Georges was a scrawny boy in an unfortunate and recurring nightmare.
On this day, he was walking down the bus aisle to find a seat. Behind him, an older and larger classmate lurked.
Suddenly, he pulled George’s pants down to his ankles.
There was a cacophony of laughter as Georges rushed to pull his pants up — turning to see his crush starting at him dead-faced.
In another instance, the bully threw George’s head into the wall and pinned him down into his seat like a feral animal.
And if this wasn’t enough, the bully was handsome and athletic: the person ruining George’s life was popular and beloved by all girls.
The bully was unrelenting and things eventually came full circle.
Fearing he’d be seen as weak, Georges never tattled on the bully. He stoically took the abuse.
However, during one drive home, the bully punched him in the face, nearly knocking him out. It gave him a swollen black eye. His parents freaked out and forced him to reveal what had been happening. They now understood his depression and bad grades.
George’s father resolved he would speak with the bully’s dad. He drove to their house. The two met and spoke of the matter. George’s father urged the man to talk with his kid.
It didn’t work.
Georges was small, but he’d always been a fighter and full of pride.
He kept fighting back and lost every time. Eventually, the bully got tired of picking on him and moved on to an easier target.
Yet it wasn’t the last time the bully saw George.
Two decades later — a surprise run-in
Georges has now been a UFC champion for years, handing beatdowns to world-class wrestlers and elite kickboxers.
By the end of this run, he would defend his title nine times and be considered by some — the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
He is on billboards all over Canada and renowned for his athleticism, throwing Van Dam-Esque high kicks and lunging superman punches.
Georges sat in his car and turned the keys to go run errands.
Suddenly, a tall and disheveled man knocked on his window. Georges rolled down his window and heard, “Do you have any spare change?”
It was the bully.
The bully recognized Georges and his face drained.
Georges turned off his car and got out. He struck up a conversation with the man. They spoke for 15 minutes, talking about life and how things had been.
The former bully had fallen on hard times. He was unemployed and living on the streets.
There was a time when this bully had so much power over Georges — when Georges wanted nothing more than to kick his ass.
And here, fate handed him this opportune moment. Their power dynamic had been reversed.
And instead of laying down a beating, Georges handed him $100 and said, “You are full of potential. Go, man. Do well in your life. You deserve more than this.”
One year goes by.
Georges drove to visit his parents. As he walked into his house, his dad said, “A man came to visit you.”
It turned out to be his bully. He’d stopped by to thank Georges for giving him the money and talking to him. It changed his life.
That’s when George’s father told GSP something he’d never mentioned before.
When his father went to visit that bully’s dad all those years ago, he noticed the dad drinking hard liquor.
And when he left, he heard the father yelling at and hitting the bully. The bully was crying out for his dad to stop.
The bully had learned to communicate only through aggression and violence. And as is often the case, he repeated the behavior he saw at home.
People forget that bullies aren’t created in a vacuum.
It took me a long time to realize my own bullies came from similar dysfunctional homes and that they didn’t know how to reconcile their own feelings.
They couldn’t fix their pain, so they projected it on others. It was the only currency they knew.
Anyone who follows MMA knows that Georges St. Pierre is the nicest guy in the sport. He never badmouths people or curses at them.
He became this way because bullies drove him to pursue martial arts and learn respect.
Georges said, “At the time, I wanted to kill him. He was a terrible person. It wasn’t until later I realized — like most people — he was good on the inside.”
George’s story exemplifies the power of forgiveness over vengeance.
When we choose to forgive, we choose to be free.
When we latch onto grudges, we poison ourselves from within. We become vindictive, bitter people. We become no better than the abused bully. We spread our pain rather than heal it.
It’s as Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
One for your intended. The other for yourself.
Corny as it sounds, the best revenge is to stay kind, succeed, and enjoy your life.
Social change can be pursued with mercy and hope.
Like a lot of people, I’ve tried to envision a way to promote social change that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the unworthy. I’m groping for a social justice movement, in other words, that would be anti-oppression and without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.
I tried to write a column describing what that might look like — and failed. It wasn’t clear in my head.
But this week I interviewed Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College and a contributing writer for New York Times Opinion. He described a distinctly Christian vision of social justice I found riveting and a little strange (in a good way) and important for everybody to hear, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever.
This vision begins with respect for the equal dignity of each person. It is based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. We may be unjustly divided in a zillion ways, but a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.
The Christian social justice vision also emphasizes the importance of memory. The Bible is filled with stories of marginalization and transformation, which we continue to live out. Exodus is the complicated history of how a fractious people comes together to form a nation.
Today, many Americans are trying to tell the true history of our people, a tale that doesn’t whitewash the shameful themes in our narrative nor downplay the painful but uneven progress — realist but not despairing.
McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.
The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.
A struggle against a sin is not the work of a week or a year, since sin keeps popping back up. But this vision has led to some of the most significant social justice victories in history: William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and the Confessing Church’s struggle against Nazism. And, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
From Frederick Douglass and Howard Thurman to Martin Luther King Jr. on down, the Christian social justice movement has relentlessly exposed evil by forcing it face to face with Christological good. The marches, the sit-ins, the nonviolence. “You can’t get to just ends with unjust means,” McCaulley told me. “The ethic of Jesus is as important as the ends of liberation.”
He pointed me to the argument Thurman made in “Jesus and the Disinherited,” that hatred is a great motivator, but it burns down more than the object of its ire. You can feel rage but there has to be something on the other side of anger.
That is the ethic of self-emptying love — neither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin. The Christian approach to power is to tell those with power to give it up for the sake of those who lack. There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote. “We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.”
McCaulley emphasizes that forgiveness — like the kind offered by the congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., and family members after parishioners were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist — is not a stand-alone thing. It has to come with justice and change: “Why is Black forgiveness required again and again? Why is forgiveness heard but the demand for justice ignored?”
But this vision does not put anybody outside the sphere of possible redemption. “If you tell us you are trying to change, we will come alongside you,” McCaulley says. “When the church is at its best it opens up to the possibility of change, to begin again.”
New life is always possible, for the person and the nation. This is the final way the Christian social justice vision is distinct. When some people talk about social justice it sounds as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence. We all have to armor up for an endless war.
But, as McCaulley writes in his book “Reading While Black,” “the Old and New Testaments have a message of salvation, liberation and reconciliation.”
On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.
When Camille Paglia was an “obnoxious adolescent” of 15, she had what she describes as “this huge fight with a nun” in upstate New York. Ms. Paglia, 72, remembers the incident with a clarity that suggests a lifetime of unresolved umbrage.
“We were released from school for religious instruction on Thursday afternoons,” and teen Camille posed a question: “If God is infinitely forgiving, I asked the nun, is it possible that at some point in the future he’ll forgive Satan?” The nun—a doctrinaire Irish Catholic without any of the “pagan residue” of Ms. Paglia’s Italian culture—“turned beet red. She was so enraged that she condemned me in front of everybody for even asking that question.”
That was the day Ms. Paglia left the Catholic Church. It was not the last time she asked an awkward, even incendiary, question. Such provocations are the stock-in-trade of this most free-spirited of America’s public intellectuals.
Ms. Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has been a tenured—and occasionally embattled—faculty member since 1984. This April, mutinous students demanded her firing over public comments she’d made that were not wholly sympathetic to the #MeToo movement, as well as for an interview with the Weekly Standard that they called “transphobic.” That denunciation, with its indignant dogmatism, is particularly slapstick, since Ms. Paglia describes herself as “transgender.”
The protests were unsuccessful, largely thanks to a robust defense of Ms. Paglia by the university’s president, David Yager. “Artists over the centuries,” he wrote in an open letter to students, “have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: Not now, not at UArts.”
Over lunch at a Greek restaurant, Ms. Paglia tells me she belongs to the “pro-sex, free-speech wing of feminism,” which she says had its heyday in the 1990s. That was the decade in which she herself emerged from academic obscurity. In 1990 she published her first book, “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” an erudite yet pugnacious account of the competing roles of male and female in Western civilization. It was rejected—she never tires of saying—by seven publishers and five agents before Yale University Press picked it up.
The book vaulted Ms. Paglia into the American imagination as a bluestocking gone deliciously rogue. The same year, she published an op-ed article lauding the pop singer Madonna as “the true feminist,” who “exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode.” The op-ed incensed the “prudish” feminist establishment. Ms. Paglia has since soured on Madonna, who she says was “once refreshingly sane in her teasing affection for men” but has now undergone a “collapse into rote male-bashing.”
Ms. Paglia laments that the “antisex and repressively doctrinaire side of feminism is back again—big!” She calls it “victim feminism” and complains that “everything we’d won in the 1990s has been totally swept away. Now we have this endless privileging of victimhood, with a pathological vulnerability seen as the default human mode.” Everyone is made to cater to it—“in the workplace, in universities, in the demand for safe spaces.”
As a teacher of undergraduates, Ms. Paglia despairs at how “bad it is for young people, filled with fears, to be raised in this kind of a climate where personal responsibility isn’t spoken of.” Since her own youth, she says, college students have devolved from rebels into skittish supplicants, petitioning people in authority to protect them from real life. Young adults are encouraged to look for “substitute parent figures on campus, which is what my generation rebelled against in college. We threw that whole ‘in loco parentis’ thing out.”
