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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) Andrew Scheer sombrely 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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. JC #

    All of the sudden the recent standup by Dave Chappelle is sounding much more reasonable to the left in Canada.

    September 19, 2019
  2. Beth Moyer #

    Right on, Ryan! I was so angry this AM listening to all the self-righteous pontificating of the other political leaders and CBC news folk. So disappointed in them.

    How many people were scarred by Justin’s past “dress-up”? It was a costume party. It was 2001 ( the or earlier 90’s photos). We were not in the intense social media, hyper-senstive mode that we are in today.

    And it seems to me the Liberals had it coming with all the stuff they have been dredging up on the Conservatives. And then there is the Conservatives jumping on every headline regardless of itd truth and associating it with the Liberals.

    Will be thankful when this election is over.


    September 19, 2019
    • Hi Beth, and I too appreciated your post, Ryan. I had just posted at my views today about what’s coming up for us. Thanks, Ryan.

      September 20, 2019
      • Thanks for sharing this, George.

        September 20, 2019
    • Thanks, Beth. Like you, I will be glad when this election is over (even as I’m grateful that our campaigning seasons aren’t nearly as long as our neighbours to the south!).

      September 20, 2019
  3. mike #

    People are getting fed-up with this incessant bickering and finger pointing. There is an ideological war being waged for the hearts and minds of citizenry worldwide. Our opinions and views are being cleverly manipulated by the Media who clearly have an agenda. Never has this been made more obvious than by the Nightly News hour. We are deliberately being misled, misinformed and dumbed-down by half-truths, innuendo and fake news. The times we live in now demand, more than ever, critical thinking skills, intellectual honesty and a good dose of skepticism. Question Everything!

    September 20, 2019
    • A great opportunity to return to Christ and live a Gospel centric life, if we have the faith and the courage to change. Western consumerism, law, democracy, capitalism and all forms of human ideology are making us sick. Despondency and cynicism that leads to apathy (sins of omission) and angers that lead to dehumanizing caricatures of those with whom we disagree (sins of commission) are all any system of human law can offer.

      Only divine law speaks to love.

      Love is not something we assent to; an abstract agreement to certain principals. Love is something lived.

      My only hope is that the impending persecutions of many, which is surely on the horizon, will give the churches the courage….better understood as the only choice….but to part company from western society and as best as they are able, even unto martyrdom, live a life in Christ. Ghandi once said something like, the Christian God Jesus is someone he could believe in if only he saw Christians living a life compatible too what their own Lord lived and commanded. Ghandi nailed it.

      In the world, not of the world. His peace be with you, Mike.

      September 24, 2019
      • Thank you, Paul.Your wise analysis is taken seriously.

        September 24, 2019
  4. Dallas Willms-Dueck #

    Saw this shared on Facebook by a mutual acquaintance, but felt the need to post my response here as well:

    What the fuck is this garbage article?

    “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.”

    Who has called him a racist? Not Jagmeet, not May, maybe Scheer but I honestly don’t care what a bigot things. They said it’s a racist act, and Jagmeet in particular has stated that it’s representative of his actual racist actions and policies since.

    Holding our political leaders to a standard of not engaging in blatant acts of racism and to use those racist acts from their past to show how they still are perpetuating racism with their power IS NOT a lack of forgiveness. For a cis-white guy from Lethbridge to opine about how we need to get over it while misrepresenting the actual reactions of people of color while doing it reeks of white privilege.

    September 23, 2019
  5. “And I genuinely fear for a future so devoid of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption”…. When has forgiveness and redemption ever been the operative ethic of any human society

    September 24, 2019
  6. A practically useful piece of advice. Stop following politics. Pray worship, fellowship, serve….democracy is nothing more than a manipulation of the public will in the pursuit of self/tribal interests. Self and tribal interest at the expense of universal interests of God and each other, is best understood as sin to the followers of Christ. Stop sinning. 🙂 Once we have learned to live a life in Christ, with one another, then perhaps a return to the political arena might be useful. Expect such a return to lead to martyrdom…if you are truly following Christ. This world is Satans and his servants rule it. They will kill us all before they will let us try to manifest gospel living throughout the world. If you think I’m wrong you will have to find a better way of explaining the hundreds of millions of human beings who have been destroyed serving the interests of human politics.

    September 24, 2019

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