Forgiving Marion Jones

I want you to know that I have been dishonest, and you the have the right to be angry with me. … I recognize that by saying that I’m deeply sorry, it might not be enough… Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I have asked Almighty God for my forgiveness. … I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport that I deeply love. — Marion Jones, 2000 US Olympic gold medalist admitting last week that she had used performance-enhancing drugs.

marion_jonesMarion Jones had the speed of a cheetah and the grace of a gazelle. Her uncommon athletic talent made her achievements seem effortless, and her brilliant smile and poise in front of the press made her a darling in the world of sprinting. She was America’s top female gold hopeful at the 2000 games in Sydney.

She fed the medal frenzy by claiming she would win 5 gold medals — in the end, she brought home an impressive 3 gold and 2 bronze.

But Jones was dogged by rumors that she had gained her victories unfairly through the use of steroids, allegations she always vehemently denied.

Last week, her claims of innocence collapsed in a tearful admission of guilt before a federal court, an admission that may result in prison time and will certainly force the return of her Olympic medals.

Lamine Diack, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations laments, “If she had trusted to her own natural gifts and allied them to self-sacrifice and hard work, I sincerely believe that [Marion Jones] could have been an honest champion at the Sydney Games. Now, instead, she will be remembered as one of the biggest frauds in sporting history.”

There is understandable anger towards Jones in the world of track and field, which has been rocked by far too many drug scandals.

As such things go, I thought Jones confession and public apology, although very late, were remarkably honest. She offered no excuses and didn’t try to shift the blame to others. She claimed to feel “a great amount of shame,” a powerful and appropriate word that is, unfortunately, rarely heard in most celebrity mea culpas.

Drug use in sports is out of control. Cheating needs to be punished, and the many athletes who have resisted temptation need to be encouraged to remain clean. These argue for a strong legal response to Jones’ admissions.

But what kind of response should we make as fellow human beings? Marion Jones says she is seeking God’s forgiveness, and asks us to forgive her, too. Should we?

Both Judaism and Christianity teach that we are all sinners needing God’s forgiveness. Jesus raised the stakes for his followers when he taught them to pray “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.”

He later expanded this by saying,

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15, NLT

Forgiveness apparently depends on reciprocity. Perhaps God’s intent is to create an incentive for reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships by making our own forgiveness dependent on our willingness to forgive others.

This is what we see in the story of Job. After enduring the insults and taunts of his friends, who accused Job of bringing his sufferings on himself through some secret offense towards God, God vindicates Job and declares him innocent of all wrongdoing. Then, God does something interesting. He commands Job’s friends to humble themselves and seek forgiveness through Job. If Job will pray for his friends, God will hear Job’s prayer and forgive their sins against God and Job.

Thus, God reconciles these friends to himself and each other by forcing them to extend forgiveness to each other.

Insults, false accusations and cheating are one thing, but some sins are much more horrific. Think of the kidnapping and murder of a child, or a deranged student shooting his classmates dead. The headlines are full of such horrors.

Are some sins unforgivable?

On the anniversary of September 11, Stephanie Innes, religion reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, wrote about a Tucson synagogue that showed the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele, “…a documentary that features Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor. Kor decided to forgive the Nazis who killed her family, including Dr. Josef Mengele and his staff, who experimented on her and her twin sister. Kor believes Mengele’s experiments caused her sister’s early death.”

The film is understandably controversial among Jews, many of whom say that the Nazi’s Holocaust terrors are unforgivable.

Mengele is long dead and will receive no possible benefit from Kor’s generosity. Kor’s rationale for extending forgiveness is rooted in her belief that by failing to forgive, we subject ourselves to psychological harm from the resentments and anger that we harbor towards those who have wronged us.

Must we forgive those who haven’t asked for our forgiveness? Must we forgive those, like the 9/11 Jihadists, who would likely spit on such a gesture if we extended it?

Jesus himself made just such a gesture while hanging from the cross, bleeding, in agony, suffering a slow death for crimes he was innocent of. He looked down on the jeering crowd and pleaded with God, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Paul famously writes in Romans 5:8 that God proved his love by sending Christ to die for our sins, even while we were living in rebellion against God. He extended his forgiveness to us before we asked for it — before we had any awareness that we needed it.

From that example of divine generosity comes the Christian concept of grace. We are forgiven without deserving it or earning it in any way.

