Arpaio, Pardon, and the Scandal of Grace
On August 25th, President Trump pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It was a decision denounced by nearly everyone, and not just the usual suspects, but folks who share the common bond of a political party, such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Arizona GOP Senator John McCain.
If you’re unfamiliar with the reprehensible practices of Joe Arpaio you can get a quick and disturbing refresher by reading the 21-post thread on Twitter by @phoenixnewtimes.
On the heels of such rampant injustice, the pardon of Joe Arpaio is understandably scandalous. America is none too pleased about it, and I certainly won’t be tipping my cap to the President for his decision. I would much rather shout and scream and stomp my feet, but I don’t want to encourage the perpetual “outrage machine” either.
St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). St. Paul also says that Jesus Christ is pre-eminent in everything (Colossians 1:18). On this basis, I’ll leave the easy and vocal outrage to others and, instead, look at the pardoning of Arpaio through the lens of the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The word “pardon” carries significant weight within the Christian community because the act of pardoning is at the center of Christ’s work. Isaiah prophesies in Isaiah 40:2, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” That tender proclamation of iniquity pardoned is fully realized in Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
Arpaio’s pardon highlights the scandal of grace.
Everyone loves grace until it’s extended to someone they do not like. I witness this a lot in ministry. That is, many pastors are bound to encounter that member or former-member who will unabashedly tell them they don’t worship with the congregation anymore because so-and-so goes there. Most likely, that “so-and-so” did them wrong. The idea that God would forgive someone such as that is just too much to bear for the offended. It feels unjust, and they will not participate in it. In this backwards way, they see their absence from worship as an act of preserving the integrity of the make-up of the church.
This is the Pharisees’ objection to Jesus dining with tax-collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:11). Jesus was, functionally speaking, dining with former sheriff Joe Arpaio. Can you imagine if Jesus came to earth and the first person he invited over for dinner was Joe Arpaio? Holy smokes! But I digress. Tax-collectors were Jews who were taking money from fellow Jews to fund the Roman occupancy of Israel. They were traitors of the worst kind. They represented the antithesis of traditional Israelite values in the same way that Arpaio’s actions are the antithesis of traditional American values. Jesus ate with those traitorous tax-collectors. It’s no wonder people plotted to kill him.
Pardon and guilt.
Pardoning requires guilt. I suppose a president could “pardon” a man who has been wrongly imprisoned on trumped up and falsified charges…but that’s not a true pardon. That’s rectifying an injustice, not pardoning someone for committing one. There’s a world of difference between the two. Isaiah prophesies about pardon because the iniquity of Israel was real. Her wrongdoings weren’t the result of a simple misunderstanding. They were the willful violation of God’s laws of love and her violations were grotesque…such as when two women in the besieged city of Samaria agreed to kill their own sons and boil them so that they might have something to eat (2 Kings 6:26-29).
There is no denying the sins of Israel, and yet they are pardoned for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Arpaio’s guilt is real, disturbing guilt. This isn’t a man who stole a pack of cigarettes when he was 14 and smoked them behind the garage when mom and dad went out of town. I mean, my word, Arpaio staged a phony assassination attempt to drum up public sympathy and framed a man in the process whom he unjustly locked up in county jail for over four years and then made taxpayers foot the $1.1 million settlement when the framed-man was found not-guilty. This is serious stuff. Who could possibly pardon such a thing? President Trump could, and he did.
Pardon is grace.
While Arpaio’s pardon does a good job of highlighting the scandal of grace, it fails to accurately represent God’s grace revealed in Christ. As soon as Trump pardoned Arpaio pundits wondered why. The reason that seems to be getting the most attention is that Trump gave this pardon to Arpaio as a belated “thank you” for Arpaio’s “birtherism” regarding former President Barack Obama in years past. It’s as compelling of a reason as any others I’ve read and it’s certainly in line with the character of our President. If this is true, the pardoning of Arpaio looks nothing like our own pardoning by God. God doesn’t pardon us because of some previous loyalty we showed to His cause. Rather, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). A pardon from President Trump that would more accurately reflect Christ’s pardon of us would be if he had pardoned an enemy, such as Jim Acosta, and had done so at the cost of Eric Trump’s life.
We’re all Arpaio.
Christians constantly live in a state of pardon. Our sins, like those documented of Arpaio (and Israel), are real iniquities. They are falsehoods fraught with injustice. They have long-reaching and heart-wrenching consequences. These sins are truly pardoned. God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit pardons us of them all.
In this way, we should be able to identify with Arpaio. You know who isn’t objecting to Arpaio’s pardon this week? Joe Arpaio. Instead, he’s loving it, he’s delighting in it, he’s boasting in it.
Our pardon from God is entirely undeserved. Our pardon removes the guilt of actual sins that have had long-reaching and detrimental ramifications for our neighbor(s). Our neighbor might be scandalized to learn that we are pardoned for the sake of Christ, in the same way most of America appears to be scandalized by Arpaio’s pardon. So, what do we do?
We should apologize. The pardon of Arpaio would be a lot more palatable for America if he came out and publicly admitted fault, apologized for the rampant abuse of his office, and was contrite for his sins and grateful for the underserved pardon from Trump. Our pardon at Christ’s expense would be more beneficial to our neighbor if “with repentant joy we receive[d] the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of [Jesus’] body and blood on the cross.” In this way, we don’t just rejoice and boast in our own pardons, but we make clear to all others that God in Christ Jesus pardons them too.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch is pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.
 Lutheran Service Book, “Divine Service, Setting One” (Prayer of Thanksgiving) p. 161.