Is It Time to Forgive Lance Armstrong?

 Is Lance’s confession more than the damage control of a still self-obsessed Machiavellian?

I know a man who lies. When he was young, the lies were simply self-serving. He wanted something, and manipulating the generosity and trust of others got it for him. As he aged, and as trust eroded in his natural social circles, the lies expanded. He sought attention and appreciation, and had only one tool that could get it. Eventually, the chickens came home to roost.

Today, he has little contact with the people who love him. He moves from place to place, from person to person, from job to job, lying to get the things he desires and running when the consequences rear their ugly heads.

In the past, this only caused me sorrow. Then I met his young daughter; the first of several kids born of several different women. His daughter is sweet and earnest and thoughtful and desperate for love… and she barely knows or even sees her dad. At that point, my capacity for forgiveness was gone and I was no longer sad. I was angry. I haven’t spoken to my cousin since.

Of course, there’s a certain irony to my outrage, because I lie too. Too many times, I have had to apologize for telling someone something I knew to be incorrect. Too many times, I have felt the painful backlash that comes when deceit is discovered. Too many times, the sin in my heart has been exposed for all to see. Too many times, it hasn’t.

Yet my social networks remain strong. In most things, I retain the trust of the people close to me. When people who know me best listen to me, they believe what I say. Perhaps strange to say, I think they are right to do so; when I repent, it is real.

There’s this funny division between one type of liar and another, and that division lies at the heart of the choice now faced by the sports fans across the country and even the world:  Should we forgive Lance Armstrong?

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Greg LeMond at Paris-Roubais. Lance tried to ruin LeMond when LeMond suggested Lance might be doping.

There is no shortage of articles chronicling the rise and fall of the man once considered one of the greatest riders of all time. There is also no shortage of the articles describing the other characters in his story; the unfairly maligned Greg LeMond, the internal conflict of George Hincapie, the slander of Betsy Andreu and Mike Anderson, the sleazy but ultimately correct Floyd Landis, the long-suffering Sunday Times of London. There is no shortage of opinions on the central question of forgiveness. I encourage you to spend some time reading up on this story, because the Lance Armstrong saga contains powerful insights into sports culture, the power of money, the cancer research community, and above all the darkness of human hearts.

When this complex story is reduced to the question of forgiveness, there are really just three main considerations. I think the answers to these considerations determine whether we feel able to forgive. What is the damage? Is the remorse authentic? Will there be real and lasting change?

Damage

The greatest challenge in forgiving Lance Armstrong, to me, is the incredible pain and destruction he unleashed on the people around him. Over the years, he put huge pressure on his teammates to join in his doping. He made threats against anyone who didn’t get with the program. He ostracized support staff who in any way defied or challenged him. He used his considerable wealth and media power to hammer any athlete or journalist who suggested his success wasn’t 100% clean. He even went so far as to sue newspapers for libel when they correctly reported that he was doping. And he won!

In his interview with Oprah, Lance compartmentalized this piece of himself as his “jerk” side, which seemingly operates independently from the “humanitarian” side. He suggested the jerk side was a bully, that it came in response to wave of momentum from maintaining his story and his success, and that he plans to reach out to make restitution with those he wronged.

George Hincapie and Lance in happier times.

While we all have multiple facets of our personalities, this rings a little false. First, it is difficult to conceive of a true “humanitarian” ignoring their “jerk” tendencies. What makes far more sense is the possibility that Lance’s “humanitarian” side was just one more avenue for feeding his ego. Being a spokesman for the cancer community and the leader of a world-famous charity is just as attractive a role for the self-serving as it is for the self-forgetting. Names like Greg Mortenson, James Frey, Mike Daisey, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Baron Munchausen are perfect evidence that pursuing fame on the back of lies is an attractive option for the unscrupulous.

Further, we have not yet seen evidence that Lance is taking real steps to make restitution for his “jerk” side. In his interview with Oprah, Lance seemed to dodge opportunities for empathy with the many people whose careers and reputation he attacked and in some cases destroyed. He called it “controlling the narrative,” and accepts responsibility, but he failed to confront just how damaging his attacks were, and to date we have not seen sincere efforts to repair that damage. That is a big problem.

