Recently an article in The Atlantic has created a stir. In it, Emily Oster called for a pandemic amnesty. She gave the examples of cloth masks and closed beaches, which both turned out to be pointless actions – but at the time, she points out, we didn’t know. She writes that we need to learn from our mistakes and move on, focussing on the future rather than getting into a “repetitive doom loop” by analysing what went wrong. She recalls being called a “teacher killer” for advocating that children were a low-risk group and should be allowed back into school. She thinks it best that we do not dwell on things from a time when people just didn’t know better.
I generally do not flag up articles from political publications of any persuasion, but I think this is important. Why? Because if the media decides to push an idea, that idea will become part of our everyday vocabulary. I can imagine well-meaning Christians then taking that notion and seeking to co-opt it for the communication of the Gospel. But the Gospel is not an amnesty.
What is amnesty? An amnesty is an official pardon generally offered by governments to political prisoners for specific offences. Technically, it differs from a pardon because it is offered to those not yet convicted but subject to prosecution. A pardon relieves the convicted from the burden of punishment, but an amnesty forgets the offence ever took place. An amnesty allows a nation to move on after political turmoil, especially where punishing such crimes would only entrench division and make national unity impossible.
Notice that the cultural contradiction here is striking. On the one hand, if we did anything wrong in the past two years, then there should be an amnesty. After all, we didn’t know. (And if we “fact-checked,” censored and silenced every scientist and doctor who did not support the official narrative; or if we vilified anyone who dared to question the prescribed behaviours; or if we dismissed the many voices who tried to tell us otherwise? Well, that doesn’t matter because we are saying that we didn’t know.)
However, let’s say someone in the distant past can be connected somehow to a current issue of concern. If that person ever expressed an opinion or even wrote a footnote that is now considered unacceptable, what then? Well, there can be no pardon or understanding that they lived in a different time. They will be tarred with one vast brushstroke of condemnation if we choose. Then we must tear down their statues, ban their books, and erase them from our museums, libraries and education system.
Of course, there is something incredibly self-serving in this contradiction. If the offender was in the past, I can signal my virtue by raging without knowing anything about them. If the offender might have been me, I can protect myself and my tribe from scrutiny or accountability by signalling my virtue and calling for amnesty. In the recent past, we didn’t know, so amnesty will allow us all to move forward. In the distant past, they didn’t know, but we will show no mercy!
What are the implications of this call for amnesty? Don’t investigate me or my tribe, we don’t want any scrutiny; let’s just move on. Don’t convict me or any of my tribe; let us be considered innocent. Don’t hold me or anyone I like accountable; let’s forget our offences. (I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the article’s author, Emily Oster, pushed for schools to re-open. To be balanced, I should note she also advocated for more stringent lockdowns, plus employer and student vaccine mandates. In the article, it is clear her call for amnesty does not extend to the perceived offences of people on the other side.)
I think most people understand that in the initial weeks of the pandemic, so much was not known. People were willing to do whatever they could that might help to save lives. But that period gave way to a much longer season with a very different tone. In this subsequent season, anyone questioning or offering evidence contrary to the official position was vilified, cancelled, censored and silenced. It is still happening. Critical voices remain banned from social media. Leading doctors are losing their medical licences. Ignorance cannot excuse the casting aside of fundamental human rights while censoring and vilifying any who might be better informed. If this approach is allowed, the result will be a society where quietly obeying the official opinion is the only safe position to take. The dangers of such a society are unfathomable. You do not have to look far back in history to see the devastation caused by such regimes. And so, any pursuit of justice is not with the members of the public. They repeated the only information they were supposed to hear. The pursuit of justice must be with policymakers at all levels of government and medicine, their influencers, their mouthpieces on TV, and the thought police in social media offices.
Does amnesty help the future, or would the future be better served by genuine inquiry and accountability? Surely there must be accountability, or it can all happen again. The job of decision-makers is to seek out the best data and make the best decisions. Evidently, they did not have adequate data for all their assertions. Yet those assertions were deemed unquestionable and were made with such certainty. Now it is too late to go back and restore lost lives, or give families the final goodbyes they should have had in the hospital and at the funeral, or give the diagnoses that were missed at a more treatable stage of the disease, or give the withheld medical care that was needed. It is too late to restart the destroyed businesses, or fix the harm done to children’s education, mental and physical health, or restore trust in those vilified for speaking truth, or restore the months of church gatherings, social gatherings, travel for family visits, or restore the economy, etc. No, there is a lot we cannot undo. But if there is no accountability, how will lessons be learned? How will fundamental human rights and the principles of a free society be protected from such abuse in the future? Amnesty is not a legitimate solution for our post-pandemic world.
We could pursue this discussion concerning so many specific pandemic issues past and present. But actually, this is not a post about Covid-19. It is a post about amnesty and how it is not the Gospel.
Three Gospel points to ponder:
1. The Gospel includes justice and accountability. If the media push the notion of amnesty, it will become part of our current vocabulary as a society. And some in Christian circles will use the word because they long to laud the wonders of a God who believes the best and overlooks all offences. This “no judgment” theology tends to come from people who have lived in a safe country and have not personally experienced the kinds of evil that are so prevalent in much of the world. When evil runs rampant, people understandably long for justice. Ultimately, every eye will see that God is perfectly just, and the price of every sin in human history will be fully paid. The idea of a non-judgmental God may resonate with our culture, but it is not good news!
2. Amnesty avoids unresolvable tension, but only true forgiveness forges genuine relationship. When a new government offers amnesty to political opponents, it does not remove the differences or guarantee actual unity. It merely makes possible a pathway forward. But when someone owns their sin, confesses and repents, we can see a genuine relationship established and strengthened. Too many parents offer amnesty to their children and wonder why their relationship is not closer as they move forward. Amnesty is undoubtedly easier, but maybe true reconciliation is worth the necessary work in a family or society. God certainly didn’t choose an easy route. He makes us his children by inviting us to humble ourselves as he offers full forgiveness to bring us into the closest possible relationship with Him. That invitation is in light of all he has done in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. God doesn’t hide from our sin; he dealt with it in full and then invited us to humble ourselves and accept genuine forgiveness.
3. The Gospel reveals that the true God is not just angry, nor is he merely loving. Justice and mercy meet perfectly in the God of the Bible. His heart toward a fallen and rebellious humanity is both just and loving. God does not simply overlook offences for the sake of a future with tensions lingering below the surface. Amnesty offers absolution without addressing justice – no payment, punishment, or accountability. God does not offer amnesty. God has paid the great and humiliating price for true justice, thereby inviting once rebellious sinners into his glorious embrace as his beloved children.
Perfect justice, wondrous love. God offers so much more than mere amnesty. And that is genuinely good news!
Here is the link to the Oster article.
Useful article along similar lines to this post – The problem with declaring a pandemic amnesty
and a pre-pandemic article worth considering – The Gospel is better than amnesty