The forgotten power of forgiveness

In a political culture marred by unseemly gamesmanship, personal insults and fake outrage peddled by the cynical hosts of 24-hour cable news shows and talk radio, Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw reminds me of a New England lighthouse shining in a foggy harbor.

The Republican from Texas, a former Navy Seal who lost his right eye in combat, did something I don’t think I’ve seen a politician do in my lifetime when criticized or, in this case, mocked for his appearance.

Crenshaw forgave the comedian, Pete Davidson, for making a crude joke that made fun of his black eyepatch and disrespected his military service. Davidson received intense criticism, rightly so, for mocking Crenshaw on Saturday Night Live’s Nov. 4 “Weekend Update” segment.

Shocking mercy

But instead of taking to Twitter or Fox News to fan the flames of partisan hatred and blast Davidson, the newly elected congressman kept his cool. He said he wasn’t offended, just disappointed that Davidson’s joke was not funny.

Crenshaw was right. Davidson’s joke was pretty lame.

The 34-year-old congressman-elect — who won his first general election this November to represent his native Houston area — could have then simply let the controversy blow over. Instead, he seized an opportunity to model grace and, well, mercy to a country badly in need of such an example.

Crenshaw accepted SNL’s apology, and agreed to appear on the show’s Nov. 11 “Weekend Update” segment, where he roasted Davidson in good humor for several minutes. He then took a moment.

“But, seriously, there’s a lot of lessons to learn here,” Crenshaw said as he sat next to Davidson. “Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country.”

In his remarkable monologue, Crenshaw mentioned Davidson’s father, a New York City firefighter who died responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, as a hero.

Crenshaw later explained his forgiving stance and decision not to demand an apology in a remarkable Nov. 13 op-ed he wrote in the Washington Post. Our country, he essentially wrote, needs a break from the perpetual “outrage culture.”

“I have been literally shot at before, and I wasn’t outraged,” he wrote. “Why start now?”

Perhaps more importantly, Crenshaw used his newfound platform to argue for civility, a virtue that we as a nation have seemingly forgotten.

Americans on the opposing ends of the political spectrum have different ideas and policy goals, but it’s fair to say that most liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans want Americans to have access to better healthcare, a quality education and economic prosperity.

Criticizing ideas is fair game, Crenshaw said. But personally attacking a political opponent, calling them a socialist or fascist because of their policy preferences, is essentially the same as playground-style name-calling that poisons the public debate.

“Assuming the worst about your opponents’ intentions has the effect of demonizing their ideas, removing the need for sound counter-reasoning and fact-based argument. That’s not a good environment for the exchange of ideas,” Crenshaw wrote.

How we regard each other

That last line reminded me of the Ignatian spiritual principle of the presupposition, which is basically to consider someone’s argument or position as coming from a sincere place, absent of strong evidence to the contrary. It’s something we should all keep in mind, especially us Catholics.

Too often online, especially on social media, we forget mercy and attack other Catholics for having different opinions on a wide host of prudential matters, from which political candidates to vote for in elections to how best we as a Church should engage people who disagree with us, especially concerning outreach to the gay community.

The anonymity and distance offered by the Internet have made it easy to fall into a virtual vortex of vitriol, hatred, mutual suspicion and slander. Uncharitable behavior online is something that I have had to confess in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and I sincerely apologize to those I have offended if they are reading these words.

I would argue that it’s wrong, if not sinful, to judge a fellow Catholic who prefers the Ordinary Form of the Mass over the liturgy in Latin, just as it’s unjust to question a believer’s salvation because they believe that the nation’s southern border should be more strongly patrolled.

We can and should be able to debate and disagree over many important things in our political common life, such as President Donald Trump’s stewardship of his office, without engaging in a virtual race to the bottom. Likewise, we need to have important conversations about the clergy sexual abuse crisis without resorting to conspiracy theories and defamation.

I think we can all take a cue from Congressman-elect Crenshaw, who wrote in his Washington Post op-ed that, “When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it.”

Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.