Donald Trump has revealed his supporters to be hypocrites. He could possibly reveal me to be a hypocrite, too, if only he were a better man.
I believe in allowing a person a path to redemption, no matter what they’ve done. I’ve argued that Dylann Roof and Rae Carruth should have the chance to redeem themselves. I also made that case for George Zimmerman, even though he killed Trayvon Martin, seems proud of his actions and is the man who made me fear for my black teenage son in a way I hadn’t been afraid.
It’s one of my most deeply held beliefs. At least that’s what I tell myself. I know men who have done awful things, including my oldest brother. He was a hero in my eyes – protecting me from bullies, saving my mom from domestic violence – until he was sent to prison when I was 9 years old. He had killed a man. I want redemption for him, as well as my other brothers who followed in his footsteps. I know I was on a razor’s edge between following my brother’s path or making it through my young life without ever feeling the cold of steel wrapped around my wrists. That’s humbled me like nothing else and reminds me why redemption for all is so important.
My belief is based on the same faith that convinced some of those Charleston families to forgive Roof. It’s what helped steady black families as they struggled through a post-Civil War South that included the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings. It helped them survive Jim Crow and an ever-present segregation. It will help us survive the disappointment we have in friends and neighbors who embraced Trump and his open bigotry. It’s also why black people could vote for the likes of Robert Byrd, the late, long-serving U.S. Senator from West Virginia and former Klan member. It is among the most powerful illustrations of the principle of redemption in the black Southern faith tradition. No matter what you’ve done – including being a member of the KKK – you will be accepted after repenting and walking a new path.
That’s a high bar. But you don’t spend years claiming fidelity to principle, ditch it for political expedience, then expect people to believe you the next time. Principles can’t be discarded like used underwear. They don’t come out cleaner in the wash.
Make no mistake, though; redemption is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It doesn’t mean victims who decide to forgive must forfeit justice. The Charleston families forgave Roof but did not ask that he be freed. Carruth should be allowed to redeem himself; that doesn’t mean he should win custody of a son he tried to kill. A victim of domestic violence can want redemption for her abuser without staying in the marriage. Redemption means facing consequences then making amends, means walking out the purpose for which you were created. It is a lifelong journey to be better today than you were, better still tomorrow.
And yet, in the age of Trump, I’m doubting how solid my belief really is. His presence in the White House is disturbing because he got there despite his bigoted history and campaign. He retains the support of millions despite providing aid and comfort to white supremacists.
What if Trump committed to genuinely walking a new path? Would I accept that new Trump? Or become the George Wallace in his redemption door?
Trump’s refusal to become a better man shields me from being tested. It lets me off the hook. That’s not a good thing for a country in desperate need of more truly principled men.