Amnesty is undoubtedly easier, but maybe true reconciliation is worth the necessary work in a family or society. God certainly didn’t choose an easy route. He makes us his children by inviting us to humble ourselves as he offers full forgiveness to bring us into the closest possible relationship with Him. That invitation is in light of all he has done in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. God doesn’t hide from our sin; he dealt with it in full and then invited us to humble ourselves and accept genuine forgiveness.
Recently an article in The Atlantic has created a stir. In it, Emily Oster called for a pandemic amnesty. She gave the examples of cloth masks and closed beaches, which both turned out to be pointless actions – but at the time, she points out, we didn’t know. She writes that we need to learn from our mistakes and move on, focussing on the future rather than getting into a “repetitive doom loop” by analysing what went wrong. She recalls being called a “teacher killer” for advocating that children were a low-risk group and should be allowed back into school. She thinks it best that we do not dwell on things from a time when people just didn’t know better.
I generally do not flag up articles from political publications of any persuasion, but I think this is important. Why? Because if the media decides to push an idea, that idea will become part of our everyday vocabulary. I can imagine well-meaning Christians then taking that notion and seeking to co-opt it for the communication of the Gospel. But the Gospel is not an amnesty.
What is amnesty? An amnesty is an official pardon generally offered by governments to political prisoners for specific offences. Technically, it differs from a pardon because it is offered to those not yet convicted but subject to prosecution. A pardon relieves the convicted from the burden of punishment, but an amnesty forgets the offence ever took place. An amnesty allows a nation to move on after political turmoil, especially where punishing such crimes would only entrench division and make national unity impossible.
Notice that the cultural contradiction here is striking. On the one hand, if we did anything wrong in the past two years, then there should be an amnesty. After all, we didn’t know. (And if we “fact-checked,” censored and silenced every scientist and doctor who did not support the official narrative; or if we vilified anyone who dared to question the prescribed behaviours; or if we dismissed the many voices who tried to tell us otherwise? Well, that doesn’t matter because we are saying that we didn’t know.)
However, let’s say someone in the distant past can be connected somehow to a current issue of concern. If that person ever expressed an opinion or even wrote a footnote that is now considered unacceptable, what then? Well, there can be no pardon or understanding that they lived in a different time. They will be tarred with one vast brushstroke of condemnation if we choose. Then we must tear down their statues, ban their books, and erase them from our museums, libraries and education system.
Of course, there is something incredibly self-serving in this contradiction. If the offender was in the past, I can signal my virtue by raging without knowing anything about them. If the offender might have been me, I can protect myself and my tribe from scrutiny or accountability by signalling my virtue and calling for amnesty. In the recent past, we didn’t know, so amnesty will allow us all to move forward. In the distant past, they didn’t know, but we will show no mercy!
What are the implications of this call for amnesty? Don’t investigate me or my tribe, we don’t want any scrutiny; let’s just move on. Don’t convict me or any of my tribe; let us be considered innocent. Don’t hold me or anyone I like accountable; let’s forget our offences. (I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the article’s author, Emily Oster, pushed for schools to re-open.