Does Christian Forgiveness Require COVID ‘Amnesty’?
“Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty,” begged a Monday headline in The Atlantic. Author Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, explained underneath, “We need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID.” Since then, conservativerebuttals have flown thick and fast — including, doubtless, many who never read her piece — ranging from respectful to vengeful. A week out from the midterm elections, many on the right are in no forgiving mood.
But should Christians consider Oster’s case more carefully? After all, Jesus instructed his disciples, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). If we’re going to follow and obey him, refusing to forgive is not an option. If we want to be forgiven, refusing to forgive is not an option. Can we so easily brush aside an appeal to forgive? To answer that question, let’s compare Oster’s plea with what Christian forgiveness requires.
The Atlantic Writer’s Case for COVID Amnesty
Oster emphasizes the personal side of COVID mistakes, such as wearing masks while hiking. Everyone is human; that is, everyone makes mistakes. And mistakes were more likely given “the many important choices we had to make under conditions of tremendous uncertainty.”
Then Oster gradually shifts toward the public arena. How did we respond to school closures, or decide which vaccine was safest, for example? “Almost every position was taken on every topic,” and sometimes people were right merely by chance. Eventually, Oster even extends her wand of mercy to public health officials who shut down beaches or had to walk back erroneous health recommendations. The amnesty is not total — “We can leave out the willful purveyors of actual misinformation,” she says — but it is necessary.
Oster concludes by pleading for Americans to look forward instead of back. “Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.” We have real problems to solve, like learning loss and neglected health care. “The standard saying is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well.”
A Biblical Perspective on Forgiveness
What, then, of Christian forgiveness? Scripture teaches that God has forgiven us, and therefore we must forgive others. We find both our duty and the reason in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” God forgives even his enemies — including us. “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). As Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Christ’s followers, too, must imitate Jesus Christ by forgiving their enemies, as Stephen did (Acts 7:60). In fact, Jesus taught his followers to live lives of constant forgiveness, because we stand in need of God’s constant forgiveness (Matthew 6:12-15, 18:21-35).
Yet God’s forgiveness is informed by his justice. He is “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty …” (Exodus 34:6-7). We know that “he will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6), graciously saving those who believe in Jesus Christ, while justly damning to hell those who refuse to repent. It’s important to recognize that neither of these principles undermines or contradicts the other, although sometimes it can seem that way to our finite, fallible understanding. Scripture — God’s self-revelation to man — clearly teaches both, so we must affirm both. The multiple attributes of God all inform and fulfill one another.
Similarly, forgiveness is not a Christian’s only duty, and certainly not the primary one in every role. While a posture of consistent forgiveness is a priority in private interpersonal relationships, the requirements are different for a position of public trust or authority. A judge or governor, for instance, has a responsibility to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). It is wrong, therefore, for a judge to thrust aside justice for the victims of a murderer or fraudster by forgiving him for his crimes. But note that this different response fulfills the same underlying goals — kindness and tender compassion for others. King David modeled this distinction well. As a private citizen, he twice refused to take vengeance upon Saul for seeking his life; he forgave him. But as king, he was swift to execute justice upon evildoers (2 Samuel 1:15, 4:9-12, 21:1-9). Christians who wield public authority have a duty to oppose oppression and evil; they may not merely consult their own private interests.
Note, too, that forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. Sometimes there are still consequences for sin that God forgives. When David confessed his sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan responded, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:13-14). In similar fashion, David forgives Saul’s vendetta against him, but he does not forget Saul’s mistreatment, predicting that if he remained in the land “I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul” (1 Samuel 27:1).
Is COVID ‘Amnesty’ Required?
There are some clear points of similarity between Oster’s plea and a Christian’s duty to forgive. For example, everyone makes mistakes; we cannot reasonably expect perfection. We should recognize, in humility, that we also make mistakes, and we also at times stand in need of forgiveness. Oftentimes our mistakes (and those of others) result from ignorance. Even when we do and say what is right, we often don’t deserve credit. And we nurse bitterness over past injuries to our own detriment. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).
To the extent that Oster is advocating for private reconciliation, she is entirely consistent with the Bible’s teaching. Past disagreements over masking, vaccines, or other attitudes toward COVID, particularly in the early days of ignorance, are silly reasons to permanently terminate a friendship or create a lifelong rift among family members. Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
But Oster’s next step, forgiving public officials at the ballot box, goes beyond what the Bible requires. Given the timing of the article, published a week before the election, and the attitude of the electorate, which is fed up with the strictest COVID policies, she surely aims, at least in part, to persuade voters to treat the malfeasance of public officials leniently. Yet, as explained above, public officials have different responsibilities by nature of their official position. They have a particular duty to protect the rights of the vulnerable from oppression. They have power and knowledge unavailable to everyone. Furthermore, voters have a public duty as well. Casting a ballot is a public office (hence “government … by the people”), wherein they have a duty to act according to public, not private interest. “Forgiving” unqualified officials by re-electing them is not a faithful discharge of their responsibility.