We take our sports very seriously in America. Sports heroes are demigods, and when they let us down, we’re inclined to treat them harshly.

Marion Jones has fallen from a very great height. Her admission of drug use will erase or call into question every title, every medal, every accomplishment she has worked so hard to achieve. Forgiving her doesn’t mean condoning her cheating. It means that each of us can look in the mirror and see what she sees — a person who has cheated, compromised, broken the rules and failed in the eyes of God to live a perfect life.

By the grace of God, most of us haven’t fallen in the spectacularly public way that Marion Jones has. But let’s not kid ourselves — when we imagine standing before God and answering for our lives, we can easily identify with her sense of shame.

I’m disappointed in Marion Jones. I’m sad for Marion Jones. And I forgive Marion Jones.

(I’ve written on the theme of forgiveness before here and here.)

Photo credit: AP by Michael Probst

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  1. kolade akin says

    i totally agree with you. I am disappointed but relieved that she has stood up and admitted that she lied and cheated. Kudos to you Marion. I love you for what you have done. You have retained my respect even though i abhor what you did.

    Marion, there is still more you can do for the sport. You may not run again but you have used the drugs, seen the effect, dangers and shame it brings. Please start a programme to educate those who trusted you and turned to the sport because of the beauty you brought to the sport.

    I pray that you receive strength to cope with the years ahead. It will be tough but you will make it. You have won the greatest battle which is to confront your demons. You have confronted those demons that scared you every time the testers arrive. You have confronted those demons that scare you each time you look in the mirror. You have at last made peace with you conscience and your God. Ride on my sister. the future is bright.

    God bless.

    From the UK

  2. Thank you, I enjoyed reading your article.

  3. I hope America can forgive her. They seem to tolerate a tremendous amount of wrongdoing on the part of certain celebrities but their athletes are truly elevated to a sort of pristine pure level of demigodery. Perhaps it is time for a nation to admit that they elevate the whole sport scene to an unachievable level of having to be at the top all the time. The athletes, wonderful as they are, are going to have limits.

  4. This is an excellent post, Charlie! I think you’re right on about the necessary reciprocity of forgiveness. In fact, I wonder if this points to something deep within the human soul – that it is only a person who is capable of true forgiveness that is equipped to accept forgiveness at all. It almost takes more humility to be forgiven than it does to forgive.

  5. Forgiveness is the Christian way. I believe Marion can come out of this and will if she is sincere and seeks God.

  6. Absolutely we should forgive her. As we should forgive anyone who asks. None of us are qualified to “cast the first stone.”

  7. Very poignant article which I stumbled upon whilst searching for a specific blog on Marion Jones and forgiveness.

    Whilst I agree with your point about forgiveness, I find it difficult to do so in this case, because Marion Jones is still withholding information about her drugs-taking, and has only accepted a degree of responsibility in proportion to deal with what had been discovered with her connection to BALCO. She asked for our forgiveness with respect to having lied to federal agents, not for taking drugs. Moreover, she stated she had no idea what her former coach, Trevor Graham, was providing to her. She’s been too smart over her entire career for such nonsense.

    There are two other periods of time in her life which she has, with the strongest possibility supported by evidence, cheated.

    If Marion Jones would like to be forgiven, she needs to come clean about her entire career. She’s unable to do so, because that would expose her as having cheated before BALCO and in 2006 when she was exonerated from having taken EPO by means of manipulation.

    I would like to forgive Marion Jones – Lord only knows I would. I suppose I should forgive her for the hidden sins I know have not been publicly confessed, and then rest in inner peace even though she will walk away from the sport only half-convicted.

    Where do I sign up for the forgiveness class?

  8. Richard Tisdale says

    God forgives, no question about it. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t. I’m not angry at her as she never wronged me nor do I know the woman personally. I do have personal views on being a role model that I take seriously, but I don’t have the right to hold anyone else to it. My feelings on this mean nothing and only serves as a lesson. But the young medalists on her relay team who’s life achievements are now being taken away from them are the ones in this life who will have to eventually have the strength to forgive her. There only mistake was trusting and embracing their hero and welcoming her to their team after believing in her during the allegations Jones self-righteously denied. I can’t imagine having everything I worked for in life taken away just because I showed faith in a person I deeply admired. That’s a difficult road.

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