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 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.
Photo credit: AP by Michael Probst