Here’s my conversation with commentator Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times, previously with The Washington Post. Methodist by background, she’s a convert to Roman Catholicism whose journalism often addresses spirituality. She’s a thoughtful young thinker whose views are often to the left of my own but whose theological insights allow her to transcend ideology.
Bruenig reflects on atonement and forgiveness in our current national environment, recalls her own spiritual and intellectual journey, and offers some hope about America’s spiritual and cultural future.
I learned from this exchange with Bruenig, and I hope you will too.
Full transcript below.
If you prefer, you can download an audio-only version of this interview here:
Tooley: This is Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington DC, and I have the pleasure of conversation today with Elizabeth Bruenig—formerly with the Washington Post and now with the The New York Times—who is one of few thoughtful young Christian commentators available in America today. I enjoy noting that she is Methodist by background, as I am, and a convert of recent years to Catholicism, which is a great loss to Methodism but a gain to Catholicism. So, thank you so much for joining us.
Bruenig: Thank you so much for having me.
Tooley: There was a tweet you had in response to our current angst in America. I may not be quoting it with exactitude, but [it said] how there were calls for national repentance with no clear path for atonement.
Bruenig: I think forgiveness is the opportunity to give someone an identity that is not based on the way in which they fail—the failure, the offense, whatever you call it. The goal of calling for repentance is less clear [than forgiveness], [because] there a lot of reasons you can call for repentance that don’t have anything to do with forgiveness. There were centuries and centuries—a millennia—of human history in which the Christian notion of forgiveness was not a part of anybody’s culture—the unconditional starting afresh, forgiving, forgetting, and how that practice ought to work.
So, I’m not saying that the only reason someone could call for repentance or atonement is in order to forgive. But it does seem to be the only good reason to me. It is reconciling. And that doesn’t seem to be a very popular notion right now. I got a lot of emails after that tweet that were very upset. People were essentially saying, “I don’t have any problem with forgiveness, I just have a problem with the victim carrying the burden.” Well, that is just forgiveness! That’s what it is; it’s tough, sacrificial.
But I think it’s the only way civil society really hangs together. If we continually deny people the opportunity to have an identity apart from their punish-identity, then you’re inviting them to sort of permanently inhabit that failure. In other words, not to change. And even if they do change because they are good-hearted, they will not be able to reconcile with anyone as long as they are presented with an identity that is attached to their failure. I think it is a very disturbing thing in American culture how offended people seem by the very idea of forgiveness itself. They seem to find it immoral and I think that is very disturbing.
Tooley: That would seem, to my mind, a weakness of our current moment compared to the protests of 55-60 years ago. Especially the Civil Rights movement, emerging as it did out of the Black Church with a strong notion of challenge, but also of atonement and forgiveness. We don’t seem to have the same spiritual tools in our culture, at least not as a matter of national consensus. Would you agree?
Bruenig: Well, sure. It is certainly the case that forgiveness or any kind of Christian sense of justice, peace, or mercy and those habits were not in the Jim Crow South, the Antebellum South, the Reconstruction Era, and well up into the civil rights movement. It’s one thing to say that only victims can forgive. And I think that is true, even if you cast a wide net over who is affected by something. But it’s hard to create a space for forgiveness especially in a country that is not particularly virtuous in any case whatsoever. So, forgiveness is an extremely important virtue, and it is not the only one.
It’s certainly difficult to have it stand alone as the only public virtue when mercy and justice are not virtues that people adhere to.
That, I believe, is the experience of most black Americans right now. The immoral landscape of the United States is extraordinarily lacking. And so, for forgiveness to be this virtue now, it seems like meditating on a really odd thing.
And when I’m thinking about issues with forgiveness, I’m really thinking about this cancel culture. The protests now are really about laws and people following the laws and people enforcing the laws, which seems like a different set of concerns for justice rather than atonement. That is a piece of this.
Tooley: Some people…have described the protests as fourth or fifth Great Awakening in America, but one that is not specifically religious. Would you understand it in those terms?
Bruenig: Sure. I think it is perfectly possible to have a moral awakening that is unmoored to any religion. I think that is a perfectly good way of describing it and I don’t think the majority has to describe it that way. It would be a good thing to have a new beginning.
Tooley: Getting personal, I wondered if you mind sharing your own spiritual and intellectual journey. I mentioned you were raised Methodist in Texas and in recent years became Catholic. How did this come about exactly?
Bruenig: Well, I was born in Arlington, Texas…I was raised in a Methodist household. Both my parents are Methodist and both of their extended families were really Methodist, although there were some more interesting Protestant charismatic tendencies on my grandfather’s side, real snake handlers and so forth. I went to church, went to Vacation Bible School, became a Vacation Bible school teacher and had a lot of fun with it. I never had a significant period of rejection. I saw my faith as more of a gift that I had been given, but I never significantly doubted the existence of God. And so, I stuck with the tradition.
