Repentance Matters

Is his apology sincere? Does it matter?

Before becoming a Senator, Al Franken had a life in entertainment.

Wait, it gets worse: he wasn't just an entertainer. He was a comedian. Worse still, much of his career was spent writing for the often disappointingly unfunny Saturday Night Live. In fact, my first and only consistent experience of SNL, during my freshman and sophomore years of college, came as the original cast was falling away, leaving just Franken to carry on. His appearances on camera then were limited to the midnight "Weekend Update" news bit, where he played a comedically exaggerated version of himself doing commentary on the "Me Decade." I loved these moments, which were frequently the only funny bits in an entire 90 minutes of misfires. They were thoughtful and clever, the whole joke hinging on the insertion of his name into a rhetorical question, thus changing its meaning from the general to the specific. He'd summarize a current political issue--a bill before Congress, a policy statement by the freshly minted Reagan administration, some international development--and then say, "I know what you're thinking: what does this mean for me...Al Franken?"

Getting the joke--which, unlike other SNL bits, never got tiresome--created a warm place in my heart for Al Franken. I know he want on to play other characters on SNL, all of them carefully observed and with a depth and humanity frequently lacking in late night comedy, but I remain fondest of Franken being himself. That's been true of his more recent appearances as, well into his second term, he has been loosening up and telling jokes once more.

And now we learn that, like so many male entertainers whose careers began in the latter half of the 20th Century, his humor was often in questionable taste, and his jokes sometimes came at the expense of the women with whom he performed. Worse, as a touring entertainer performing for troops in the early part of the 21st Century, he at times took advantage of his senior status to subject some of those women to unwanted physical advances, as well as, at one point, allowing himself, in flight to another appearance, to be photographed with his hands close to or on the breasts of a fellow entertainer who had fallen asleep. It was the kind of sexist stunt that would be par for the course at a fraternity party, but unbecoming of a man who would soon be representing Minnesota as a U.S. Senator.

As word of unwelcome kisses and that picture spread yesterday, I found myself revisiting feelings of disappointment and disgust I had previously felt toward other prominent people I had admired and who had, it turned out, done things undeserving of my admiration: Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby. Every day it seems more men are added to this list. But hearing yesterday that Al Franken--Al Franken!--had been accused was like a last straw, a shattering revelation about a man who had overcome tremendous odds to become a thoughtful, humane presence in a government that has increasingly been consuming itself with toxic partisanship.

Franken issued a statement almost immediately. It was evasive and incomplete. Later yesterday, he again made a statement, apologizing deeply for the photograph not just to the woman whose trust he had violated, but to all the women who found the stunt nauseatingly familiar. He went on to say that there was much in his pre-Senate comedy that he now regretted, and he offered himself up to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Will it be enough to save his Senate career? It's hard to say. There have been several calls on the left for his immediate resignation. In them, I sense a fear of losing the momentum Democrats have been gaining thanks to the sexual peccadillos of Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and Roy Moore. Democrats have been quick to condemn similar revelations about Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, trying to distinguish themselves from the "wait and see" approach so many Republican politicians have taken toward Roy Moore. We progressives hate to be caught being hypocritical: what's bad for the Republican goose is just as wrong for the Democratic gander. I understand this urge to distinguish ourselves from the two-faced right-wingers who make hay over homophobia, then turn a blind eye to a serial molester who, now that he's in the White House, could be the signature they so badly need on a corporate tax cut (assuming they manage to pass it).

I get it: we're not like them. What's wrong is wrong, no exceptions. And we have a lot to live down in the persons of two of our most popular politicians, the chronically adulterous Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton. But throwing out one of our most effective Senators the moment he's accused of--and admits to--some childish behavior that was part and parcel of the USO routine of the most sainted of touring comedians, Bob Hope, is, in my opinion, premature and dangerous.

Yes, I know this is a moment. The tide is finally turning, American culture is finally admitting its centuries of misogynistic exploitation of half the human race, and no act of sexual harassment should be glossed over or swept under the rug. But there are many shades of response between condemnation and acquittal, and if there's one thing that distinguishes the Democratic and Republican responses to issues, it's nuance. We on the left understand that things are rarely as simple as they seem.

To address the Franken allegations, I'm going to dust off my theologian hat and talk about repentance. Yes, I know that for many in the unchurched world, that word is freighted with brimstone-leaking baggage, associated with thunderous pulpit denunciations that are always tinged with prurience. In fact, though, repentance is an ancient concept that, for those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, dates back at least to the Prophets. To repent in the classic sense is to turn away from sin, while expressing regret for the error of one's previous actions. Senator Franken's second statement yesterday did both of those things. For religious communities in both Judaism and Christianity, repentance was essential to restoration of broken relationships. Members of the community whose sins had caused them to be excluded could return only with a sincere expression of regret, coupled with a promise to act differently in the future. The restoration often came with some sort of restitution: to make things right, the penitent had to perform a service for the community. The leader of the community--rabbi, priest, pastor--was tasked with choosing a penance appropriate to the sin that had been committed.

