Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally/DepositPhoto

To Pardon or Not to Pardon (Trump)

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To Pardon or Not to Pardon (Trump)

By Deb Conklin

In his recent FāVS commentary, “Dear President-Elect Biden: Heal the country. Pardon Trump,” my friend Skyler Oberst argued that because we need to bring our country together and start to heal our deep divisions, soon-to-be-President Biden should pardon Trump as a step in that direction.

I am respectfully (and I do have a great deal of respect for Skyler – both for his brilliance and his integrity) disagreeing with this proposal.

I agree that the nation has been torn apart by political division and vitriol, and that we are desperately in need of healing.

But I believe that pardoning Trump won’t move us toward healing, and in addition, it sends absolutely the wrong message.

I am deeply committed to grace and pardon. I have been an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church for over two decades – a tradition that puts much value on grace, justification and redemption. It is the tradition that formed me in my youth, and the one within which I exercise my prophetic voice today. Grace is a huge part of that for me.

One of history’s most thoughtful theologians on the subject of grace was the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his well known book “The Cost of Discipleship,” Bonhoeffer explores the meaning of grace. He distinguishes between cheap grace:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

And costly grace:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. … It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

The use of ‘justifies’ here does not mean makes excuses for. It means being brought into right alignment – much as we use right and left justified in publishing.

So deeply did Bonhoeffer believe in the need for confession and repentance as a precondition for grace, that he opposed Hitler to the point of abandoning his deeply held pacifism and participating in attempts to assassinate Hitler. For these activities he was arrested and, eventually, executed.

I do not believe that we should offer grace to an arrogant, unrepentant sinner. And I think that Bonhoeffer would agree. Donald Trump should be held accountable for his actions, and for the massive damage that he has done to our nation and to the world. To do less is to condone his sin and grant cheap grace.

Not only would it be wrong to pardon Trump, it would be one more bad precedent in a long line of bad precedents.

I will not take the time (and words) to list the many times that political figures who have harmed this nation have been pardoned in the name of ‘healing’ our nation. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine “Can America Restore the Rule of Law Without Prosecuting Trump?” by Jonathan Mahler does an excellent job of laying out that history.

My argument is that we have, far too often, pardoned or overlooked crimes and misconduct by our Presidents and their staff members in the name of healing. And instead of healing, it has led men like Donald Trump to believe that they can damage and betray our nation with impunity. The prior pardons have led us directly and irrevocably to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. To pardon him simply encourages another, future, politician to believe that the president is, indeed, all powerful and above the law. 

I agree with Mahler’s conclusion,

“It may be time to rethink Ford’s decision once more; it’s hard not to wonder if a Trump presidency would have been possible if Nixon had been criminally prosecuted rather than pardoned.

In that sense, the problem that Trump poses for Biden may also present an opportunity, a chance to repair more than just the damage of the last four years. To begin with, this may require recognizing that when a president brazenly flouts the law, electoral defeat might not be enough of a punishment.

“There’s a mind-set that we need to reset,” Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas, told me. “Breaking the law is not a political difference.” It might also require recognizing that to really move on from Trump, “healing” may have to mean something fundamentally different from what it has in the past — and that without accountability, it may in fact be impossible.”

While I am adamantly opposed to simply pardoning Donald Trump, I do believe that there is a way forward that would satisfy both myself and Skyler Oberst. What the nation really needs is a Truth and Justice/Reconciliation process.

This is a process based on a Restorative theory of Justice. In Restorative Justice, the focus is not on punishment of individual ‘offenders’, or on making individual ‘victims’ whole. A Restorative Justice process focuses on healing of the community that has been broken by the actions of one or more of its members.

Some Truth and Justice/Reconciliation processes have chosen to include punishments. Others have agreed to reparations. And some have given immunity to those who participated.

We have not yet learned how to do a Truth and Justice/Reconciliation process well. We have tried. It has been used many times around the world for dealing with historic injustices based on race and ethnic identities. It has been used in Africa and Latin America as countries try to move from oppressive dictatorships to democratic institutions.

And we have not given up. Numerous people have called for the United States to engage in a Truth and Justice/Reconciliation process around our history of racism.

“Wherever there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of a society, there is an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it through a truth commission,” according to an article in The Conversation.

I suggest that engaging in a Truth and Justice/Reconciliation process around the actions of the administration of Donald Trump could go far in healing the harms that have been done. And it could serve as a laboratory for learning how to do such a process better than we’ve been doing them. We would need to negotiate many things:  who designs and leads the process (usually victims are given a strong voice in designing the process);  whether there would be immunity, and if so under what conditions; who decides when the process is complete, and what are the standards; to name just a few issues.

It would be a long, time consuming process. It would take a huge commitment on all sides. But it might just be the way to the healing that we so deeply need. And we might even become proficient enough to engage in a national Truth and Justice/Reconciliation around racial injustices.    

About Deb Conklin

Rev. Deb Conklin’s wheels are always turning. How can the church make the world a better place? How can it make Spokane better? Her passions are many, including social justice in the mainline tradition, emergence and the post-modern and missional church.

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