As I made my way through the crowd of people in the hallway of the BYU Conference Center in Provo, Utah on a Thursday, I turned abruptly to side-step someone in front of me. As I did so, my backpack turned with me and smacked the gentleman trying to pass me on my left.
I gave my most sincere apology — I had bumped him pretty hard. I didn’t expect much of a response, so it surprised me when he turned in my direction, looked me in the eye, and said, “It’s okay. No, really. It’s okay.”
The genuineness of this stranger’s forgiveness took me aback for a moment. I made a mental note that this was the type of person I would like to become.
A short while later, I sat down to listen to a panel discussion at the Conference Center. I was there for the Religious Freedom Annual Review — a conference that features religious leaders and scholars from many faiths.
As the meeting started, a second wave of embarrassment hit me as I realized that one of the honored panel guests was the man I had carelessly bumped with my backpack.
The man was none other than Yair Rosenberg, Harvard graduate and writer for The Atlantic. He also writes occasionally for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Guardian. For the second time during the conference, I realized that this man is who I want to become.
During the meeting, Rosenberg spoke briefly but powerfully on the topic of forgiveness. I found that fitting, as he had so readily forgiven me. His message focused, however, not on the excusing of clumsy university students with large backpacks, but rather on the unforgiving nature of online culture and why it needs to change.
“In the past, maybe (your mistake) would be forgotten over time, or maybe people would forgive you because it wouldn’t be constantly staring them in the face,” Rosenberg said.
He went on to explain how today’s world is different.
“You can literally never escape your worst moment,” Rosenberg said, “There’s no path for people to grow and change.”
In April 2022, Rosenberg published an article in The Atlantic, analyzing his “accidental cancelation” of a writer and activist named Alice Walker. In 2018, he had called Walker out for holding antisemitic views, which resulted in her social shunning.
Rosenberg wrote the article with the intent to give Walker a path back to social acceptance. He suggested that she publicly apologize for her history of mistakes and that she commit to being better going forward.
He says in his article that he recognizes that humans are not perfect and cannot be reduced to their best or worst attributes. He went on to say that in order to be accountable for an offense, we must confront it — not avoid it.
“Forgiveness requires accountability and genuine contrition,” Rosenberg said, “But while our society today is very adept at imposing punishment, it is very poor at providing a path to rehabilitation.”
Rosenberg told a story at the conference of a Muslim affiliate of his who is a former antisemitic activist. This man, who once tarnished Muslim-Jewish relations, recognized his error, changed, and now builds bridges between the two faiths.
Despite the man’s deep history of protesting what Rosenberg, a Jew, holds most sacred, Rosenberg holds no contempt toward him. He recognizes that the man changed, and now works with him to build relations between two groups that have historically had much contention.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many people who are “canceled” today.
Employers hiring for high-profile positions scour social media, looking for dirt on candidates they intend to hire. If they don’t, they risk being boycotted by the online world at the encounter of insensitive posts.
Seemingly every day, actors, musicians, athletes and politicians find themselves in hot water for insensitive comments or actions — often things that they said or did years or decades prior.
Forgiveness is no longer the knee-jerk reaction in our society. We are quick to judge and quick to condemn.
As Rosenberg iterated in both his article for The Atlantic and the panel discussion at the religious freedom conference, forgiveness is not about forgetting people’s wrongdoings, but rather allowing them a path to learn, grow and change.
Forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free card.” Change must occur. But forgiveness must be possible.
From minor offenses, such as me bumping into Rosenberg with my backpack, to major offenses, such as the antisemitic actions of Rosenberg’s colleague, there must be a path to forgiveness.