There’s an undeniable irony in hearing a septuagenarian, from a generation that was famously preoccupied with youth, deplore the state of today’s young people. “Our parents were the World War II generation,” Ms. Paglia says, “so they had a sense of reality about life.” Children now “are raised in a far more affluent period. Even people without much money have cellphones, televisions, access to cars. They’re raised in an air-conditioned environment. I can still remember when there was no air-conditioning.” She shudders as she sips her cold beer, adding that she suffered horribly in the heat.
Capitalism, she continues, has “produced this cornucopia around us. But the young seem to believe in having the government run everything, and that the private companies that are doing things for profit around them, and supplying them with goods, will somehow exist forever.”
Ms. Paglia asks me to note that it was “because of capitalism” that her forebears “escaped the crushing poverty of rural Italy,” emigrating to Endicott, N.Y., to “work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories, whose vast buildings, tanning pools and smokestacks dominated my childhood.”
Although she doesn’t use the phrase herself, you can call Ms. Paglia a feminist capitalist. “While I believe that boom-and-bust capitalism is inherently Darwinian and requires moderate regulation for the long-term greater good,” she says, “I insist that capitalism has produced the glorious emancipation of women.” They can now “support themselves and live on their own, and no longer must humiliatingly depend on father or husband.”
So why do young women feel victimized? Ms. Paglia cites the near-extinction of “body language” among the young and its impact on sexual relations on campus. The “loss of body language” starts in middle and high school, “where there’s total absorption in social media and projected images on Instagram, and so on. So they don’t know how to read each other, physically.” When they get to college, this social deficiency is exacerbated by the effects of “that stupid law, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, that was passed in 1984.” It effected a nationwide ban on alcohol sales to adults under 21.
“When I got to college,” Ms. Paglia says, “you could go out for a beer, you could talk with a drink in a public place, in an adult environment.” That’s how 18-year-olds away from home for the first time learned the “art of conversation, of looking at each other, reading facial expressions and body language.” After the ban on drinking, “instead of a nice group of people conversing and flirting, you got the keg parties at fraternities on campus, this horrible environment where women milled about with men in this huge amount of noise, with people chugging beers down.”
Ms. Paglia is distinctly animated now and—body language!—claps her hands for emphasis. “So almost immediately, by the late 1980s, you get this date-rape extravaganza, and the hysteria, and the victimage.” Ms. Paglia has urged a repeal of the drinking-age law but “cannot get any traction on this. No one will listen to me.”
By contrast to her flaming public persona, Ms. Paglia is positively conventional in the classroom. “As I constantly stress,” she says, “my base identity is as a hard-working, no-nonsense schoolmarm—like the teaching nuns of global Roman Catholicism.” Despite her avowed atheism, she confesses to keeping a Mass card of St. Teresa of Ávila in her den at home.
This fall semester, she will teach two classes, “Art of Song Lyric” and “Style in Art.” She asks me to “stress that I do not teach ‘my’ ideas in the classroom.” Instead, she teaches “broad-ranging” courses and considers herself responsible for her students’ “general education—in which there are huge and lamentable gaps, thanks to the tragic decline of public education in this country.”
She recalls a “horrifying” example from her classroom a few years ago. She was teaching “Go Down, Moses, ” the famous Negro spiritual. “The whole thing is about antiquity,” she says, “but obviously it has contemporary political references.” She passed out the lyrics and played the music, “and it suddenly hit me with horror—none of them recognized the name ‘Moses.’ And I thought: Oh my God, when Moses is erased from the West, what is left of Western civilization?”
Judging by last semester’s protests against Ms. Paglia, today’s college students seem better versed in the polemics of gender identity than in Judeo-Christian history. This prompts me to ask Ms. Paglia, perhaps intrusively, why she regards herself as transgender. “There’s no doubt whatever,” she responds, “that I have had a radical gender dysphoria since earliest childhood. Never once in my life have I felt female.” Nor did she feel male, “except when wearing my fabulous Halloween costumes as a Roman soldier, toreador or Napoleon.”
“This strange alienation from standard human life certainly helped sharpen my powers of social observation,” she says, “and eventually made me a writer.” Her many years of researching and writing “Sexual Personae,” she adds, “exorcised a lot of my accumulated hostility toward the gender system.”
These days, she says, “there is only one occasion when my old turbulence returns—when shopping for clothing.” When she was in college, styles were “gender-bending,” and she wore “ Tom Jones shirts, flared pinstriped trousers, Navy pea coats and Beatles boots with Cuban heels.” No more. Now she makes an annual “pilgrimage” to the sprawling King of Prussia shopping mall outside Philadelphia.