Al Franken, in offering himself up to the Ethics Committee, has acknowledged that it's not enough to repent. He needs to be examined by his peers, who may well decide that he deserves censure or even expulsion. I doubt that will happen--the incident in question occurred before he was a Senator, and the Ethics Committee has historically been an extremely lenient adjudicatory agency--but in the current (and, if the tide really has, finally, turned, future) climate, I expect they'll err on the side of harshness rather than let him go with a scolding.

Much has been made of the willingness of Evangelical voters to forgive and forget allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump and Moore. How can people who are vehemently opposed to the equal human rights of sexual minorities turn a blind eye to such flagrantly sinful behavior on the part of their political standard bearers? I'm appalled at the Machiavellian calculus at work here: as long as the GOP majority in the Senate, and the legislation-signing authority of the White House, remain in Republican hands, it seems not to matter to many in this community if their politicians are not, in fact, saints in their private lives. But the criticism many on the left are leveling at these voters misses some vital points. First, since the first days of the Reformation, the Protestant Church has made a distinction between the magistrate (what Americans call the state) and the church. The magistrate is a necessary evil, a sphere of human existence that is necessary to the ongoing existence of civilization; without it, society would collapse into anarchy. To remain a fair and impartial arbiter of the secular world, the magistrate must remain independent of the church. It cuts both ways: ideally, the state has no say in the policies and practices of the church.

I know what many of you are thinking: preachers across the theological spectrum have always felt free to condemn or endorse politicians. And that's true: the church has a prophetic role to maintain, and it can only do this independent of the state. But to maintain that independence, the church has to accept that social order is maintained by an entity that is atheological, amoral, and atheistic. That means the people who serve us in Washington need not be carbon copies of our own best selves. So long as my elected representative faithfully represents me on Capitol Hill, or the President I voted for on the basis of campaign promises works resolutely to fulfill those promises, it should not matter whether the politician is my kind of Christian, any other kind of believer, or a militant atheist. That's the political compromise these Evangelical voters have made. As much as we may condemn the boorishness of their politicians, these people are best judged on how well they perform the jobs they've been elected to.

That does not mean, however, that we should ignore the sins they committed as younger men (and no, I don't mean the archaic generic "men"; I'm writing specifically about the male half of the human race now), or continue to commit when they are not performing the duties of their offices. Al Franken is probably not, technically, subject to any actual legal discipline for his unwise pre-Senatorial comedic choices, except for how voters choose to reward or punish him in the next election. This is probably the case with Roy Moore, too, though the Senate does retain the rarely-executed right to refuse a seat to anyone it deems unworthy of a desk in its chamber.

But there is a difference between Franken and most of the other prominent men on the ever-growing harassment list: he has apologized, and stated his willingness to voluntarily be subject to whatever discipline the Senate chooses to dole out. Clinton, Trump, Moore, Weinstein, Ailes, O'Reilly, and many others have issued denials and worse--many of them have gone ahead and attacked those of their victims who, after years of fearing precisely that, finally found the courage to come forward. They've been attacked in the media, shamed, sued.

Many years ago, I realized something about myself: without an apology from someone who's wronged me, it's very hard for me to forgive. Over the last half century, there have been people who hurt me in ways they've probably forgotten. Some have expressed remorse to me; when they have, I've experienced an almost instantaneous healing, as our relationship was restored. In the case of those who've never apologized, the wounds have never completely healed. They may not all realize that what they did hurt me, or that there's a part of me that still longs for the healing that can only come with atonement.

That's the situation Al Franken found himself in yesterday. I suspect he had forgotten that he forced a kiss on that woman. He may never have seen the photograph of his groping prank. And then it came out. I imagine he found himself wracking his brain for a memory of the incident, and being a 66-year-old man with a storied career, did not remember many of the specifics. His victim, though, remembered it all too well. Ten years later, she still felt violated. Like many other women, she had allowed herself to suppress those feelings, lumping them in with so many others; but with so many coming forward about so many prominent men, she decided the time was finally right. She testified.

Realizing his initial response was terribly inadequate, Franken tried again. His second response seemed to satisfy his accuser. It didn't satisfy everyone: there are still calls, from within his own party, for his resignation. It may very well be a facile, political move to appear repentant. Given the thoughtfulness I have always experienced in Franken's interviews and remarks, I think he is, in fact, sincerely repentant, but only he can know that for certain. If he is just saying these things to save his career, he's hardly the first to do so. But as with a parole board, the ethics committee will be assessing how heartfelt is his penitence before they decide to issue either a reprimand or a reprieve.

To sum it up, then: I don't know if Al Franken was sincere when he repented. But I'm glad he did.


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