A Long Train of Abuses and Usurpations
Oster seems to base this conclusion on the incorrect premise that public officials made bad decisions because they “were in the dark about COVID.” If only that were true! Alas, we can remember the past three years all too well.
Who can forget how former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo kept transferring contagious patients into nursing homes, needlessly causing the deaths of tens of thousands of senior citizens? He not only maintained the policy months after we learned that was a mistake but then attempted to conceal it by falsifying the books. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) shackled Thanksgiving with impossible restrictions.
Cities and states forbade large gatherings — including weddings, funerals, and even church services. Some even issued stay-at-home orders, completely shutting down society. Hospitals prohibited visitors, forcing ailing patients to die of COVID alone; families could neither visit nor hold a funeral. Some cities imposed vaccine passport systems, which required businesses to deny service to citizens without the proper papers.
Restrictions on churches went even further, something facing harsher restrictions than other gatherings of similar size. One sheriff cited churchgoers $500 for attending a “drive-in” service. Another church faced a cumulative $3.8 million in fines for meeting, and the Supreme Court intervened.
Many school districts not only shut down, but also remained closed long after we learned that children were largely safe from COVID, inflicting years of learning loss upon an entire generation of students. As recently as January 2022, teachers’ unions were striking to prevent school districts from returning to in-person instruction.
Despite the ambivalent record of vaccines, President Joe Biden attempted to force private businesses to fire any workers who refused the jab. He is still trying to fire military personnel who remain unvaccinated. He also forced airline passengers and crews to wear masks, disregarding the science.
Executive agencies also abused their power willy-nilly. The CDC imposed an unconstitutional eviction moratorium, which the Supreme Court later overturned. The Department of Education violated private contracts by freezing student loan repayment, and then decided to forgive student loans with no statutory authority to do so. The Department of Homeland Security somehow justified allowing migrants across the southwestern border because of the pandemic, even as President Biden asserted it was over.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led many aspects of the government’s COVID response, publicly acknowledged the uselessness of masks, before reversing course and insisting upon them. He then kept modifying his estimate for what constituted herd immunity-based — not upon the science — but upon what he thought Americans were ready to accept. Fauci also had an unsavory degree of involvement with one possible origin point for COVID, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, while quashing any attempt to investigate its origins. His overly dire prognostications eventually lost him credibility with the American public, as they increasingly diverged from the experience of ordinary Americans.
Instead of encouraging open scientific dialogue, public health officials colluded with tech companies and media platforms to censor alternate opinions regarding COVID, including its origin, symptoms, and treatments. They became the “willful purveyors of actual misinformation” whom Oster condemned. Many opinions banned as “misinformation” were later confirmed to be true. This censorship retarded adoption of best practices to combat the disease and has hampered public health efforts like vaccination by injecting political polarization into public health.
Government agents often implemented these draconian ordinances insincerely, seemingly revealing a double standard. While all restaurants in California were closed on his order, Newsom was photographed having a birthday party in a fancy French restaurant. While large gatherings like churches were prohibited, (left-wing) mass protests were permitted, even when they turned violent. While some workers could work from home or get paid to do nothing, others who were deemed “essential” had to work overtime in harm’s way.
Worst of all, even as the COVID pandemic fades into the rearview mirror, the draconian injustices persist. Military personnel are still being separated, and the government is still conspiring with social media platforms to censor free speech. Student loan repayments are still frozen. Companies like Levi’s continue to fire employees for contradicting pandemic orthodoxy. The question is not one about whether officials should be forgiven for mistakes they ignorantly made in the distant past, but in some cases whether they should be held to account for mistakes they are still making now, despite knowing better.
America’s framers wrote in 1776, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” They were taking the drastic step of overthrowing a government, creating a new nation, and establishing new institutions. Fortunately, those institutions still survive today. So, when Americans need to replace governing officials who have violated their sacred trust, all we have to do is vote them out of office and keep our same treasured institutions. And when elected officials are stuck in a “repetitive doom loop” — like a fifth vaccine dose — then moving beyond the past and toward a future solution requires replacing those officials with better ones.
Voters have a responsibility to correct such misbehavior, and misdirected pleas for “amnesty” should not deter them from dispensing electoral justice.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.