I wrote a letter to the editor last month detailing the powerful act of forgiveness we witnessed when Brandt Jean, brother of the murdered Dallas resident Botham Jean, forgave his brother’s murderer, Amber Guyger.
It was a beautiful display of grace shown from this young Christian man. He looked in the face of this woman who had taken so much from him and his family, and offered genuine forgiveness.
Shortly after Brandt’s offer of forgiveness, I watched a video where the Reverend Al Sharpton gave his response to Brandt’s offer of forgiveness, which I think serves as an example of a disturbing trend that’s infected our culture. A trend which, if continues, will erode much of what it means to be human.
There’s a philosophical term that explains this trend: Instrumentalism – defined as a pragmatism that regards an activity chiefly as an instrument or tool for some practical purpose, rather than in more absolute or ideal terms.
In other words, the question is no longer, “is it true, right, or good?” but, “is it true, right, or good for me?” The shift moves from tradition, cultural norms, and the common good, to self above all else.
Evident in many of today’s self-help, self-care books and espoused by the gurus who write them, instrumentalism treats nearly everything as a stepping stone to bettering yourself. Everything from exercise, rest, shopping, friendships, and now, forgiveness, is seen from the lens of the self. These books and blogs preach that things are not intrinsically good or virtuous, rather, they are good because of what they do to the self. A friendship is good because of what one can get out of the other person. Thus, when a friend becomes too critical, these authors encourage shedding those who do not affirm all of you, all of the time. Nothing is an end unto itself; everything becomes a means to an end, the end being the self.
The self, therefore, becomes absolute, the standard by which we judge everything else.
I use Al Sharpton simply because his is the latest example of this philosophy playing out in society.
In his interview over Brandt’s act of forgiveness, Sharpton first used it as an opportunity to talk about himself. He detailed the time in the early 1990s when he forgave someone who stabbed him – thus placing himself on the same moral pedestal as Brandt. He then moved on to explain what he, and by association, Brandt, meant when they offered forgiveness to the people who wronged them.
“I went to court and forgave him [Sharpton’s attacker],” he said in the MSNBC panel discussion. “Only because I wanted to grow myself.”
Notice the shift in the focus of forgiveness in his statement.
This is the insidious nature of instrumentalism. Sharpton claimed to forgive his own attacker, not out of love for the man and a desire for reconciliation – which in fact is the true definition of forgiveness – rather, he said he did it from a desire for personal growth. His attacker, therefore, lost his status as a human being, becoming nothing more than a tool – a stepping stone in Sharpton’s goal of personal growth.
If you see forgiveness in this light, I argue that you have neither offered true forgiveness nor grown as a human being.
Sharpton then projects himself and his motivations onto Brandt, saying that is why Brandt offered forgiveness. “He [Brandt] did that statement for him – not for her – to show that he was a real Christian.”
Sharpton’s statement requires a redefinition of forgiveness in order to work. It takes a selfless act and twists it into a selfish one; it turns a cause for rejoicing into a time for mourning. This line of thought needs to be expunged from the public conscience.
I can use another example – one from my own life – of how instrumentalism not only affects society, but has also seeped into my psyche as well.
A few weeks ago, Jesse and myself went on our annual double date to McKinney with two of our good friends, Alex and Ancy Westbrooks. We affectionately call it our Hallmark Movie Date because downtown McKinney looks like it came right out of a Hallmark Christmas Movie.
We were supposed to meet Friday afternoon at the hotel, enjoy eating at a restaurant downtown, then spend the night at the hotel. It was cold, drizzly, dreary – the perfect weather for a getaway to read and talk and watch the slow drizzle outside our hotel window.
We were just pulling out from a pit stop for some gas on the McKinney side of Farmersville when Alex called. His windshield wiper motor went kaput and no repair shop was open on a Friday evening.
They were stuck in Commerce on a rainy day and needed a ride.
My first thought was to calculate the time and gas lost by backtracking 40 minutes and to see if it was worth it for me to do so. I had planned the weekend months in advance. I needed the rest; I needed the time away with Jesse; I needed to not be inconvenienced – at least, I thought I did.
I did not realize it at the time (thankfully I see it now) but my friends, Alex and Ancy, and even Jesse herself, became nothing more than instruments to make me happy. And when I was inconvenienced, my first thought was to think about how it would inconvenience me, inhibit my own pleasure, to return to Commerce and pick up our friends who simply needed a ride.
Thankfully, Jesse is much more gracious than I am – in every way – and immediately offered our assistance. I agreed and we returned to pick up our friends. Despite losing a couple hours on a Friday evening, we still had a wonderful evening and a spectacular Saturday morning and afternoon, wandering from window to window, shop to shop, admiring all the handmade items in each store, cherishing this time away together with friends.
The Westbrooks’ ceased being instruments and were rather as they were – as they are – my dear friends. That’s the danger inherent in this new philosophy of instrumentalism. It takes the things I should value the most, these axioms of my life: Christianity, family, friendships, and makes them into nothing more than tools to please me.
Readers, this should not be.
If I had followed the advice of the modern self-help movement, I would have gauged the inconvenience my friends caused, seen how they had become broken instruments in the goal of pleasing the self, turned right, and headed straight to McKinney – and been all the worse for it. At Jesse’s bidding, I turned left.
In scriptural terms, I “denied myself” with what I would call its selfish, sinful desires to have all its wants met.
“And”, to quote a familiar poet, “that has made all the difference.”
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.