Grace can be taught. And the lesson can often be painful to learn. I embarrassed my parents publicly for the first time when I was just six years old. I remember the experience well. My bratty behavior at the Christmas family dinner party in my father's workplace showed disrespect for his colleague who generously had given her evening to entertain the children present with the “Night Before Christmas.” I consistently interrupted her and blurted out the next line as if I were the next Albert Einstein.
On the ride home, my father informed me that I would be getting a lesson from his board of education as it was applied to the seat of my learning. I deserved it. What I did not anticipate was the harder part of my lesson: a personal apology not only to my parents but also to his colleague, whose work I had essentially destroyed and whose generosity I had disrupted.
I walked to her house the next day. By myself. My instructions were clear: apologize and repent. Place myself at her mercy. She received me warmly, accepted my apology with grace, and offered me a fresh start. A second chance, an opportunity for redemption. She understood that I, as a human being, had the capacity for change, to grow and learn from my mistakes. Neither she, nor anyone at my father's workplace, ever mentioned the events of that evening again.
The lesson was clear: I had made an embarrassing mistake. I had acknowledged my mistake and asked for forgiveness. In doing so, I received the opportunity to learn from my mistake and grow forward. Grace taught; grace accepted. Grace learned.
Sadly, it appears that, in 2009, grace has left the building.
Our grace-less society experienced its epitome in a quiet way this past week when Officer Robert Powell, a Dallas police officer, resigned from his post after his inexcusable treatment of the occupants of a vehicle he had pulled over for running a red light. Ryan and Tamisha Moats were rushing to the hospital to be with her mother, who lay dying in the emergency room. Ryan, an NFL player, cautiously ran through a red light with his flashers on. Officer Powell rightly pursued the Moats' vehicle into the parking lot of the hospital. From there, Powell's judgment evaporated. His hard, rigid perspective took over. He pulled a gun on the Moats, who desperately tried to explain how they were simply trying to get to the ER. They asked for understanding and mercy. Instead, Powell detained Ryan and his father-in-law for thirteen minutes, berating and belittling them, with the scene captured in video from his patrol car camera. Powell even threatened to take them to the police station if they did not cooperate with his rigid demands.
Tamisha went on into the hospital in spite of Powell's directives. She was able to be with her mother before she died. Ryan and his father-in-law were not released from their humiliating encounter with Officer Powell in time to see her before she died.
Once the video hit the internet, the public outcry was shrill and unrelenting. The police chief made a public apology for his officer's poor judgment and behavior. Blogs filled with angry reactions.
However, Ryan and Tamisha Moats exhibited remarkable grace and dignity, not only during the event, but afterward. They publicly accepted Officer Powell's statement of apology and expressed a desire to meet with him in person.
But the public and the media were not so forgiving. The intense media scrutiny and the angry blogosphere ultimately led Officer Powell to resign under pressure. Rather than being given the chance to repent and apologize (which he did), and then learn from his mistake in order to grow forward, the weight of the public reaction crushed him. He expressed concern for the safety and welfare of his own wife and children and hoped to be able to find a job doing something else.
In other words, when grace came knocking, it was sent away empty-handed. The Moats grace-fully extended a hand of forgiveness, but either the police department or the public (perhaps both) prevented that hand from sharing its full capacity. Officer Powell now will have to ponder how to grow forward, how to find a second chance, and how to experience redemption while he stands on the unemployment line with a wife and two children to feed.
The absence of grace in America can be found in PETA's relentless assault on Michael Vick. The group bombards the media with its refusing to accept his apologies, demanding vigilante justice, and lobbying NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, to deny Vick the opportunity to re-enter the league with a second chance.
Grace also no longer applies to sex offenders in our culture who have served their time, apologized for their failures, paid their debt to society, and now seek a chance at redemption. States like Georgia are enacting draconian laws like the one banning registered sex offenders from being able to work or volunteer at churches. Churches! The one place on the planet where a sex offender might be surrounded by healthy people, receive reinforcement on right and wrong, and experience grace and forgiveness. No serving soup to the poor, no setting up tables for an AA meeting, no singing in the choir. In the lawmakers' world view, there is no grace and redemption, merely additional bone-crushing humiliation and shame.
Not to mention that our political culture has devolved from any semblance of intelligent policy debate into a large game of “Gotcha.” Politicians' dirt squads routinely seek information on any embarrassing behavior in an effort to seek and destroy the reputations and lives of political opponents. The game's rules are clear: catch, expose, and crush. The result: anyone who has been human at any point in life chooses to opt out of the political arena because the personal cost is simply too high. Grace and second chances not welcome.
A central tenet of my faith finds roots in the knowledge that each of us possesses the capacity to change. The ability to learn from our mistakes and to become better people. We need second chances to do so. In my faith, grace is not optional.
When that second chance is withheld, we all suffer. Because we are all human, and sooner or later, that withheld second chance just may be the one we needed to become a better version of ourselves. After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine. But to grow and develop as humans is uniquely ours as children created in the image of God. I learned that at age six. But, then again, times have changed.