One of the many reasons of which we find the fall of a leader difficult to process coherently is that we have lost the Biblical language, categories and stories which once provided a structure for public discourse. As a result, the conversation lurches between excusing inexcusable behaviour on one hand and actually seeking to destroy the perpetrator on the other. In contrast, the Biblical world view provides us with some helpful wisdom for responding to public failures like this.
When we do wrong, the Bible’s message is that firstly we should ‘own’ our failures, and not excuse them. The language used in the Scottish Parliament of having ‘acted foolishly’, is a pale and insipid response to the actual human problem, for which the Bible uses that gnarly old word ‘sin’.
The concept of sin is more than simply our shame when caught – but the sense of objective moral guilt before God, which is a failure not just of judgement but of character. When we fall publicly, we feel shamed because of what we were tempted by and what that reveals about who we are. Worse still, the standards that God requires for us all are far, far, higher than ‘conduct acceptable for a minister’.
However, before we are tempted to join in the chorus of condemnation, of Derek Mackay in particular, bear this in mind. When a woman ‘caught in the act of adultery’ was dragged before Jesus she was in a position of extreme vulnerability, social ostracism, guilt and shame. She didn’t face mere exclusion, but death by stoning.
Jesus’ response was to say that ‘only he who was without sin could cast the first stone’ and he refused to join the baying mob. This calls those who observe a public humiliation to have the humility and self-awareness of their own sinfulness to therefore ask the question: “How would I wish to be treated, if I had done something that disqualified me from office or if the worst of my nature was displayed?”
Jesus, however, didn’t just call off the mob – he then said to that adulterous woman, “Now, go – leave your life of sin”. If sin is an unpalatable word, repentance is doubly so, yet remains something missing from public discourse and private spirituality to our detriment.
This is the whole category that moves beyond weakly admitting ‘regret’ (which all too often sounds like regret at having been caught), and into the heartfelt reorientation of life towards God, and goodness. In the Christian world view there are two key aspects to understanding ourselves. The first is that we are all made in the image of God, all have an intrinsic value, which is indissoluble. The second is that we have all sinned, and failed to live in accordance with God’s plans, design, will and laws – in a multitude of ways, all of which require a reorientation towards Him.
The upshot is that, whether our sins are public or private, God loves sinners – and offers us forgiveness now, instead of condemnation to come. Of course, it’s easy to wish the restoration of one’s friends – but Jesus’s call is more radical still, to seek the good of one’s enemies, including political ones. Central to the Christian story is the crucifixion of Jesus, where the seriousness of sin requires this sacrifice at the same time as the love of God for sinners is so overwhelming that he offers himself as that payment to turn us from being his enemies into His friends.
The woman caught in adultery was at the bottom of the social spectrum and was shown grace – the mob was called off, and she was called to a totally different life from then on.
Likewise, when the powerful King David was publicly called out for his sexual sins, he owned his failures, and pleaded with God for forgiveness, which he received along with restoration. The message is the same for all of us – rich or poor, powerful or weak; our guilt cannot be explained away, minimised, or excused but can be confessed and forgiven. The flip side is that as people aware of our own sinfulness, we must be careful to respond to these issues in others with some caution and humility, and without a hint of schadenfreude.
Gavin Matthews for Solas.