True Forgiveness: In response to Charlie Rose

All Saint’s Chapel at Sewanee: The University of the South. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

By Lucas Crossland

Contributing Writer

Whether to keep or revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree is not my decision, so I won’t try to persuade you either way. I would, however, like to talk about forgiveness, since it was mentioned in the email that has been circulating around.

In the Gospel of John, an unnamed woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus, and he is to determine the outcome of the crime. The stakes are high, the woman is about to be put to death. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in a very complicated case: “and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” (8:4-5).

Jesus responds with a very diplomatic remark: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). Well, the only person there without sin is Jesus, and he doesn’t throw a stone at her. What happens next? John tells us, “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (8:9). Note the change: now the woman ‘stands before’ Jesus, not the crowd anymore. She is now on trial with Jesus. The scene ends with Jesus saying to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (8:11).  

Condemnation is not ours, that I will agree with, for judgement is God’s and God’s alone. We will all be judged for our actions, and Charlie Rose is no exception. Jesus makes it clear that only the One without sin can judge sin.

Condemnation is not the issue at hand, however. Repentance and forgiveness are the issue. What does forgiveness look like in the world of Jesus? Does the woman, who has come face to face with Jesus, get to go back and live her old life? Well, we need only to listen to Jesus for the answer: “do not sin again.” Forgiveness and grace in the world of Jesus isn’t cheap, and it sure ain’t pretty.

Here is an opportunity for the University, and those who speak on its behalf, to show the love of Christ, and prove what it means to be a moral compass in the world. Isn’t that what the Honor Code is, even with its flaws? If someone violates the Honor Code, there are certain reparations to be made. The violator is suspended and asked to become a productive member in society until they return.

Why does Charlie Rose, who has committed egregious acts, get to keep a degree from this University? If that’s the case, then we need to reassess what being a Sewanee student means and what having a Sewanee degree means.

In the world of Jesus, people who are forgiven are to change their ways, change their hearts. Are we living by Jesus’s standards or our own? Usually people see themselves as Jesus in the story, when in reality, we are the Pharisees, pointing the finger and not thinking about the effects of our own actions. It is Lent, after all, a time dedicated to reflections and repentance. In this season, we are to keep in mind our shortcomings and failures. We are to, like Jesus in the desert, face the reality of our actions, which isn’t easy to do.

If we are granting Charlie Rose forgiveness, has he first shown us that he is sorry for his actions? Did he make amends for his action like one suspended for an Honor Code violation? By letting Charlie Rose keep the degree, we are going against our own morals.

My hope is that our University and its leaders will think seriously about what real forgiveness looks like and its implications. I hope we all think about what this incident represents for those who have been sexually assaulted: that we as a University are siding with the predator and not the survivors. I hope we also recognize that it is not our place to forgive Charlie Rose. It’s the place of the women who were assaulted by him.

Forgiveness requires our recognition of our past failures, acknowledging our sins, and saying we made a mistake by giving Charlie Rose an honorary degree, now that we know he is a sexual predator. We should be able to identify our own sins, and heed Jesus’s words: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”