But when I went to college in Boston at Brandeis University, which is a very nice, historically Jewish College, I took a class from a rabbi who was this really gifted teacher. And in his course, we were reading Matthew, Genesis, and Exodus, and really sort of the progenitors of the Western Canon. And what I started to realize is that Judaism has a literary accompaniment tradition. You’re not reading the Torah on your own, you’re actually reading it with thousands of people who have read and written about it over the years.
It makes sense for Christianity to have something similar. It’s sort of absurd to imagine that the ordinary, everyday individual could approach something reporting the relationship between God and a nation of people in the gospels and understand them instantly. If human beings can use metaphor, certainly God can take greater effect. In fact, we can tell from the gospels that the parables are almost favored by God to explain things to individuals. So, I thought to myself, we have to have a literary accompaniment tradition.
So, this was the first nail in the coffin, the first objection to “Sola Scriptura.” So, I started reading Augustine and went to graduate school studying Augustine at Cambridge. I got my Masters of Christian theology [at Cambridge] and it was then that I converted.
And, you know, there were reasons then that seemed much more important than they do now—sort of emotional, sort of a feeling. I felt called. So, I converted at Cambridge and here I am today.
I have not regretted it. The Catholic Church is far from a perfect institution, as I think is widely known, and I reported on that and I’ll be reporting on that soon. But theologically, I feel very close to [and I feel most theologically close to] being Catholic.
Tooley: You mentioned Augustine, but what other writers, thinkers, or commentators–past or present–have been especially influential and encouraging to you?
It’s difficult to think of them all. I love Augustine. I love the Venerable Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People I thought was very moving. We did a podcast recently covering his works on the first plague pandemic. And I love The letters of Abelard and Héloïse which I thought was beautiful. Classic texts, whether or not you are spiritual or Christian, are meaningful.
I’ve done quite a bit of reading on The Middle Ages and the religious practices in the Middle Ages which has been very helpful to me to see how those people understood their relationship with Christ.
And in modern times, you sort of have your pick in terms of influences. We read a lot of Luke Bretherton who’s at Duke right now and I think he’s really fantastic in terms of political theology.
And I went to Cambridge, so I was around a lot of the radical Orthodox thing and that’s like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. My tutor was John Hughes who wrote a lot about Christianity and Marxism and he was extraordinarily influential.
Tooley: There is a caricature and stereotype held by many American Christians at the field you’re in—journalism—if not hostile to religion, is at least indifferent. Is that caricature entirely unfair?
Bruenig: It’s pretty unfair insofar as religion is an interest that the media wants to cover. At The Washington Post, for instance, there were very successful efforts to cover religion in a sort of sustained and even thoughtful way. In a different time, I think, there is more attention given to covering religion.
A lot of Americans, especially on the conservative side which my whole family is, may even suspect that journalists themselves are dismissive or condescending towards people who are religious. And I can’t speak for everyone who is involved in this industry, but at the desks I’ve been at, such as the Outlook at The Washington Post and Op-Ed at The New York Times, there have been lots of religious people. The media considers itself to be—and to have—this sensation to focus on objectivity, things that can be generally proven, and to speak into public reasons. And there are reasons that journalists aren’t open to their convictions as they believe it compromises their credibility. So, yes, I know. I can see why people feel that way, but I can promise them that there is more going on behind the scenes then they think.
Tooley: And finally, ending on hopefully a more upbeat note, coming out of this time of national angst—this period of protests and period of pandemic, do you see any signs of spiritual renewal in the church in America and in American culture in general? Are we in a spiral or are we getting ready for rejuvenation?
Bruenig: I hope we’re getting ready for a rejuvenation. Things will be hard for a while, especially financially for millions of people. So, even after we stabilize infection rates, there will still be the economic impact. And, nevertheless, you see a lot of spiritual institutions rise to the occasion. There have been many churches (and I wrote a piece on one in Texas about churches) leading the way during reopening for financing and operating shelters for people, especially [those] in the service industry who lose their jobs and become homeless and as addictions begin to soar. That kind of service is going to become more necessary. And I hope and pray that the religious community in America will do what it’s called to do. But every major religion should care for the poor.
How it’s going to hit people in relation to faith, you never know. People sometimes lose their faith in God if they had it. That was certainly a feature of the Black Death in the Middle Ages where you got a kind of nihilism out of it. And there are also people who became more convicted during the Black Death…In between those two poles there have to be countless experiences. So my hope is that the togetherness and service these kinds of catastrophes engenders leads to a spiritual awakening. I pray that would be the outcome.
Tooley: Elizabeth Bruenig, commentator at The New York Times, thank you for a most insightful conversation.
Bruenig: Thank you for having me.