Mike Pence, Ben Wyatt, and Society’s Aversion to Conversion
After opening up Facebook the other day, one of the site’s ever-so-regulated trending stories caught my eye. The headline had to do with Donald Trump’s running mate, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, specifically an op-ed he supposedly wrote in 1999 about Disney’s Mulan being a piece of liberal propaganda in favor of allowing women into combat.
I don’t (and will never) claim to be an expert or even an avid follower of politics, nor do I intend this article to be a commentary (necessarily) on liberals going after conservatives in a seemingly unfair manner. What’s concerning about this story, however, is that it’s another in a long line of instances where our modern society refuses to allow the possibility of changed minds or transformed persons over a period of time.
Set aside the fact that Mike Pence might’ve written something concerning to the liberal agenda. Even set aside his status as a Republican. It should be startling that something from 17 years ago — not 17 days, not 17 weeks — was brought up in an effort to discredit someone, regardless of affiliation.
The distance between now and Pence’s supposed article reminded me of another story with a similar timeline.
One of the characters from the popular NBC comedy Parks and Recreation was Ben Wyatt, a state budget specialist who comes to the fictional town of Pawnee (Indiana) to help the city get out of financial ruin. His backstory, however, was particularly intriguing. As an 18-year-old high school senior, Ben had been elected mayor of his small Minnesota hometown, then promptly bankrupted it by spending all its money on a winter sports complex, affectionately dubbed “Icetown.”
This came to a head when the Parks Department was planning a giant festival to help boost Pawnee’s economy. Facing scrutiny from Pawnee citizens (and being painfully inept in front of the camera), Ben finally erupts on the city’s Oprah equivalent, Pawnee Today, after a citizen asks why the last seven towns he visited were bankrupt:
BEN: I am a budget specialist. I went to those towns because they were bankrupt, and now they aren’t. And yeah, I screwed up when I was 18, but who doesn’t do dumb stuff when they’re 18? Joan?
JOAN (show host): …I stole my gym teacher’s husband…
Ben was frustratingly pointing out what had been brewing in him the entire episode: that he had long moved past his youthful folly, had made an adjustment in his life for the better, and ultimately made known that the mistakes of the past hardly defined him in that moment.
Pointing to a fault which occurred in the distant past is refusing to recognize the person as they sit in the present. Most of us are vastly different people than we were even two years ago, let alone 17, especially those who work to improve their lives as a result of past faults.
Granted, there are many people who continue to fall into the same old errors year after year, but assuming such things of anyone as a matter of course is a sin against charity. More to it, believing such things about others — even about ourselves — is utterly repugnant to the message of Christ. We should be putting Christ’s message of “making all things new,” as He says in Revelation, at the very center of our lives as Christians.
Heck, this is actually the context in which Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” line was stated, that someone who authentically seeks to grow, especially one who chooses to grow in the Lord, should not be looked down upon for their past transgressions.
There are many, many examples of Christ modeling this very concept in the Gospels, the most striking of which is arguably Christ’s forgiveness of the Good Thief while the two were being crucified.
[He] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
One line, one simple and clear act of repentance, was all it took for Christ to look past the man’s justly condemned crimes forever.
If we read through the stories of the great New Testament heroes — Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, to name just a few — we not only see Christ forgive the wrongs done by them, but go on to never bring the sins up again. And, as is Jesus’ M.O., he takes an extra, perhaps unthinkable step and exalts each of those people, placing them in a position of great honor and responsibility as a result of their repentant hearts.
Why should we be any different?
The Christian life is all about conversion — no sinner becomes a saint without it — so it’s time we begin to encourage that more in ourselves and in our fellow man. Whether or not we’re allowing the space for conversion in either case ought to become part of a daily examination of conscience. Then, our prayer can become that of the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”