Our Poisonous Purity
The big news this week here in Canada is that a nearly-two-decades old photo has surfaced of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—heroic champion of diversity and inclusion and tolerance and fierce critic of their opposites—in brownface at a costume party. For scandal-hungry media covering an election campaign grinding along in a rather pedestrian and uninspiring fashion, with candidates trying desperately to make voters’ choices seem like something more sensational than they are (do we prefer a center-left or center-right government this time around?), this is of course pure gold. It was front page news on every major news media site this morning and I expect the commentary will continue for days.
For opposition candidates this is also pure gold, the equivalent of a juicy political fastball thrown right down the middle of the plate. A photo of our diversity-lecturer-in-chief dressing up in a racist costume?! You could hardly dream up something better for the campaign trail. It’s all so deliciously exciting.
The reaction has been entirely predictable. Trudeau himself has been dutifully penitent and pleaded for his actions from eighteen years ago to be contextualized and forgiven. Conservative leader (and only real threat to a second term for Trudeau’s Liberals) somberly pronounced his disappointment and shock at Trudeau’s obvious mockery and racism. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh did much the same, adding an impassioned message to Canadian children of colour who might have been hurt by these images and are tempted to give up on Canada. Green Party leader Elizabeth May echoed her shock at these images and added that Trudeau must seek more education for how his actions harm racial minorities. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering how they all managed to keep a lid on their glee in order to convey the levels of shock and moral outrage that the moment so obviously demanded.
Surprisingly, the most honest commentary that I encountered in the midst of all this came from far-right candidate and rank outsider Maxime Bernier who opined that he didn’t think Trudeau was a racist, just a hypocrite. Which sounds about right to most people. I don’t think anyone really thinks that Justin Trudeau is actually a racist. But it’s politically useful to say this, of course, and so they all do. I wonder how many of us would survive the sword of judgment if it were applied to our every action and word from nearly twenty years ago? Who among us would stand? But this is the world we have created for ourselves—a world of zealous, pharisaical moralism applied swiftly, mercilessly, and selectively.
I’m not particularly fond of Justin Trudeau’s political leadership. I think he absolutely is a hypocrite at times. I think for all his endless bleating about diversity and tolerance, he only wants these concepts to be applied in highly specific ways (i.e., mostly with respect to race, gender, and sexuality; he has very little tolerance for ideological diversity). He’s quite fond of apologizing on behalf of others for the sins of the past, but less inclined to acknowledge his own transgressions. But then, I, too, am a hypocrite at times. I don’t always act in seamless accordance with my professed ideals. I say and do things that I later regret (this is true of yesterday, never mind twenty years ago!). This is true of all of us. It’s sort of part of the package of being human.
As I said, I’m no cheerleader for Justin Trudeau. But do I think he deserves to be forgiven? Absolutely. This, too, is part of what the package of being human should include. When someone acknowledges a wrong and asks for forgiveness, we ought to extend it. But our culture is absolutely starved of forgiveness, it seems. We are so hungry to judge and to prop up our own imagined righteousness that to give any moral quarter to our enemies is deemed a sign of weakness or lack of purity. We enthusiastically dredge up others’ sins from the past, scrutinizing every error in judgment, every misspoken word, every misdeed, holding them up as weird trophies of our own moral rectitude. It is surely the height of irony that in a culture that has mostly left religion behind, our public discourse is saturated with a moral legalism that would have made the most stringent Pharisee proud.
Jesus talked an awful lot about forgiveness, of course. He said that we should forgive seventy-times-seven (which is to say, we should never stop forgiving). He said that if we don’t forgive one another we shouldn’t expect to be forgiven by God. Jesus knows human beings very well. He knows that we will never stop needing to forgive and be forgiven. He knows that a world of crushing moral legalism will have devastating consequences on real human beings (we might pause to consider if our cultural dearth of forgiveness and its attendant moral zealotry are contributing to skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression). He knows forgiveness is a necessary lubricant for every meaningful relationship, from marriage to parenting to friendship to living in communities and churches and even nations.
Jesus knows that if we can’t learn how to extend mercy to one another, that we will never make spiritual progress in this life and that our souls will become shrivelled, hollowed out relics of imagined purity. And that we will be desperately, pitifully alone in said purity.
I’m not going to be paying very careful attention to the charades of moralism that play out over the next few days on the campaign trail. It gets wearisome to hear endless variations on the theme of, “Thank God that I’m not a sinner like _____.” I prefer mercy. And I genuinely fear for a future so devoid of forgiveness, and the possibility of redemption. I fear for a future where we are so desperate to be seen as morally pure, that we destroy ourselves and one another in the process.