Recently, in response to Martin Bashir’s segment on Sarah Palin, I wrote that the MSNBC host had “taken Palin Derangement Syndrome to a new level of hysteria” and called the attack vile and despicable.
This week, Bashir issued an apology that many found shocking because of its apparent stark sincerity and lack of caveats or blame-shifting. The oft-heard “if I offended anyone” was absent, as Bashir simply said, “I wanted to take this opportunity to say ‘sorry’ to Mrs. Palin and to also offer an unreserved apology to her friends and family, her supporters, our viewers, and anyone who may have heard what I said. My words were wholly unacceptable. They were neither accurate nor fair.” He said he was deeply sorry and added, “I deeply regret what I said.”
Whatever you think of Bashir and his often liberal political posturing, this is the blueprint for an excellent apology. When I heard it, my first thought was: “This is how you apologize.”
In many ways this does not seem like the same man who viciously attacked Palin and regularly attacks and mocks conservatives on his show, which is why it caught many off guard and engendred accusations of less-than-honorable motives on Bashir’s part, despite the forthrightness of his apology.
While I will not presume to ascribe motives to Bashir, I would like to add a bit of context that may perhaps shed some light on how it’s both plausible and possible that he may have gone from harsh, ugly vitriol on Friday to humility and repentance just a few days later.
It may be hard to believe, but in 2011 Martin Bashir, for a brief moment, was a hero to many evangelical Christians. Bashir conducted a hard-hitting interview with controversial author Rob Bell, who had just released a book called Love Wins that suggested that God will eventually save everyone — even those who don’t profess Christianity — and that there is no eternal hell, a view orthodox Christians consider to be heresy. Bell, a professing evangelical Christian, denied Bashir’s charges of being a universalist, leading Bashir to accuse him of trying to have it both ways — that he was saying on the one hand that our response to God in this life is irrelevant and at the same time saying that in the end it really doesn’t matter anyway. Bashir exclaimed, “You’re amending the gospel!”
Two things were very clear in the seven-minute interview on MSNBC. The first is that Bell expected an interview with an MSNBC host who was sympathetic to his liberal Christian views and did not expect — and was not prepared for — the push-back he received from Bashir. The day before, George Stephanopoulos had interviewed Bell on Good Morning America. Although he asked a few thought-provoking questions, Stephanopoulos failed to follow up when the dodgy Bell squirmed away and didn’t answer what he was asked. Bashir didn’t tolerate the evasions, circling back around to his questions several times as Bell continually tried to avoid answering them.
The second thing that quickly became obvious is that Bashir seemed to be more prepared than your average MSNBC host for a theological debate. At the time, the Christian blogosphere, already buzzing about Bell’s book, reacted with a collective, “What just happened?” This was more than Katie Couric pressing Sarah Palin on her choice of reading material. Bashir had not only studied Bell’s book, but seemed to have a solid knowledge of Christian theology and history — leaving the flummoxed Bell to throw up his hands at one point and say, “I’m a pastor so I deal with real people and a real world asking and wrestling with these issues of faith” when pressed on why he promoted one ancient writer and not another.
The video of the interview went viral, and people began to speculate about whether Bashir might be a secret Christian — was there a mole at MSNBC? Others said they were sure Bashir was an atheist.
Paul Edwards at God and Culture settled the matter in an interview with Bashir that week, and I think that 2011 interview may give some insight into Bashir’s apology this week.
In the interview, Bashir went to great pains to explain that as a journalist, he pursued truth. He did not let his personal views get in the way of that pursuit.
The essence of the journalistic process is to find and tell the truth. It doesn’t matter what one’s personal disposition is. That’s what your vocation is as a journalist. Now, there are some people, I might be one of them, who would say that our theology actually shapes our understanding of truth-telling because of all people who should be bothered about the truth, the church and Christians should be at the very center of that discussion.
Bashir said that his hard-hitting questioning of Bell (for which he received a lot of criticism as well as praise) came from his desire for truth. He said be believed Bell was trying to redefine biblical Christianity to make it more palatable for a modern contemporary setting and simply wanted him to admit that’s what he was doing.
And when I put that to him, he denies it because he doesn’t want to be accused of being anything other than being in the mainstream of evangelicalism. But if you look at the text and what he’s doing and what he’s trying to deliver, you can only possibly conclude that what he’s trying to do is make all of these things acceptable.
