Should Biden Pardon Trump?

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2021

On his way out the door, Donald Trump pardoned a bunch of his buddies. Trump didn’t pardon himself, as some suspected he would. And now one wonders whether President Biden might consider a pardon for Trump.

At his inauguration, Biden spoke of unity, love and healing. Would a Trump pardon help? This was Gerald Ford’s reasoning when he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford explained, “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former president of the United States.”

There is much to think about here. What is the role of justice and pardon in the life of the nation? And in our own lives?

The pardon power is easily abused. Trump pardoned his cronies, including his son-in-law’s father. Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger Clinton. And Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the murder sentence of the son of a political ally.

The pardon power exists because the judicial system is a blunt tool. The executive can make exceptions that correct failures and excesses — or that recognize the unique circumstances of wrongdoers.

Presidents Ford and Carter commuted the sentences or granted amnesty to tens of thousands of Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters. After conscription was abolished and the war ended, it seemed odd to punish those who refused to fight.

Not everyone was happy about this. Those who obeyed the law and fought in Vietnam resented this move. It seemed to discredit their own service and sacrifice.

Justice requires fair and equal treatment. It also demands negative consequences for wrongdoing. If you do the crime, they say, you must do the time.

Strict retributivists argue that forgiveness is unjust since it fails to give wrongdoers what they deserve. But justice is not the only thing that matters. Forgiveness is beneficial emotionally and psychologically. It heals resentment and promotes kindness. Mercy can build reconciliation and help create a new future.

The world’s religious traditions often celebrate these values. Some even imagine God as merciful and compassionate. But how does God’s mercy relate to divine justice? If you want to generate an argument, ask a friend whether they think God would forgive Hitler.

Forgiveness is an exception to the rule of punishment. For this reason it appears arbitrary and capricious. It unfolds that way in our own emotional lives. Anger and resentment fester, until one day they fade away. It is often not clear why this happens.

There is a mystery here that theologians call grace. Forgiveness is a gift. To forgive is to give up on anger and the demand for punishment. It is to give in to love, compassion, and other tender-hearted values.

But should presidents and governors have the power to bestow this kind of gift? In the old days of kings and emperors, people thought that the sovereign’s mercy was guided by God. But we know that our leaders are merely human. And we see that the pardon power can be abused for corrupt and venal purposes.

Nepotism and cronyism are obvious problems. It is wrong to use the promise of a pardon to create loyalty in the cover up of a crime. It is also wrong to sell pardons or to pardon political cronies. These corrupt uses of the pardon power make it appear that justice is not blind, but that she is only winking at the rich and well-connected.

This shows us the deep political problem of the pardon power. Its promiscuous usage undermines faith in the rule of law and the fairness of the justice system. In defense of the rule of law, it seems that we must make examples of those who break the law.

After Ford pardoned Nixon, many were outraged at justice denied. The tranquility Ford hoped for failed to materialize. Nixon appeared to have gotten away with his crimes. As a result, Ford’s political power waned.

So after you are done arguing about God and Hitler, turn the conversation to Ford and Nixon — and Biden and Trump. What is the function of justice, punishment, and pardon in the life of our nation? And what is the role of mercy and forgiveness in your own life?

Ancient wisdom and climate change

Maybe it’s time to learn from our past

Fresno Bee, August 6, 2016

Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

According to NASA, the first half of 2016 was “the planet’s warmest half-year on record.” The warmest previous years were 2015 and 2014. The Earth’s atmosphere is more than 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Polar ice is melting. Sea level is nearly 3 inches higher than 25 years ago.

And yet we go about our business, unable or unwilling to change our collision course with climate calamity.

Some are in denial. Donald Trump has described climate change as “expletive.” He has claimed that it is a hoax foisted upon the world by the Chinese. His running mate Mike Pence has called climate change a myth. Trump wants to cancel the recent Paris climate agreement.

Others admit the climate crisis, while imagining high-tech solutions. At the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clintondeclared, “I believe in science.” She said, “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”


Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

Ancient sages teach that happiness and virtue are found in restraint and self-control. Desire is a flame that easily burns out of control. Materialism distracts us from higher goods. Tranquility and joy are found in peaceful harmony.

The Buddhists aimed to control desire. The Taoists sought harmony in simplicity. Jesus warned against greed and wealth. And the ancient Greeks praised modesty, moderation and temperance.

But we crave the goods of carbon culture: cars, planes and cheap plastic goods. We like air-conditioned houses, stocked refrigerators and weekend getaways. Billions of poor people dream of joining the American middle class in our relentless pursuit of happiness.

I thought about this as I watched shooting stars blaze across the sky on a recent night in the Sierra. The stars were amazing. So too is our hubris and hypocrisy. I spewed carbon on my drive to the mountains, contributing to the climate crisis.

Such is our predicament. Our daily choices contribute to the problem. It is difficult to imagine living otherwise. The habits of affluence fuel our economy and inflame our desires.

Something’s got to give. Or we’ve got to give something up.


Conan-Arnold PosesOne interesting suggestion comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has become a spokesman for meat-free meals as a cure for climate change. In a public service announcement he says, “less meat, less heat, more life.”

Schwarzenegger’s advertisement was made to support the Chinese government in its plan to reduce meat consumption as a response to climate change. Meat consumption creates more carbon emissions than a plant-based diet. Locally grown foods also produce fewer emissions.

All of our consumption habits have environmental impacts. Coffee is shipped across the globe. Coffee culture creates vast piles of disposable cups. Beer and soda also have an impact. Energy is used to refrigerate and transport it. There are ecological costs in manufacturing and recycling cans and bottles.

Even our hygiene habits have climate impacts. Hot showers produce carbon emissions. So do our hair and clothes dryers. And so on.

A climate-friendly life would be simple. We would take fewer showers, air-dry our clothes, take few long trips, and rarely eat meat. We would walk or bike to work, drink mostly water, and generally curtail consumption.

This is how most people lived before electricity and fossil fuels. The nights were darker then. The stars provided entertainment and inspiration. We rarely see those stars today.

A simple life is unimaginable in the era of unrepentant indulgence. Our lights and gizmos blaze at all hours. There is no space for silence or stargazing.

Studying the ancients reminds us of the value of simplicity. Of course we need science. But we also need to understand that burning carbon cannot create virtue or happiness.

It’s a hopeful sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become an advocate for climate-friendly behavior. If Conan the Barbarian is giving up meat, what are you willing to do to cool the planet and simplify your life?

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