Capitol; when I saw them in anti-Semitic T-shirts; when I heard the roster of white supremacist groups who were there; when I saw them erect a gallows: I decided my “open ears, open mind, open heart” days were officially over.

Let me put it to you this way.

Had I been in Germany in 1934, I would not have spent much time trying to understand the fears and anxieties of the brownshirts.  

“What, Rabbi — you’re not ready to forgive them? Isn’t that what Judaism teaches?”

Forgiving the mobs?

No.

Forgiving those who were Trump’s most vocal and public supporters?

I would like to be able to do that.

Here is how it works.

Let’s turn to Maimonides, in his “Laws of Repentance”:

How does one confess? By saying, “I beseech Thee, 0 Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before Thee, and have done thus and thus, and lo, I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds and will never do this again.” This constitutes the essence of confession.

To quote the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the dean of contemporary Orthodox thinkers:

The three fundamental components of repentance are:

Acknowledgment of sin (“I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed”);

Remorse (“I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds”);

Resolution for the future (“I will never do this again”).

What, then, would be necessary for our nation to find the shalom, the wholeness and peace, that it so richly deserves?

The events of Jan. 6 were a massive sin against our country. Those events were the inevitable consequence of the Trump presidency and his character. The president’s supporters in our legislative body supported and encouraged his policies. They did not question his character.

The task that lies ahead is called teshuvah — repentance, but more literally, return.

Or, even: reboot. We need a rebooting of the American soul, character and idea. As in: hitting control-alt-delete on the laptop of the American vision. Let us pray the new administration will bring that to fruition.

But, that can only happen if Trump’s enablers — voluntarily, without “show trials” — do teshuvah. The Republican Party must follow the steps of Maimonides and Soloveitchik.

  • They must say: “Through our unquestioned support of this man, we have sinned against the American people.”
  • They must then say: “We are remorseful for what we have done, and for the long-lasting wounds we have made in the American body politic.”
  • They must then say: “We will never allow this to happen again.”

These steps are neither easy nor automatic. As Rav Soloveitchik taught: “Repentance sprouts forth and grows in the course of a long and drawn‑out process typified by doubt and speculation, soul-searching and spiritual reckoning.”

We Americans are very adept at self-congratulation and boosterism.

What we now need is a long night of the American soul — a long night in which we do not wallow in our misery, or believe we are damned — but a long night in which we lift up the best that is in our national spirit.

But, why not just forgive now? Why not let this new administration be the reboot we need? Why let wounds fester?

Let us call upon one of Christianity’s greatest moral voices: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian and a victim of the Nazis, stripped naked and hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.

This is how Bonhoeffer described the notion of “cheap grace” — as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”

Do I believe there can be forgiveness without repentance? Yes. On several occasions in my life, I have offered forgiveness to friends who have hurt me, without asking for anything in return. In other words, I have forgiven people who have not walked through the steps outlined by Maimonides and Soloveitchik.

But, that is for sins those people committed against me.

Do I have either the power or ability to grant absolution in this matter? 

No. Because those sins were not committed against me. They were committed against the United States of America.

When sufficient numbers of Trump’s enablers in the legislative branch do the Maimonides thing, then yes. They must commit to openly chastising and urging every possible action against those violent forces we witnessed on Jan. 6.

Just today, Sen. Mitch McConnell said Trump and others in power provoked that deadly attack.

That is a good start.


RELATED: If you’re religious and supported President Trump