We have witnessed in recent days the personal meltdown of a national politician. His private sins have come to public light, and his personal life is probably in ruins.
Disclaimer 1 – I want to say I had never heard of Congressman Anthony D. Weiner before last week. I still know nothing of his voting record, only that he is a Democrat from New York, serving in the House of Representatives here in DC. Whatever his political leanings, they are not significant for this post, because I want to talk about us, about this nation and how we behave when very personal things like this come to light. Some commentators may wish to tell me about his political views, or indicate that Democrats do this to Republicans, (they do), and that there is a double standard in the media (there probably is). But none of these is the point of my blog. The point I wish to explore is the soul of this nation, and what we do to the wounded among us.
Disclaimer 2 – Anthony Weiner has sinned. Indeed, from an objective point of view, he has sinned gravely. He has strayed from marriage vows, engaged in lewd conduct, indulged lust, likely made unwanted sexual advances, and drawn others into lust. He also lied, as do most who get caught in shameful situations. Like any sinner, like any of us sinners, he ought to repent and seek the forgiveness of God, his wife, family, and all others he hurt or offended. As to whether he should resign, I have no strong opinion. As a citizen I see no real need to demand it, unless significant civil laws were broken. But in the end, I want to be clear that I do not make light of the sins he has committed, and I preach and teach against such things regularly.
But, I want to ask about us, about our national soul in matters like this. I have grave doubts about our rush to utterly bring to ruin those who struggle with personal sins of this sort, and also matters like substance abuse.
Lets be clear, we live in a profoundly hypersexualized culture. Sex is everywhere, sexual misbehavior and promiscuity in our culture is beyond epidemic, it is beyond pandemic, it has become endemic. We casually display and treat adultery, fornication and now homosexual activity in our movies and TV sitcoms. We have normalized sex outside of marriage, and living together before marriage. We even sexualize children in our culture, as we have discussed on this blog before. Add to all this misbehavior the toll of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorces, broken families, and hurt and confused children being raised in non-ideal settings in ever larger numbers.
And Internet pornography is a huge, utterly huge problem in our culture. Ever larger numbers of Americans not only look at it regularly, but many are also powerfully addicted to it. And the addiction is addiction in the worse sense, for they not only compulsively view it, but need more and more of the stuff, to satisfy the longing. And what is viewed must become edgier and edgier to “turn them on.” It’s big business. The pornography industry has larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined. According to compiled numbers from respected news and research organizations, every second, $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography. More on the truly staggering Internet porn numbers here: Internet Pornography Statistics.
As a culture we have become very ill, sexually speaking.
All of this makes the piling on when a public figure “falls from grace” quite astonishing. It is very true that Congressman Weiner has a problem and has done something that is very wrong. But the fact is also true that WE have a problem as a culture. Our leaders are drawn from our ranks and reflect us. In a culture sexually confused, debased and out of control, we will see our leaders reflect our collective ills. Every now and then, it would seem that we don’t like what we see in the mirror, and we go into attack and destroy mode.
It is a common trait that individuals will often be most annoyed by people who subconsciously remind them of themselves. If this is true at the individual level, it may well also be true at the collective level. And this may explain our strange need to pile on when someone has done something sexually shameful. Deep down inside, most people know, despite all the rationalizations and defenses our culture presents for its sexual “liberation,” that what we are doing, overlooking , or celebrating, is wrong. Yes, we know, deep down, underneath all the “stinking thinking” that fornication, adultery, pornography, immodesty, lewd conduct, and homosexual activity is wrong; we know. But we try to suppress the voice of our conscience. We smother it with hired experts, presumption, talk of liberation, and other versions of the previously mentioned stinking thinking.
Another way we try to assuage our guilt is to try and find some “poor slob” who is worse off than we are and say, “Look at that terrible person.” And for a moment we feel better.
Yet another way is to find a scape goat. In the Old Testament, on the Feast of Yom Kippur, two goats were designated to carry the guilt of Israel. One was slaughtered and offered in sacrifice. The other, the “scape goat,” was driven into the desert in order to carry away the guilt of the people. The scape goat bore the sin of the people. And this bespeaks not only a religious ceremony, but also a recognition by God that we often need something to focus our sin on, and ceremoniously drive it away. Other forms of this are writing one’s sins on a paper then burning it, or an addict smashing a liquor bottle in renunciation of sin.
But people are not meant to be scape goats. No where are we directed to destroy others for our sins, or drive them into the desert.
So, Congressman Weiner has done a bad thing. But, collectively we are also behaving very badly. Matters such as these are very private and ought to handled in a private manner. He has done something very shameful that has briefly come to light. As Christians we should use moment like this to reflect.
But I pray God, we who bear the name Christian are not part of the piling on, the ridicule, scorn and derision, that the wider culture is currently engaged in, and the media has rushed to cover like sharks in bloody water. There is probably not one of us, who does not have things we have done, we would prefer not come to light. We ought to be very careful before we engage in finger-pointing, and the glee that bespeaks a kind of Schadenfreude. Even if one were to conclude the Congressman does not have “our kind of politics” (and a lot of this is about politics), he is a human being who has ship-wrecked his life, and needs our prayers. So does his family, and the victims of his antics.
On a personal note, I am a priest, and I often deal with people who have done some pretty sinful and painful things, people who have made a ship-wreck of their life. And while the Church must clearly and prophetically speak against sin and injustice, she must also remain a hospital where sinners find relief, treatment and mercy. It is not unlike doctors, who night and day cry out against smoking, but must still treat patients who come to them with pulmonary problems and cancers related to smoking, now or in the past. Sinners (all of us) need the truth, but they also need compassion, love, and mercy, along with treatment. This is the Christian way, and as a priest I have grown to understand it more and more deeply.
In terms of sexuality, it may be that too many pulpits have often been silent about the serious nature of these sorts of sins. But I’ll say, not mine. Yet when some one comes to my door (or confessional) after a shameful fall, I am called to show them mercy and give encouragement, so they can start again, and rebuild their lives, often shattered.
Jesus said to the adulterous woman: I do not condemn you, Go now and leave your life of sin (John 8:11). But to this sinful and adulterous generation (cf Mk 8:38) the Lord is more pointed: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her (Jn 8:7).
I pray that none of us who bear the name Christian have stones in our hands just now. A brother among us has sinned. Will we pile on, or pray on? Someone needs our prayers. I think I know what the Lord wants. I surely know what he did and said.
Photo Credit: Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt in the Liverpool Museum