We haven’t had a political sex scandal for a very long time, by which I mean at least a few months. For a while there they were as regular as rain. And just as regular was the whole way they played themselves out – beginning with the adamant denials, continuing with the exposure of the truth, proceeding to the press conference apology which is nearly simultaneous with the twitter and talking-head analysis, and then by the late-night comedy riffs, and ending either by the fade in to obscurity, or sometimes, by the attempted comeback and then the fade.
In recent times those press conference apologies have seemed both more generic and more intimate. It’s pretty clear that public relations firms have focus-grouped various phrases and produced a handy formula to improve your chances of raising a sympathetic response from the American public. You have to say, “Most of all I have hurt my wife and my family,” (because most often you are a heterosexual married male) and make reference to “time to heal,” and you have to use the words, “actions for which I take full responsibility,” even if your actions thus far have made it clear to everyone that the very last thing you ever intend to do is take any responsibility whatsoever, and that you are only standing here now in a last ditch attempt to salvage something. The public relations firms will tell you how to stand, and how to look, and what suit and tie to wear. As important, they will tell your wife that she has to be there too, and they will tell her what to wear, how to stand, and the right kind of pained yet supportive look to mold her face in to.
Let’s just consider for a moment that some of them really meant what they said. Let’s just posit that some of them were indeed truly chastened through and through. The problem is, of course, that it’s almost impossible to tell the real penitents from the fakers. On the one hand, the political handlers have become so adept at teaching their clients how to mimic remorse that even the most recalcitrant can give a convincing performance. On the other hand, we the public have become so jaded, and in no small part because the handlers and PR people have so consistently manipulated us, that we err on the side of discounting all of them. It’s as though from overuse and abuse our bs detectors have gotten jammed in the on position.
These public sex scandals make all of us feel a little tainted, not just because there is nothing anymore that is left out, with absolutely every last detail of every last graphic act being uncovered and described, but also because we are made to be complicit in the media frenzy. They leave us feeling depressed, dirty and, more than anything, exasperated over the time and resources that are being sucked away from dealing with the very real and very serious problems in front of us.
If David had been a politician in 21st Century America and not a politician in Ancient Israel, perhaps he would have followed down the same dismal path. Perhaps he would have stood in front of the camera shutters and the scrim of reporters with his wives in a row behind him looking grim and determined. Perhaps he would have begun by saying that he had let down the American people, and that now he needed time with his family and time to heal. Perhaps he would have told us that he accepted full responsibility for his actions, even as his lawyers were drawing up the briefs that would shield him from paying for his actions in any serious way.
There were political handlers and public relations specialists in David’s time, they were officials of the court, and faith has convinced me that there are still prophets like the prophet Nathan around today. Sadly for us, we rarely hear about those prophets now. But fortunately for us, we have this instance preserved for us in which the prophet reached the political official before the handlers did.
In Psalm 51, we encounter something wholly different than what we have become accustomed to. Here is the real thing. Here is unflinching, abject penitence. You get the sense that if this David had stood in front of the TV cameras and spoken the words of this Psalm, the pain of it would make us look away, or squirm under the burden of the hearing of it.
The Bible is many things to us, the Word of Life, a guide, a source book of faith and hope. But it’s also, in places, downright interesting. Especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a parade of characters who haven’t in any way been cleaned up for us. We find them with all their faults and flaws and bad behavior on full display. Chief among the flawed and the faulty is David.
I hear that the PW women, when discussing this text, enumerated all the commandments David busted through, with coveting, adultery, and murder topping the list.
Among the other benefits Scripture gives us, it plunges us in to the real. Take any of the apologies offered by philandering politicians and stack it up against Psalm 51. The first will leave you feeling empty and a little sullied. In the other, you will feel the pain as real and deep now as it was three thousand years ago. Here is a man facing the full horror of what he has done. Here is a man utterly convinced of his need for grace.
In my own life, the other place where I have found this same penitential spirit is in Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m sure that any of you who are a part of a 12 step program know what I am talking about.
When I first dragged my sorry self to AA, what struck me through the haze of my own confusion was how much like church it was. In fact, it often seemed more like church than church did.
It had many of the same components. There were prayers, there was a liturgy of sorts, and there was testimony about the goodness of God. There was even a passing of the hat.
It struck me too, that in many ways, AA was more successful than many of our churches. There’s no paid staff, no buildings, and no proselytizing. Still people come, and then they come back. They learn about God there, and also about the rigors of a spiritual practice.
As a church person, I’ve often wondered what we could learn from the 12 step model. I think that one critical difference is that 12 step programs have a higher threshold of membership, which gives them a kind of edge. It’s a place that you go when you’ve exhausted all your other options.
What if we only came to church after we had hit rock bottom. What if we put a sign out front that said, “Come back when you’re ready.” The good news is that we get to come here any time. The hard news is that it will be a great temptation to avoid coming to terms with repentance. The great thing that we addicts have over the civilians is that we get the clear and simple choice between facing ourselves or death. It helps to concentrate the mind.
Consider the great swath of destruction that David created before facing his own sin. A woman raped, a man dead, and no end of lives ruined. David yielded to the same tendency toward denial that is in all of us, and pretended that the pain wasn’t real. The luxury of being king, with all those resources at your disposal, and sycophants to tell you only what you want to hear, is that you get to pretend a little longer. The horror of being king, with all those resources and lying officials is that your pretending will have far reaching and calamitous consequences.
At the least, David’s story reminds us that we each have within us the capacity to be a total jerk. It’s part of our human nature to indulge in elaborate schemes of self-deception, to be enthralled by power, or greed or obsession. Or, to put it more simply, the hard part about life is that we will hurt one another. The knowledge of that fills us with fear and shame and sadness. We’d rather do anything other than come up against that one hard truth, but there it is.
We sometimes squander the resources given to us, we fail to cherish and care for the earth that is our home, we don’t acknowledge the ways in which the choices that we make limit those of others, and we don’t always do right by one another. We don’t do these things because we are bad people, we do them because we are people. We bear the burden and the blessing of being born with the capacity to love. With love comes vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes fear. It’s all part of the deal.
By the grace of God, David had Nathan in his life, and by the grace of God, David listened when the prophet laid out the truth to him. Then the full force of what he had done hit him, and hit him hard. It was a truth too great for bearing. When David finally stopped running from himself and from facing the truth of what he had done, he was at last driven in to prayer.
God’s grace was sufficient for David, and God’s grace is sufficient for us too. Grace makes penitence possible and not simply overwhelming, and grace not only makes penitence possible, it makes penitence liberating.
Church gives us the chance to feel again our own desire to live in accordance with love. Church is that place which grounds us once again in what is real, even when what is real and what is hard are the same. Church gives us a community of prophets and sinners to learn with and from. Church calls us to lay our hearts on the altar, and to trust in a God who knows us and who alone has the power to set us once again on the path of love.