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At Tipping Point, We’ll Need an Ethics of Restoration

It appears that the U.S. is approaching a national tipping point that will mark a reorientation of our thinking on the matter of leadership.

This will be a difficult time for many who have placed confidence in a cadre of political leadership that seems to be crumbling under the weight of the inconsistencies between what it has claimed and how it has behaved.

Even a significant portion of the Christian family has fallen victim to an appeal that has claimed that character, integrity and personal morality do not matter as much as certain positions on selected issues that are identified as the “true Christian position.”

It is not surprising that the support of many who were enthusiastic about a narrative cultivated by carefully manipulated advertising is beginning to wane in the face of daily disclosures of how that narrative came to be.

It is understandable that there might be some embarrassment, even shame, on the part of those who have been taken in by what now appears to them to be a pattern of deception and manipulation.

There will be friends in our congregations and other contexts who will suffer the experience of a loss of confidence in people and ideas that have been trusted to provide a future that fits their hopes better than what they had been led to believe was the alternative course.

It is hard and painful to discover that something you have counted on, had confidence in and given your support to is not what you believed it to be.

Communities of faith and other more general communities will face a particular ethical challenge in the face of this pivotal point in our common journey.

How are we to respond when circumstances leave some with the tendency to engage in “I told you so’s” and others with a painful sense of being misled?

Two examples come to mind in reflecting on what seems likely to be our near future.

1. When the hostilities of the costly conflict of World War II finally ended with the Allied forces prevailing over Germany and Japan, attention focused on efforts to help restore not only the ravaged areas of war but also the lives of the defeated populations.

It was not the people of Germany and Japan who had brought about the destruction, but the powerful ideology of the Third Reich and the imperial goals of the Japanese empire that led them to be complicit in an agenda that, once in motion, could be stopped only by forceful resistance.

People can be exploited by promises of grand outcomes in exchange for loyalty, and they are often left to suffer the consequences when the schemes fail.

To be a victim of hostile aggression is certainly a bad thing, but so is being a victim of deception and misguided trust and confidence.

The efforts to restore lives on all sides that were ravaged by war were an expression of the nobler parts of the human community.

One cause prevailed and the other cause lost, but the guiding principle was a compassionate commitment to bring restoration for all.

2. Luke’s parable of the father and two sons (Luke 15:11-32) offers a scene in a timeless human drama.

One son chose to disconnect from the family and proceed down a path of unwise decisions that led to a loss of resources and his means of survival.

He “came to himself” – realizing the result of his choices – and he sought to return to his family.

The father is portrayed as one who might well have responded with retribution to the son’s shame but instead offers and implements restoration – a choice that places the well-being of the family’s future ahead of his right to feel that he was right and the son was wrong.

The other son is the clear illustration of the nonrestorative perspective.

We may well be facing the same kind of choice as we respond to the disaffection that will be the consequence of the unfolding drama in our collective consciousness.

A polarized partisan contest seems to be nearing its final rounds, and the tendency is there to claim winners and losers.

Deeply held positions and ideas will be forced to yield to reality, and there will be painful acknowledgment of misplaced confidence and support.

The guidance of our faith testimony includes the theme of restoration that accompanies the repetitive detours onto misguided faith paths.

Israel’s historians and prophets do not mince words when calling out the departures from the covenant way, but there is always light for the path that leads toward restoration.

The concern is more for the community that is always possible than for litigating again who was right and who was wrong in the conflict that had fragmented community.

An ethics of restoration will require a generous measure of grace – both in a humble offering of it and in a humble reception of it.

It may be that the current crisis and its outcome will be pivotal enough to help us understand that. We will see.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.