Former Oklahoma University student Levi Pettit and his friends did a terrible thing. The frustration and anger at the very racist chant about the lynching of African Americans by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity is understandable and justified. However, in light of Levi Pettit’s act of public repentance, our response reveals how we understand a key aspect of Easter. Those who painfully forgive Pettit demonstrate a central pillar of the Passion of Christ whereas those who refuse to forgive Pettit inadvertently render the death and resurrection of Christ meaningless.
Torraine Walker’s op-ed at Huffington Post is a great example of an anti-Easter response to Pettit. Walker says that he is not buying Pettit’s apology. “Why are people of color expected to automatically forgive a racist who hasn’t proven themselves changed? These apologies always feel so fake and inauthentic.” Walker says that Pettit’s response is an example of a “Racial Apology Ritual” because it was manufactured and fake. Walker concludes,
It’s a mentality rooted in white privilege and assisted, unwittingly or not, by the black baptist church ritual of “testifying,” confessing your sins before the congregation and being absolved. But as any churchgoer can tell you, redemption is a lifelong process usually marked by episodes of “backsliding,” reverting back to the familiar bad habits that tarnish someone’s life in the first place. Change doesn’t happen overnight and it definitely doesn’t end with an apology. Real personal change has to come from within, and a real apology has to come from a truly remorseful person to the people they’ve hurt, away from any cameras. . . We’ll see what the future holds; until then, I’ll withhold my forgiveness.
On Easter, Christians around the world solemnly remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ is the good news that the sins of God’s people are forgiven, forever, because Christ paid the due penalty for them not living according to God’s definition of being human. As such, every human person is invited to repent of their sin, ask God for forgiveness, and follow Christ. Why? Because God is compassionate and gracious, “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7). God does punish sin, however, and the punishment for our sin was fully satisfied in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Walker’s response is an indication that he may not know this good news for himself. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not bestowed only after a person changes. These are bestowed so that people are free and empowered to change by the grace of God. The same grace that provides mercy and forgiveness is the same grace that enables human persons to live differently, virtuously. It is God who does the proving. Because of Christ, and the work of the Spirit, forgiveness, then, is never withheld for those who repent (1 John 1:19). If Pettit repented to God he is forgiven. Walker seems to think, however, that he is greater than God.
Alternatively, Earl Ofari Hutchinson presents a more pro-Easter response to Pettit’s public apology. Hutchinson believes that Pettit should be praised. Here’s why:
The fact that you have one student offender who did not play to that gate, and claim victimization, and instead accepted, fully, responsibility for his racist, offensive action, is cause for much hope; hope that someone actually got it, and is willing to lend a public face, their face, to those who express their disgust at racial bigotry.
It’s even better that this comes from a young person that legions of young people can more readily identify with than all the sermons on racial tolerance from those of the older generation, and especially civil rights leaders. Their sermons are like water off a duck’s back to many of them. We don’t need more surveys on race relations to know that they haven’t had much meaning to too many young people, such as Pettit.
Easter gives us courage to take responsibility for our sin, own it as ours, not play the victim card, and offer it, vulnerably, to God. Easter gives us the freedom and permission to ask for mercy. Easter invites us to repent and ask God for forgiveness. It is God who is wounded and offended by our sin and it is an act of mercy and grace that God provides the means of confession, repentance, and forgiveness instead of giving us what we deserve.
Levit Pettit’s pastor does a good job of situating Pettit’s public sin within the context of Peter’s denial of Christ. If Peter can deny Christ and be forgiven then so can Levi Pettit. Because of Easter, we can forgive a repentant 20-year-old man who has asked for mercy and pledged himself to live differently in the future empowered by grace.
Thankfully, we do not have prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness nor do we have to demonstrate the proof of change in order for God’s forgiveness to be bestowed. This is the essence of grace. We receive from God what we do not deserve: mercy and empowerment. A disposition of forgiveness, then, is so central to following Christ that Jesus said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt 6:14-15). Therefore, those who know that they need forgiveness are those who offer forgiveness freely. Finally, if God has forgiven Pettit because of Easter, then I have no reason to withhold forgiveness either.