The other night a dear friend and I had a fairly contentious phone conversation about whether Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame. I said that I thought he should, because he was one of the four or five best players of his era, albeit what must now be known as the “Steroid Era”. Plus a strong case can be made that his thrilling home run chase with Sammy Sosa in 1998 “saved” baseball after the debacle of the 1994-1995 strike, which eliminated the post-season and decimated fan support. Besides, it seems obvious to me that most of the dominant players of that era were on steroids, even though the full truth may never come out. Just put an asterisk on his plaque, as well as those of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
My friend would have nothing of it. She insisted that cheaters should never be rewarded. Using steroids gave McGwire an unfair advantage over those players who stayed clean. And flagrant cheating showed a massive disrespect, if not disdain for the game itself. Baseball had maintained its integrity by banning great players like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, and steroid cheaters should be treated just the same. Also, she went on passionately, steroids are dangerous. The ongoing physical and psychological damage they cause destroys lives. What kind of message does it send to young athletes, who will be tempted to use steroids to gain an edge, even in high school? Someone who used steroids should never, ever be elected to the Hall of Fame.
I decided to change my tack. Well, what about forgiveness?, I asked. Don’t you think people who repent, who admit their mistakes, should be forgiven? I mean, don’t you want to be forgiven? She was silent, but I knew it wasn’t because she was overwhelmed by my reasoning. As a matter of fact, I could almost feel the steam coming out of her ears, before she replied, Justice demands consequences. If there is forgiveness without consequence, it simply diminishes the value, truth and beauty of whatever has been violated or sinned against.
Well, we continued to batter each other with argument for a few minutes before the conversation drifted to other things. But I woke up the next morning thinking about sin, remorse, repentance, forgiveness and inescapably, consequences. And after ruminating about the whole thing, I finally had to admit, my friend was right: forgiveness does not remove the consequences of sin. Joanie Mitchell was wrong. The goal is not to go back to the Garden, back to innocence. What we are called to is redemption, and that is something very different.
I remembered a conversation I had years ago with Canon Edward West, one of my spiritual mentors. He told me a story from the time he had been rector of a parish in Ossining, N.Y. One night there, he was awakened from a deep sleep by pounding on the rectory door. He opened it to find a highly agitated young man, who cried out, “Father will you hear my confession? I have just killed a man and I need absolution.” Canon West paused and then asked me, “What would you have done?” I stammered, hemmed and hawed before admitting I was utterly clueless. He glared at me and said, “I told him I would be happy to give him absolution. But only at the police station, after he turned himself in.”
Have you ever wondered why Jesus bears the wounds of the crucifixion on his resurrection body? It is a reminder to us, to the world, that there is no cheap grace. Redemption always remembers the cost. Those who are forgiven, those who are redeemed, must always remember the cost. Sometimes the cost will simply be the remorse of the one who repents. Those who believe in justice, truth and beauty, certainly may forgive those who repent, but never take away the consequences. Why else are there wounds on the hands, feet and side of our Risen Lord? What does this have to do with Mark McGwire? Well, he violated the trust of baseball, his colleagues and millions of fans. He repented. And I forgive him. But I’ve changed my mind. He does not belong in the Hall of Fame. Just don’t tell my friend I think she was right.