James Gunn is only the most recent man (aren’t they all men?) to lose his position because of past insensitivities that transgress our current sensitive cultural climate. The presumed director of the next installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy series was fired by Disney when old tweets surfaced.
The transgressions were admittedly reprehensible and deeply disturbing at any time. Yet the swift “no tolerance” response is new to our society, now informed by the #MeToo movement. Even many in Hollywood find themselves in a position of protesting the firing as they advocate for the possibility that people might learn and grow and move beyond their past behavior.
What intrigues me here is the parallel to a period in early church history and what we might learn from that similar situation. The early Christians were also zealous for righteousness. They understood their following Christ as a call to the highest standards of holiness.
The problem was that not everyone in the Christian community met those standards. A particularly grievous issue arose in the aftermath of a harsh persecution in the middle of the third century. The church needed to decide what to do with the lapsi, those Christians who had denied Christ to escape torture or death for their faith. In the Christian tradition, this was a mortal sin, easily bringing to mind the words of Christ, “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father” (Matt. 10:33).
Rigorists like Novatian focused myopically on this passage and offered no assurance that the church could welcome back the fallen. Perhaps God could receive them after a life of penance, but the church had no such authority. The Christian church split over the issue, with Novatian leading the rigorist sect.
But there were other solutions. Some of those who had endured suffering for the sake of Christ and had survived (“the confessors”) began to presume that they possessed the spiritual grace to absolve the fallen. Another solution, offered by Cyprian of Carthage, located the power to forgive in the office of the bishop, who would administer the sacramental absolution after the fallen enacted penitential disciplines to demonstrate their sorrow for their sin and their change of heart.
Public penance also showed the Christian community that such sins were not to be considered inconsequential. Over the years, this penitential system developed in the Roman Catholic Church in ways which, arguably, invited more abuse than spiritual healing (see, for example, Martin Luther’s complaints about the indulgence trade).
We currently find ourselves within a rigorist regime. There is a high and absolute standard for sexual morality—indiscretions which had been off-color or boundary-pushing in the past now come back to declare the perpetrator himself a pariah. What’s missing is any possibility of grace and forgiveness. What’s forgotten is that, indeed, people can mature and grow. For those who believe in God, this should be all the more plausible, given the possibility of divine aid and spiritual transformation.
What would the “Catholic” solution of the third century teach us about responding to our fallen today? Could we imagine some kind of secular rite of penance by which the penitent could be welcomed back through a demonstration of their contrition and their change of heart? If a wealthy director gave a million dollars to programs that assist abused children, or a disgraced politician dedicated his weekends to advocating for battered women, would it be possible?
But I don’t know who would speak, as the ancient bishop did, to say, “It is enough. We believe that that sin no longer defines you. You are forgiven. You are new.” That word, of course, rested finally on the mercy extended by Christ from the cross, something to which our multicultural society cannot appeal.
Yet it’s not that such a process isn’t inconceivable. After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered a process by which victims and perpetrators could face the past in a process of public healing. Amnesty had already been granted as part of the dismantling of apartheid, but simply pretending to forget the past would not have brought the country the new beginning it needed. Transgressions needed to be acknowledged, confessed, and, where possible, forgiven, even as their enormity remained.
In our context, some of the fallen certainly deserve to lose their jobs. In fact, some deserve jail time and that has been coming. But for those, like Gunn, whose offenses fall short of criminal behavior, a method of restoration would be salutary.
Gunn himself suggests that he is pursuing such a process. He writes: “All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse.”