“I cannot express too strongly my overwhelming sense of existential alienation and horror when confronted with those lavishly stocked stores,” she says. There is nothing she can identify with in the women’s department, or the men’s. “It is completely inconsequential that I have attained a certain status as professor and author of eight books. At King of Prussia, my identity is completely wiped out—erased!”
Suffering is inevitable, they said, but how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.
As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy.
Four were qualities of the mind:
- humor, and
Four were qualities of the heart:
- compassion, and
When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective [italics mine], in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what otherwise might have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, “In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.”
Thank you, Madiba, for pardoning my family, me, the whites of South Africa. You’re 100, so let’s celebrate your example... Anyone harboring the dangerous illusion of humanity’s perfectibility should remember: A tourist stole Nelson Mandela’s spoon... The spoon-stealers are out there. Sometimes it seems these thieves with their airs, their acquisitive self-importance and their capacity for cruelty to children, are taking over the world... The 27 years stolen from Mandela by people with white skins, the suffering inflicted on tens of millions of black South Africans over decades, would not be repaid in blood.
Perhaps white South Africans, like my family, got off too lightly. Theirs was a “picnic in a beautiful graveyard,” as Nadine Gordimerwrote.
.. They could say, “I never voted for torture!” and forget their complicity in South African policing by pigment — the segregated schools, the forced removal of blacks from their homes, the banishment of blacks to invisible townships of dust and drudgery... A cry rises from young blacks directed at whites — “Expropriation without compensation!” It’s popular enough to have an acronym, “EWC.”.. Yet most Jews went along with apartheid — by no means all, however, including several of Mandela’s lawyers. There are more bystanders than heroes in times of oppression. That’s part of the survival gene — even if humanity’s ultimate survival depends on the few who will resist... Then I ask him if whites got off too easily.
“Mandela forgave them,” he says. “We must trust him. If the people who suffered most forgave, why shouldn’t we?” You feel no anger? “None whatsoever.”
.. Don’t worry, you’re 100, we’ll find that spoon thief. Their kind will not inherit the earth.
The mystery of forgiveness is God’s ultimate entry into powerlessness. Withholding forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. God in Jesus refuses all such power.
If Jesus is the revelation of what’s going on inside the eternal God (see Colossians 1:15), which is the core of the Christian faith, then we are forced to conclude that God is very humble. This God never seems to hold rightful claims against us. Abdicating what we thought was the proper role of God, this God “has thrust all our sins behind his back” (see Isaiah 38:17).
For eight years they watched you relentlessly demonize a black President; a man faithfully married for 26 years; a doting father and husband without a hint of moral scandal or the slightest whiff of infidelity.
They watched you deny his personal faith convictions, argue his birthplace, and assail his character—all without cause or evidence. They saw you brandish Scriptures to malign him and use the laziest of racial stereotypes in criticizing him.
And through it all, White Evangelicals—you never once suggested that God placed him where he was,
you never publicly offered prayers for him and his family,
you never welcomed him to your Christian Universities,
you never gave him the benefit of the doubt in any instance,
you never spoke of offering him forgiveness or mercy,
your evangelists never publicly thanked God for his leadership,
your pastors never took to the pulpit to offer solidarity with him,
you never made any effort to affirm his humanity or show the love of Jesus to him in any quantifiable measure.
You violently opposed him at every single turn—without offering a single ounce of the grace you claim as the heart of your faith tradition. You jettisoned Jesus as you dispensed damnation on him.
And yet today, you openly give a “mulligan” to a white Republican man so riddled with depravity, so littered with extramarital affairs, so unapologetically vile, with such a vast resume of moral filth—that the mind boggles.
And the change in you is unmistakable. It has been an astonishing conversion to behold: a being born again.
With him, you suddenly find religion.
With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution.
With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission.
With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart.
With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement.
With him, you see only Providence.
They see that pigmentation and party are your sole deities.
They see that you aren’t interested in perpetuating the love of God or emulating the heart of Jesus.
They see that you aren’t burdened to love the least, or to be agents of compassion, or to care for your Muslim, gay, African, female, or poor neighbors as yourself.
They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it.
They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus—not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.
And I know you don’t realize it, but you’re digging your own grave in these days; the grave of your very faith tradition.
Your willingness to align yourself with cruelty is a costly marriage. Yes, you’ve gained a Supreme Court seat, a few months with the Presidency as a mouthpiece, and the cheap high of temporary power—but you’ve lost a whole lot more.
You’ve lost an audience with millions of wise, decent, good-hearted, faithful people with eyes to see this ugliness.
You’ve lost any moral high ground or spiritual authority with a generation.
You’ve lost any semblance of Christlikeness.
You’ve lost the plot.
And most of all you’ve lost your soul.