Now that Doug Jones has officially won the senatorial race in Alabama, I feel I can reflect on what a truly Christian response to the Roy Moore allegations might look like without seeming like I’m pushing a partisan agenda. Admittedly, I have never been a fan of Moore’s theology and the way it plays out in his politics. Each summer when I teach through the Old Testament with my college interns, we do a lesson on the 10 Commandments and I ask them if they know of Roy Moore and his history with the 10 Commandments in his courtroom. We then discuss the faulty theological assumptions behind Moore’s actions and what better alternatives might look like. In four years of teaching the summer residency, I’ve only had one student say they knew of Roy Moore. That will obviously change this summer.
Theological problems aside, my heart broke for the nine or more women who came forward with stories of Moore’s mall trolling back in his thirties. Their stories have been confirmed by numerous secondary sources, and I would not be surprised if we haven’t seen the end of it. I felt still more horror at watching the response of many Christians in Alabama and elsewhere. One obviously pandering politician appealed to the Joseph and Mary story as evidence that Moore’s actions had biblical legitimacy. Of course, such a claim ignores that Joseph 1) acted in accordance with the common customs of his culture, 2) that Joseph operated with the full knowledge and consent of Mary’s parents (i.e. he didn’t troll the local mall), and 3) that Joseph did nothing illegal.
Roy Moore allegedly stalking malls for underage prey had none of these attributes.
More disturbing (and relevant to the question I want to ask in this post) were the people who said something like, “Even if the accusations are true, that was 40 years ago. God forgave him, so we can forgive him, too.” Many would go from there and appeal to the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband. Clearly, these people said, God used David and called him “a man after God’s own heart.”Because very few people take the Joseph and Mary appeal seriously, and many more people seemed to want to appeal to David’s forgiveness narrative, I thought it might be worth a post explaining why this is so problematic. In fact, I have two big assertions I’d like to make in what follows:
1. The story of David’s forgiveness proves the exact opposite of what Roy Moore’s defenders want to prove.
2. Our application of the story of David’s forgiveness to the Roy Moore situation proves how shallow our understanding of the gospel is because our understanding of the gospel is tied to a shallow understanding of forgiveness.
My defense of these two big assertions will be weaved throughout the four points I make here:
First, forgiveness is preceded by confession.
Telling the truth about what we have done, who we have done it to, what our intentions were, how we have failed, and how we have sinned is always the first part of receiving God’s forgiveness. Without confession, without a moment – or many moments – of telling the truth about ourselves, we cannot understand the nature of forgiveness.
It is not God’s forgiveness of David that makes him a man after God’s own heart; it is David’s willingness to acknowledge the truth of his actions. When the prophet Nathan confronts him with his sin, David acknowledges it. We even have a psalm of repentance attributed to David that specifically relates to this sin.
Now, we may say, “Moore denied the charges.” Great. And if he’s innocent, then he has nothing to confess. But that wasn’t what these people were saying. They were saying, “Even if true, God forgave him, so we should, too.”
No. If true, then his denial of his actions actually obstructs his ability to receive forgiveness and find restoration. The church’s call to Roy Moore, if the accusations are true, is not a call to public office, but a call to public repentance.
Second, forgiveness does not necessarily mitigate consequences.
When David acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, from then on, his kingdom falls into turmoil. You can see the marked difference, within the narrative itself, between the before Bathsheba and the after Bathsheba. Before Bathsheba, he is the anointed King of Israel, the overthrow-er of Saul, the vanquisher of Goliath and the Philistines. After Bathsheba, his own son tries to kill him, runs him out of town, and starts something of a civil war. Then David’s other son, Solomon, would later exaggerate his father’s objectification of women, taking on hundreds of wives and concubines. Eventually, after Solomon’s death, David’s grandsons would split the Kingdom of Israel. Every bit of this history can be causally traced right back to David’s actions toward Bathsheba and her husband.
If the accusations against Roy Moore are true, then there are logical and necessary consequences to his actions. Even if he admitted the truth, that does not mitigate the short or long-term consequences of his actions. If the allegations are true, he should be tried, jailed, and fined, not elected as a representative of the state of Alabama. It’s hard to make a moral case for the inclusion of a pedophile in the Senate when that person should be in prison.
Third, forgiveness leads to reparation of the damage caused by the perpetrator.
