Epiphany 7 – Year C

The Pardoners’ Tale

Along with Sue and Lindon, Earl Grey Tea, and the Anglican Church, the presidential pardon derives from England.

After the Revolution, we took the idea of executive pardon from King George, and instilled it in the office of President of the United States.

Since then, there’s been alot of debate over what a presidential pardon actually confers. The high view holds that you not only relieve any and all legal punishments, but you also wipe away the stain of guilt.

By this view, it’s almost like a priestly remission of sins.

As Justice John Marshall once wrote, “a pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted” to the president. Such a deed confers fair title to innocence and full restitution of rights to its owner.

The majority of modern people however, don’t go this far. We say that a presidential pardon relieves any and all legal punishments, subsequent or pending prosecutions, and even restores the petitioner to whatever civil liberties were infringed by judicial action.

However, the fact of a conviction is not wiped away, and guilt is not denied. Indeed, a pardon carries an imputation of guilt, and acceptance a confession of it.

You and I likely find this latter view to make more sense.

I mean, we want justice, and as such we really can not allow the law to simply forgive and forget. We cannot allow there to be some magic wand of presidential power which not only commutes punishment but also wipes away historical events as if they never happened.

If we did, we might open ourselves up to egregious harm and danger.

For example, imagine if a surgeon performs an operation while drunk and his patient dies. We would hope and pray that such a surgeon would lose his license, pay a huge settlement, and maybe even go to jail.

But imagine that such a doctor has powerful friends, huge financial resources, and convinces an outgoing president to grant him a full, complete, and unconditional pardon.

Even if such a person were to avoid prison – shouldn’t we at least reserve the right to see to it that his actions kept him from practicing medicine and could still be liable for damages to the victim’s family?

Yes, you and I want justice. Right? Isn’t that what we require? Don’t we demand justice?

I mean, if a presidential pardon can actually render a guilty person innocent in the eyes of the law, then the Law is not only blind – it’s unjust.

Who among us believes that Marc Rich is an innocent man, born again, washed clean by the last minute pardon of an outgoing president?

It’s ironic isn’t it that in a country built on a Constitution of freedom, justice and great political wisdom – we allow presidents and governors to absolve criminals – for any or no reason whatsoever – and we do this for our own good?

We do this, not because we’re blind and stupid, but because our Constitution shrewdly seeks to protect our nation from what the government could become.

To protect ourselves from authoritarian dictatorship, we possess an ingenious political system of checks and balances to keep one branch of government from getting too powerful. And a crucial part of this system of checks and balances is the fact that we allow the president to issue pardons.

But isn’t it kind of sad that we are compelled by good human reasoning to do this?

Deep down, you and I know that the compromises which are necessary to achieve anything in this world are often morally bad – and yet we also know that we can’t get by without them.

Deep down you and I know that we live in a world which must be manipulated, compromised-with, bargained-with, influenced, checked-and-balanced – because if we do not, the world will have our heads.

Deep down you and I suspect that we make one compromise after another in this life – and it begins to dawn on us – is this what God would have us do?

It is not.

Thank God that God’s ways are not our ways. Thank God that God’s Kingdom is not our Kingdom. Thank God that you and I do not have to forgive-without-forgetting as does the law of the land. We do not have to forgive only upon receipt of payment in full. We do not have to live by the Quid-Pro-Quo of what appears to be necessary human justice.

God has empowered us to go farther than our mortal justice allows, by calling us to do as God does, to be as God is, and to plant the seed of resurrection in our hearts so that we too might be able to forgive those who harm us, to do well to those who hate us, and to give more than we ever hope to get.

But can we do it? Can we forgive without compensation?

Sometimes it’s hard enough to say, “I forgive you,” when someone has told us in all sincerity, “I am sorry.”

How much harder is it then to forgive those who have not even apologized?

But yet this is God’s way. This is the way of the Resurrection.

Martin Luther King once said that if people live “eye for an eye” – they will quickly become blind.

And yet this is the model of justice humans hold dear. Like four-year-olds who want everything to be fair, we believe in an equal distribution – whether its cake, cookies, milk, happiness, pain, punishment, labor, etc.

Everything must be equal.

If you have more than me, that’s not right. If you take mine, what you take should be taken from you. If I am hurt, you must be hurt.

This is human justice my friends. And while it appears to be necessary, for the law to follow its patterns, maybe that is part of the problem.

The problem isn’t that Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich the rich and powerful man, with rich and powerful friends, who gave richly and powerfully for special consideration.

The problem isn’t that Bush pardoned North, Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner, Carter pardoned draft dodgers, Ford pardoned Nixon, Nixon pardoned Hoffa, or Lincoln pardoned Lee.

The problem is that we need a system which requires the president be able to pardon whomever he pleases, as a check against the possible corruption and malfeasance of a judiciary or a congress.

The problem is that our system is considered by all reasonable people to be among the best ever.

The problem is that we require a system of moral compromises to guard against total chaos and oppression.

The problem is that we are the problem.

On our own, we cannot escape our nature. We cannot cease from sinning, and we cannot forgive those who sin against us.

And this is why Jesus Christ came to teach us how God is by telling us stories and parables about the nature of God and God’s ways. He came to surprise us with the utterly crazy way that God does God’s will.

He came to tell us that we must love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, forgive without compensation, give without receiving, and he came to not only teach us this, but to do it.

He came not to live but to die. He came to show us that our ways, our bodies, and our mortality must be planted into the ground like seed, where they must die to be raised up as creatures fit for heaven.

We must forgive those who hate us, because in that little death, we will be planting a seed of resurrection, not in our hearts only, but in the hearts of those around us. For we will not only find ourselves growing closer to God’s way, I believe we will so shock and surprise those who hate us, that we may even plant a seed of resurrection in their hearts.

This is exactly what happened in the civil rights ministry of Dr. King. What happened is that a large number of white people woke up and said one day, “Thank God the black folks in this country did not take up arms and fight back for all they had suffered. Thank God they had a Christian prophet to tell them that if they took up the gun, and paid the nation back for all they had suffered, they and we would still be fighting in the streets or lying in the ground.”

The whites in South Africa must say the same – “thank God that Nelson Mandela listened to God more than Winnie!” If he had desired, he could have led the blacks of South Africa into the streets with every stick, bottle, shovel and gun they could find, and the streets would be stained much more so than they have been.

If you don’t believe me – look at Palestine. There has been evil committed on both sides. And the only system going there appears to be the necessary Quid-Pro-Quo of mortal retribution and tit-for-tat justice. Who is the Big One there who will finally just forgive? Isn’t that what it will take?

You see a Resurrection Life is one which not only hopes for heaven one day. A Resurrection Life is one which plants itself in the ground of real life, takes a beating, dies a little bit, and begins to transform itself and the dead ground around it into something which God wants to be there. A Resurrection Life is what you get when you die unto yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus in word and example.

And this is why it’s so hard to be a Christian. It’s why I stumble in my resurrection every minute of every day. It’s why I am far from the glorious creature that God would have me be.

And it’s why Jesus went first.

Because only he could come back with the Holy Spirit of Grace to give. So that when we choose to plant our seeds of self into the ground of God’s all encompassing being – we might take root, and begin to become like Christ, the Sons and Daughters of God.

Amen.

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