Bashir shared that he was born into a Muslim family and shared Bell’s concerns about not offending those of other faiths.
He makes a great play in his book about the work of Mahatma Gandhi and how Gandhi’s work has to be recognized as being very helpful, good, positive and tries desperately to put him inside the tent of those who are the subject of salvation. But I come from a position on the outside and yet I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, “Hang on a second.” Here’s the traditional, historic presentation of Christianity. Here are the biblical texts. And here’s this individual chipping away — shaping, reshaping that theology.
Bashir, citing the Stephanopoulos interview, said that Bell hadn’t come across people who had done the research and thus hadn’t been challenged on his ideas. He recalled a pivotal moment in his own life when at 12 years old he asked an imam at the mosque a question and was told that he would “burn in the fires of hell” if he asked that question again. He said at that moment he “realized that any theological position which couldn’t be challenged was not worthy of following. It just was not worthy. If you can’t ask a question then that’s wrong.” He said he thought Bell was working out some of the frustrations of having grown up in a rigid Christian environment in which questions were discouraged (an assertion Bell heartily agreed with).
Eventually, nearly thirty minutes into the interview and after giving lengthy disclaimers about his journalistic integrity, Bashir admitted that he is a Christian:
I do attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I am married to a wonderful Christian woman and I am myself a committed Christian.
If you’re not familiar with Redeemer Presbyterian, it’s one of the most thriving, influential churches in America, located in New York City, drawing 4000 worshippers a week. The church, led by senior pastor Tim Keller, has also planted dozens of like-minded churches in the New York City area and across the country. The theology is orthodox Christian and the sermons are at once biblical, intellectual, and culturally relevant. Bashir interviewed Keller at Columbia University in 2008. Fox News commentator Kirsten Powers recently shared how she became a Christian as a result of attending Redeemer and hearing Keller’s sermons. Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer, also reportedly attends there.
So what does all of this have to do with Bashir’s apology?
First, let’s acknowledge that Christians are not perfect. I don’t know whether Bashir is truly a Christian — only God judges the heart — but if he is, like the rest of us, he is on a journey of what Christians call sanctification. Though we are saved by God’s grace, as we mature in the faith, we become more Christ-like. In fact, it is the mark of a true Christian that he is growing in godliness throughout his life (although the sin nature means there may be stumbles along the way). As a Christian, I’m not sure what my life will look like in thirty years. Will my political views be different — more liberal? I cannot discount the possibility, though it seems completely inconceivable right now. Republican is not the same as Christian. Though certain elements of the Christian faith are non-negotiable, political platforms, unlike God and his word, are shifting sands. If Bashir is a Christian, he may become more politically conservative as he matures in his faith (or perhaps he has some things right that I have not yet come to understand as a Christian).
Second, in a perfect Christian church, when a member sins, other members or church leaders go to them and implore them to repent and make the situation right when necessary. Through church discipline — or even simple biblical confrontation — has fallen out of fashion, it can be a powerful demonstration of God’s love, used to keep Christians in a right relationship with God and with others. (God often uses spouses in this capacity as well). I would love to think that someone in Bashir’s church saw his attack on Governor Palin and came to him and told him he had crossed a line (many would argue that Bashir has crossed the line on multiple occasions) and that Bashir was truly convinced that what he had done was wrong, leading to the apology video.
Bashir ended the video this way:
I deeply regret what I said and I have learned a sober lesson in these last few days — that the politics of vitriolic destruction is a miserable place to be and a miserable person to become. And I promise that I will take the opportunity to learn from this experience. My hope is that it will renew in me a spirit of humility and humanity that looks for the good and builds upon the great things that this country has to offer to all us, regardless of our political persuasion. This will be my guiding light and compass in days ahead. But once again, I am truly sorry for what I said on Friday.
The words are those of one who is repentant, though they lack any overt Christian content, so I will not read anything into them.
I do hope, for Bashir’s sake, that he truly does know the joy and peace of Christ’s salvation and I pray that if he is a Christian, he is growing daily in holiness (along with the rest of us). I hope and pray that his apology is sincere and that we will see in the future a more thoughtful and less vitriolic social commentator. The man is articulate and educated and could be a powerful force for good if he used his talents in a respectful, honest way on a consistent basis. I will pray for him to do so and I hope you will join me.
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