Is It Time to Forgive Lance Armstrong?

Is It Time to Forgive Lance Armstrong? January 23, 2013

 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.

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