 Remorse

I still remember the look and feel of that random Wendy’s near the highway where I experienced swift forgiveness. I had hurt my wife and she felt betrayed. I expressed my remorse, and she forgave a fairly large transgression easily and quickly. I was surprised by how quickly she forgave me and told her so, and she responded that my expression of remorse was extremely helpful to her ability to forgive.

My wife has an amazing, intuitive sense of non-verbal communication (yes, it’s generally a stronger trait in women than in men, but she’s even stronger in this area than most women I know). Unfortunately, she married an extremely calm and unexpressive person;  even when I feel deep and powerful emotions, like remorse or anger or elation, I react as though someone were commenting on the weather. That particular day in Wendy’s, I somehow got past that tendency and it was an important step on our road to healing.

Lance Armstrong is not communicating remorse. He is stating truths, truths that are damaging to him personally and that have destroyed any hope he had of maintaining his false claims of innocence. However, he also has a personal stake in confession, because he wants to race in triathlons and he wants to keep his endorsements and he wants to retain what legacy he can as an advocate for cancer research. The jury of public opinion has little to go on to make any kind of determination about his motives, and so the one indicator that would help is a clear sense of remorse. Lance’s careful preparation for and mechanical demeanor in his interview with Oprah were not helpful in the least.

Change

The world needs to see that Lance’s confession is more than the damage control of a still self-obsessed Machiavellian. It needs to see that he cares enough to return his trophies. To return his award money. To make some sort of financial restitution to the people he hurt. To name names and implicate those in the industry who are encouraging the doping culture. In short, he needs to make a 180 degree turn. So far, that hasn’t happened.

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I struggled with this article, because I believe each Christian has a high calling from God to forgive. Like the parable of the debtor, we have been forgiven too much to be in a position of not forgiving others. One of our highest aspirations as forgiven sinners is to show grace like the Amish community toward the man who murdered their child. That is, and should be, our goal.

For in some sense, each act of apology is a miniature retelling of the gospel story. One sins against another. The sin is exposed. The sin is confessed. Next comes repentance, and then change. And there is one who sits in judgment and graciously offers forgiveness. This “old, old story” is one of the central, beautiful ideas that those who follow Christ have experienced. We, who did not deserve it, received grace.

However, the truth is that some do not receive forgiveness, because they refuse to participate in the story with authentic commitment. They do not confess fully, they do not feel remorse, they do not seek to amend. Their hearts are hard, and God gives them the fate they have requested. Forgiveness is beautiful, but it is not without conditions.

Often Christians declare that, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” has been replaced, but that is terrible theology. Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His loving response to questions of justice flowed from his attention to hearts rather than a mindless commitment to forgiving at all costs. Excusing the actions of our enemies while their victims remain without compensation is not the right way to emulate his example. The honest Christian must admit that though forgiveness is an act of Christlikeness, blanket forgiveness for all regardless of heart condition is not.

The Lance Armstrong story will continue to unfold, and we will watch to see whether his apology is real. Perhaps we will forgive, and perhaps we will not. But let us hope that whatever the case, the tragedy of Lance Armstrong will cause each of us to examine ourselves, and to pursue the grace offered by the One judge who truly matters.

One of these days, be it a week or a year from now, I will receive a call from my cousin. He will probably tell me lies. He may tell me that he has somehow gotten his act together, made it through junior college, and landed a job at Google (He actually tried that one last time). Or he may just say he has joined a church and turned his life around. Whatever his story is, it will be cheerful and probably untrue. I will have little evidence to suggest his heart has changed. I will face the same dilemma sports fans across the country and across the world face with regard to Lance Armstrong. When is it time to forgive?

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Seth, you’re a genius. That illustration is amazing.

  • Jim Hoffman

    Thanks for the article Ben. Loved the illustration too, although I think the caption -could- be construed as defense of Armstrong. That’s how I read it at first, but after reading the article, it’s more like ‘IS Lance Armstrong’s confession more than damage control?…”

  • Richard Clark

    Good point, Jim. I’ve fixed the summary.

  • http://southbystyle.com Lauren Rambo

    Ben,

    This is great. I have a similar issue with a family member. I have forgiven as much as its possible to forgive someone who has not admitted wrongdoing or made any effort to reconcile. Your story actually made me feel (slightly) better about it.

