Another public figure has recently been outed. A picture has show up; a blog post has surfaced; an informant has come forward. The past has been revealed and the public figure is now in the process: denial, grudging admission, pleading for understanding, all followed by the inevitable crash and burn. For political figures, that means resignation and finding a real job; for media celebrities, it means no more screaming fans; for church leaders, it means loss of pulpit and reputation.
Since we live in an age where everything is likely documented somewhere and someone has the ability to discover the past, it is pretty much inevitable that nothing can ever be hidden forever. I fully expect that this trend will reach the point where the startling revelation will be that so and so messed their diapers at age 3 months, which shows that they are totally unfit for whatever prominent position they are currently occupied.
Leaving aside the basic problem that our western culture, after having dethroned the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition that was used for so long, is now in the process of developing a new ethical system on the fly, a system that seems to be based on highly subjective feelings tinged with a strong desire for revenge and which changes with the volume of outrage that can be stirred up, there is a problem with all the revelations and reactions.
The problem is that people aren’t being allowed to be real people. Real people are sometimes sinners and sometimes just plain stupid—it is hard to tell the difference but there is a real difference, especially in the way they need to be dealt with. Sin is a deliberate choice to break the rules. Stupidity may also break the rules but tends to be the result of poor thinking choices sometimes encouraged by peer groups, substance abuse or bravado.
Sin, that deliberate choice to break rules that can cause harm to society, others and self is only really dealt with when people confront their inner motivations and desires and accept whatever help they need to make changes. In a culture increasingly divorced from religion and faith of any kind, it is harder and harder to deal constructively with sin and sinners, which may be why condemnation, denunciation and punishment are the go to approaches in our culture.
Stupidity, however, is sometimes a bit easier to deal with. What I am labelling as stupidity is more likely ignorance—people don’t actually know that what they are doing is wrong or offensive or unacceptable. Ignorance can be dealt with by providing information. We can teach people out of stupidity and ignorance. Most of us have successfully grown past a lot of our ignorance and stupidity. But if, after being taught and understanding the teaching, they persist in whatever was wrong, then they are likely following the path of sin.
So, some public figure gets caught about a decades old problem. Again, leaving aside the shifting moral sands that our western culture pretends isn’t a problem, the response to the revelation probably needs to be more nuanced. Was it sin or stupidity? If it was stupidity, has the individual in question learned and grown out of the stupidity? Are they as ignorant today as they were back then? If the action in question was the result of stupidity and the individual has grown out of that particular stupidity and both knows and lives better today, maybe we need to let it go, just like we let the dirty diapers of infants go.
If, however, it is actually sin, a conscious choice to do wrong (again, ignoring the fact that our western culture doesn’t have clear standards of right and wrong) and the individual hasn’t shown any desire to be different and only stops because they got caught, we need to deal with that differently. There is a way to deal with it, a way that involved confession, remorse and asking for forgiveness, a process that can still be found through God, even if our confused culture isn’t sure what to do with real sin beyond seek revenge.
People are going to do sinful and stupid stuff. The more prominent a person becomes, the higher the likelihood that their past will end up as headlines somewhere. Before we start piling on, maybe we should try and discover if the person who was sinful and stupid back then is the same person before us today. That would be the graceful thing to do.
May the peace of God be with you.