Harrison Ford has acted in a lot of roles. But recently, he played a part in a real-life morality play. And thereby he can teach us all a lesson.
When North American public figures get into trouble these days, many of them resort to what must be called a cynical exploitation of our countries’ Christian heritage. They ask for forgiveness, even demand it.
As a teacher of world religions, I recognize that forgiveness is a generically human good, not a specifically Christian one. But no religion places forgiveness front and centre like Christianity does, and with a majority of North Americans still claiming Christian identity, appealing to Christian values can still be turned to one’s political advantage.
But here’s the thing: Asking for forgiveness is step two. Step one is repentance.
Alcoholics Anonymous’s famous Twelve Steps makes repentance a key part of almost every step, in fact: naming what you did, naming what that makes you, taking responsibility for it, and seeking to make amends to everyone affected.
Forgiveness isn’t even mentioned: What you have to do is what you have to do. Other parties may forgive you, but you cannot demand that they do. You have to demand of yourself, however, responsibility.
Harrison Ford recently landed his small plane on a taxiway, instead of a runway, at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. If you don’t know southern California, this might sound like a small, out-of-the way airfield, but it isn’t. This is Los Angeles’s second airport, and making a mistake here is a big deal.
Because the airport was designed to handle World War II planes, and lots of them, it has a lot of runways and taxiways parallel to each other, and most of them are long enough to handle military traffic. So as bad as it is to land on a taxiway (pilots are subject to discipline for making such a dangerous mistake), in a complex situation it is understandable that someone might do it.
Ford, however, did the right thing. According to transcripts of his communication with the control tower immediately following the incident, Ford acknowledged that he “was distracted by the airliner which was in movement when I turned to the runway and also the wake turbulence from the landing Airbus.” But he started all that with this frank statement of honesty and responsibility:
“I’m the schmuck who landed on the taxiway.”
Prof. Andrew Potter recently made a bad mistake also. In an article published by Maclean’s, Potter made sweeping and disparaging remarks about Quebecois culture (he teaches at McGill) that understandably upset many of his readers. But when he was called on it, he apologized and recanted, admitting that his online post was, in some respects, under-researched and over-argued—in short, work unbefitting such an accomplished scholar.
Alas, however, he has been forced to resign from his post at McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada as his apology was dismissed by outraged politicians, alumni/ae, and fellow citizens. He had taken responsibility for what he did wrong, but little forgiveness was offered.
The FAA might not forgive Harrison Ford, either. Indeed, he runs the risk of being treated more harshly as a celebrity. But having done the wrong thing, he did the right thing, as did Professor Potter.
Before, then, any other public figure insists that we forgive him for whatever has brought him into the public’s baleful eye, and especially before he tries to turn the tables and make it about us instead—Why are you so grudging in your forgiveness? What’s wrong with you?—we can ask that simple question answered so directly by Mr. Ford:
Are you the schmuck?