By Michael Bruner
religion professor, Azusa Pacific University
The improbable journey on the road to redemption for Michael Vick, from NFL star quarterback to ruthless dog fighting promoter to contrite dog advocate, leaves a lot of us shaking our heads in incredulity. Is this guy for real? Is the Humane Society being duped? Are they using each other for mutual gain?
Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society acknowledges the latter: that the Humane Society is using Michael Vick to help stop dog fighting. One may reasonably question whether the ends should justify the means, but from a religious perspective, that’s a side issue. The more fundamental questions are these: Is redemption even possible? Can anyone be redeemed? And how do we know that redemption has actually taken place?
The answer to the first question, at least from a traditional Christian perspective, is an unequivocal “Yes.” The entire story of Scripture–from Genesis to Revelation–is about redemption. In fact, the only two options left to humans after the Fall are either redemption or damnation. If redemption isn’t possible, it’s time to hang it up, folks.
The answer to the second question is a little murkier. Some would say that there are those who are past the possibility of redemption. There are others who claim that God’s redemptive power knows no limits. Whatever the case, Vick, who admittedly did despicable and depraved things, says he’s contrite and has shown this to be so, and thus is probably more on the side of redeemable than un-redeemable. He at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. For now.
The third question is the hardest to answer. How can anyone know if the redemption of a person is ever sincere–even if they appear sincere? A cynic will claim that Vick is just faking it. But how does the cynic know? Gainsaying someone’s intentions is a zero-sum game. The proof is in the pudding. It isn’t Vick’s thoughts, after all, that are on trial here, but his actions. If any of us were judged by our thoughts, there wouldn’t be enough prisons in the world to hold the guilty. There is only One who knows the heart, and that final judgment is yet to be decreed.
In the meantime, we advocate for and believe in redemption. How can we not? We’re all counting on it for ourselves, so how can we deny it to others? The Lord’s Prayer casts aspersion on those who seek forgiveness from God but aren’t willing to give it to others in return: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
And the great hymn reminds us of our mutual condition: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Like me. Like you. Like Vick.
Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society are absolutely right in giving Vick a platform to showcase his remorse – and yes, even his redemption. What better spokesman to advocate for the end of dog fighting? Let’s face it: we animal lovers have zero street cred with the very people we must reach if this repugnant activity is ever to stop. Teenage dog fighters won’t listen to Wayne, and they sure as hell won’t listen to me. But Vick? They just might listen to him.
And in case there are still some out there who aren’t convinced that a former dog-fighting overlord can or ever should be working in cahoots with the Humane Society, I offer you two names:
Saint Peter – Three-strikes-and-you’re-out-denier of Jesus Christ, who improbably becomes the founder of the Christian Church.
Saint Paul – Self-proclaimed Public Enemy Number One of Christians, who improbably becomes its greatest evangelist.
Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Luke about the man from Samaria who saves the life of a hapless traveler beaten by bandits is meant to teach a few lessons: (1) that sympathy only goes so far and that at some point, we need to actually get some skin in the game; (2) an outcast (the Samaritans were despised by Jewish society), and not some moral exemplar, was the good neighbor; and (3) a good neighbor = the one who showed mercy.
The road to sainthood, it appears, goes through the valley of wretchedness. Am I proposing that Vick be beatified? Not even close. But I am suggesting that some of the most powerful advocates for a cause often began as one of its chief antagonists. Michael Vick, in other words, could very well turn out to be a Good Samaritan. To that end, I offer him my handshake of reconciliation. As a Christian, it’s the least I can do. As a lover of animals, it’s the most. I hope he is successful. A lot of dogs are counting on it.
The Reverend Michael Bruner, a Presbyterian minister, is an adjunct professor of religion at Azusa Pacific University in California.