    Also, have you read the WSJ’s article on Tyler Hamilton? He was a teammate of Armstrong’s who doped, lied about it, and finally wrote a tell-all book. His perspective on telling the truth and how he related to Armstrong’s unapologetic apology were helpful.

    And Seth, this is fantastic.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Good call, Jim, thank you. In case it’s not clear, my personal answer is, “no!” But I did want to leave a little room for those who have, for instance, been greatly blessed by Livestrong (and there are many people in that situation) or who have a more personal knowledge of the situation than me and feel differently.

    However, from where I sit, it looks to me like Lance is well beyond asking forgiveness for mistakes… he’s an extremely cruel and conscience-free individual who needs far more serious help than a confession interview on Oprah.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Lauren,

    On your recommendation I went out and read the Tyler Hamilton article. You’re right, it’s excellent. It also reminded me of Mike Daisey’s confession of his lies about Foxconn on This American Life… the same halting, tortured, slow way of admitting the truth.

    That said, I’m still going to have to see some attempts at restitution before I am convinced. Here’s a fantastic article on one person who experienced the bitter, vindictive, controlling side of Lance Armstrong. http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/biking/road-biking/My-Life-With-Lance-Armstrong.html?page=all

    Lies within families are really difficult. The sense of betrayal is profound… and far worse than anything any politician or sports star could ever do to me. Even when it’s not our fault and not about us, somehow it still makes us feel like crap.

  • Trish

    Ben,
    This is a most insightful article. Unfortunately, I have first hand experience with an Armstrong-like character. After much prayer and wrestling, I have come to the place in which I feel we are called to forgive but not be willing to sign up for it all again. In the end, it is between God and Lance. Personally, I have no illusion that it is anything less than damage control. However, just as God forgave us as we were still sinners, we are called to forgive. We must see it for what it is, a narcissistic mental condition of sorts that will not allow him to divulge anything that reveals himself to be less that he fantasizes that he is.

  • Joe Walsh

    Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins, which include lies. Personally, I could care less about professional athletes making millions of dollars, that our society glorifies and worships them more than the Lord Almighty.

    Remember also the quote from Mother Theresa, “When you judge someone, you do not have the capacity to love them”, and what Jesus told us that the greatest gift is love.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Hi Joe,

    Here are some other things Jesus said.

    “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matt 15:7-9)

    “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’” (Matt. 23:1-4)

    “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Matt 23:13)

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27-28)

    “and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word.” (John 8:55)

    “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:48)

    So, I feel pretty comfortable saying that judgement and love are able to coexist in one who seeks to be Christlike.

    Thanks,

    Ben

  • Peter

    I feel it is important to separate forgiveness into two questions: should we be *willing* to forgive Armstrong, and should we in actuality extend forgiveness to him (assuming he is asking for it, which I feel he isn’t. More on that in a minute).

    For the first question, I feel the biblical answer is yes. God has promised all of us forgiveness of a much great sin than someone cheating. People regularly choose to reject God’s truths and instructions and live life their own way. God has offered to forgive me of my hard heart and wicked ways should I choose to repent, how could I possibly not extend forgiveness to Lance if he were to repent?

    While God’s forgiveness knows no bounds, it is not extended to those who refuse to repent. Those who steadfastly reject God’s truths will get what they ask for, an eternity away from Him.

    I look at Lance’s interview with Oprah and I have to ask, is he really looking to be forgiven? I personally think that deep down, he doesn’t think he did anything wrong and it shows in his words and actions. Things like saying that you have a “jerk” side and simply saying “sorry” doesn’t mean anything other than going through the motions. He doesn’t even put effort into convincing us that he is a different person now. I suspect he doesn’t even think he did anything wrong.

    So I have no plans on forgiving him anything. Until his words and actions reflect repentance and change I am going to assume that Lance thinks he is just alright and that we should deal with it.

  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

    “Forgiveness is beautiful, but it is not without conditions.” Amen!
    That was a blessing to read after wondering what direction you would take after the headline.
    Standard commentaries and reference works (like the New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) agree with you. These days, most Christians do not. We have so confused “forgiveness” with other terms like “love” that a decade ago, Christianity Today said that some of these basic words have undergone a metamorphosis that makes them hard to recognize.
    This is the theme of Love, Prayer, and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies. If you would care to review it, I would be glad to send the pdf.
    http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/love-prayer-and-forgiveness-now-also-in-ebook-format/


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