David originally had no intention of marrying Bathsheba. In the beginning, he just wanted to cover up the incident. When she turned up pregnant, however, and he murdered her husband, he left this woman and her child without a future. These are the days before life insurance, before welfare, before a woman could even get a job. Women had no social power to create and sustain a living. They were utterly dependent upon the men around them. I agree with anyone who feels uncomfortable with Bathsheba having to marry the man who raped her and murdered her husband. That said, within that social context, it was one possible way for David to repair the damage done by his actions. Such actions would be inappropriate in our context, given the social nets we have for abused women (minimal as they may be). But in David’s social context, they make sense.
Fourth, forgiveness can only be granted by victims, not by perpetrators or their supporters.
Imagine if someone in David’s royal court had come to David after Nathan the prophet left. Imagine if they came and said, “Yes, yes, you clearly did something wrong. I’m glad you admit it. But feel free to go about life without concern. After all, we forgive you.” How absurd might that seem to grieving Bathsheba? How absolutely morally inane would that appear to Uriah’s mother and father, brothers and sisters? How condescending would that appear to Bathsheba’s family? David does not get to proclaim his own forgiveness. David’s court does not get to exonerate him. David’s political allies do not get to free him from the burden of rape and murder. That prerogative belongs to Bathsheba, the others affected by his actions toward Bathsheba and Uriah, and God. Forgiving someone who did not harm you is an act of privilege that denies the pain of the victim and intentionally silences their voice so that you can have political, economic, or social sway. We need to recognize this for what it is so we can see how antithetical it is to the nature of the gospel, itself.
Finally, divine forgiveness does not entail human forgetfulness. The Bible never says, “forgive and forget.” By asking society, and especially victims, to forget their abuse is tantamount to victimizing them all over again. As if their experiences weren’t tragic enough, now they hear people in their communities and churches saying, “Just forget about it; it was 40 years ago.”
But they can’t forget about it. And they shouldn’t. And neither should God. Even when God forgives, he doesn’t necessarily forget. God and humans have a moral obligation to actually remember perpetrators of abuse. Forgetting means to open ourselves up to abuse again, to invite victimization again. We must remember the acts of violence. We must tell the truth about them. We can never escape them. In this world of sin, it’s an injustice toward victims to forget their suffering or ask them to forget it. And usually, those who encourage forgetfulness have the most to gain from that forgetfulness. And that, in itself, should tell us how much is at stake in remembering. A victim’s memory is not something to be manipulated for political purposes.
So, all this brings us back to the big question: Can we forgive Roy Moore if the allegations against him are true? As Christians, we affirm that no human being is beyond God’s love and redemption. Not Roy Moore, not Adolf Hitler, not you, and not me. That said because God is a God of truth, all forgiveness begins with telling the truth. Whether on a divine or human plane, forgiveness, and truth-telling go hand in hand. An individual victim may need to, in their own time, work through their own individual, inner forgiveness of a perpetrator, but that’s different than whether the perpetrator can receive it and be released from it. Forgiveness and truth-telling go together. After that, Roy Moore would need to be willing to accept whatever the consequences are for his actions, including not running for office, giving up his judicial chair, and, of course, serving jail time. Moore would need to do what is necessary to repair the damage he inflicted in some socially appropriate way. At this point, it may look like financial compensation. That’s at least the minimum reparatory route. He must reject any attempt to free himself from the need for forgiveness from the victims by receiving it from those who have no right to offer it.
Society, the victims, and even Roy Moore must continue to remember what happened. Society must remember in such a way that it can protect victims in the future, which begins with ensuring perpetrators don’t get elected to public office. The victims must remember in a way that is truthful (neither exaggerating nor underplaying the crime) and helps them cope, heal, and protect themselves. And Roy Moore must remember in a way that reminds him of the depths of his own sinfulness and the potential for hypocrisy and evil within his heart. Only with his remembrance of these things can he understand the forgiveness of God offered in the gospel. Anything short of this means that Roy Moore’s (and our) understanding of forgiveness is a form of cheap grace that must be challenged as a false gospel, a gospel that sacrifices young girls on the altar of political power.
So, yes, Roy Moore can be forgiven. As can anyone else. But it’s not as easy as many Christians claim. Forgiveness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Receiving forgiveness is hard work that is gifted to us by a gracious God and willing victims.
Tom Fuerst is the Associate Teaching Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee and a graduate student in Communication at the University of Memphis. He is also the author of Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent.
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