Forgiving the Unforgivable

Quick opinion survey: If someone commits a crime or sin that is reprehensible, should they be forgiven or given a second chance at some point? It's a simple question, but surprisingly tough to answer unequivocally. If the answer is yes, under what circumstances? Universally? Or only if they repent? If they do something positive to balance the damage? How much restitution is sufficient? Can good deeds in the future atone for the sins of the past? Or is a grievous sin or crime such a damning statement about character that the offender cannot ever make up for it?

If you think you're sure about your answers on these questions, consider three cases that have hit the news in the past few weeks.

2311674378_6c37ff8945_m.jpgThe most recent is NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who was signed to play for the Philadelphia Eagles this past week, two years after being convicted of running a dog fighting ring. Dog fighting involves conscious, intentional cruelty for sport; a horrific thought to millions of people--especially those who have and love household pets.

Vick's arrest and conviction led to the loss of his contract with the Atlanta Falcons (with all the money that entailed) and two years in prison. Released two months ago, Vick says he's been humbled by his downfall, regrets his actions, has been rehabilitated through re-found faith and his time in prison, and now wants to be "part of the solution, not the problem." He's started working with the Humane Society of America to reach out to inner-city youth, in an effort to dissuade them from getting involved with dog fighting.

But opinions about Vick's return to eligible status in the NFL in general, and his signing with the Eagles in particular, are as heated as they are split. Any number of Eagles fans are incensed at owner Jeffrey Lurie hiring a convicted dogfighter to play for the team. Especially for $1.6 million a year. To some, and perhaps many, the intentional cruelty of Vick's past actions is unforgivable ... or if it's at some point forgivable, at least disqualifying in terms of a second, lucrative chance at an NFL career.

On the other side of the argument, there are fans who point to lesser sentences imposed on people who get drunk and kill not just dogs, but human beings. If those people get to go on with their lives again, why not Vick? Especially because he's done his time, claims he's sorry beyond words, and is promising to do community service work to use his position and hard/late-learned wisdom to help others.

Part of the objection may also be that Vick's signing is no altruistic act of charity on the part of the Eagles. Vick has talent. And somehow, getting a second chance at a golden life because you can throw, run, and make money for those who are giving you a second chance ... seems a bit unfair. As if Vick is getting a second chance that an average guy wouldn't get, just because he's one of the pampered athlete aristocracy.

Then there's the story of Joe Balzer, one of three Northwest Airline pilots who were arrested in 1990 after piloting a 727 airliner full of people while they drunk. Balzer, a long-time alcoholic, went to jail and lost all of his flight ratings. But in 1999, after eight years of sobriety and AA, and after re-qualifying for his pilot's ratings, he was hired by American Airlines--his current employer.

Does an airline pilot who put hundreds of lives at risk ... lives his very job was to protect, and which were spared more by luck than by design ... deserve another chance at flying passengers? Balzer says he's been sober for 19 years and now works to help others battling problems with alcohol. He's also written a book about his struggles called Flying Drunk, which came out at the end of July.

As with Vick, opinions are mixed on Balzer's comeback, both inside and outside the industry. As a pilot myself, I struggle with the case. Even if I grant that alcoholism is a disease, the fact remains that to take a passenger up with you, even in a small airplane, is an enormous gift of trust on their part, requiring an equal portion of responsibility on yours. Times a thousand for a professional pilot. To selfishly continue to fly drunk, knowing you have a problem with alcohol but not seeking help for it, and knowing that what you're doing is illegal as well as unsafe, and that you're risking the lives of everyone who boards your aircraft and entrusts you with their lives because you've promised to protect them, just to keep your career alive, is a horrific breach of trust, honor, and responsibility as well as the law. It is, in a sense, unforgivable. Even if you get lucky in the end and nobody actually dies.

Does an "I'm really sorry and I've paid my dues and I won't do it again" make up for that? And  even if that's enough for forgiveness, is a recovering alcoholic who's committed that crime really the best possible bet for position where hundred, or thousands, of lives are at stake ... especially when thousands of pilots without that blemish on their records are looking for jobs?

But Balzer did not, in the end, actually cause anyone's death. Compare that to another famous case that resurfaced in the news recently ... that of Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Kennedy wasn't a professional endangering hundreds of lives, and Chappaquiddick was only one night. But his actions on that night in 1969--whose 40th anniversary brought the story back into the forefront in July--led to the death of a young woman. Clearly, the car going off the bridge was an accident. But it's suspected that Kennedy was intoxicated at the time (a point which couldn't be proven because he didn't report the accident until the next day). And Kennedy's delay in reporting the event ... arguably weak, at best, and criminal, at worst ... was even more damning, in many people's eyes, than the accident and his failure to save his companion. And, as with Vick, part of the grumbling about Kennedy undoubtedly stems from a feeling that he got special treatment because of his place in the social and political aristocracy.

2226149161_3a88bdb97d_m.jpgTo many people, Kennedy's actions that night were then, and remain now, unforgivable, despite his 40 years of tireless legislative effort on worthwhile causes like education and healthcare that followed. To others, even those who agree that his actions that night were reprehensible, the years since have balanced the scales. Of course, whether or not you consider Kennedy's subsequent actions redeemable probably depends, in large part, on whether you value or agree with the bills he's helped to pass. Which raises the question ... who decides what actions are "sufficient" for forgiveness or a second chance?

Still ... at what point does the price a man (or woman) pays, or their subsequent actions, make up for a terrible mistake? Never? And if we answer affirmatively to that question, what does that do for us? Do we want sinners to be ruined for life? If we don't forgive or grant second chances, the concept of "rehabilitation" becomes somewhat hollow. Not to mention the greatness, wisdom, and strength that can come from the depths of a fall and the dark nights of the soul.

Is it possible to forgive and yet still require some life-long cost? Or to grant someone chances to atone and go on with a normal life without ever really forgiving the original sin? And if we differentiate between Vick and Balzer, or Balzer and Kennedy, how do we rationalize our variations? Or the fact that 10 different people might, in good conscience, come up with 10 different answers to that question?

Whatever else can be said about forgiveness, it's clearly a long, painful and complex process that, ironically, draws us into a parallel struggle along with those we judge. Perhaps there's a lesson or purpose in that somewhere. But that also may be part of what we find so hard to forgive.

(Photo: Flickr Users Keith Allison and diggersf)