Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who Is Ashley Madison?

A few days ago, the headline in our local paper declared that the mayor of a nearby town was on the list of Ashley Madison users that was hacked and then released to the public. All of us were waiting for it. We knew it would come. Sooner or later, a public figure with whom we had a connection would be "outed" as a slimy, philanderous, dirt-bag who had pursued an online affair with the notorious website. We all knew about Josh Duggar, but we wrote him off as a reprobate a long time ago. We needed something fresh and salacious into which we could sink our bared teeth. We needed something closer to home--someone who, as Brian J. Dixon put it in his powerful blog post, was close enough to throw a stone at.

This local sensation will run its course. And so will the international fascination with this public disclosure of sin. In a few months, we mostly will have forgotten why that pastor resigned or why that legislator did not seek another term or why that police chief killed himself. We will have moved on from this tawdry affair and found a new one, and the state of marriage as a lifelong, monogamous, sacrificial union will not have improved one iota. And that is the real shame of the Ashley Madison fiasco.

On Sunday, we will hear Jesus quote Isaiah and say to the religious leaders of his day, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." The Pharisees and the scribes had found their own religious scandal. Jesus was growing in popularity. People were wondering whether he was the sort of leader foretold by the prophets--the one on whom Israel had been waiting. But his disciples were defying some of the basic religious expectations of that time, and Jesus was doing nothing about it. What sort of teacher--what sort of God-sent leader--can't even get his own closest followers to wash their hands before they eat? And so they approached Jesus to disclose the offending behavior and expected the sort of reaction we all expect from our shamed public figures--a hung head, a contrite apology, a few tears, a leave of absence, and a promise to change. But Jesus didn't give it. He didn't even come close.

With words that eviscerated their hypocrisy, Jesus said, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition," which is a fancy way of saying that their deep faithlessness was masked by their show of religiosity. Jesus refused to accept their premise--that religious uncleanness on the outside indicated religious uncleanness on the inside. "Listen to me, all of you," he said to the crowd, "and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Jesus knew what we all know--that sometimes rotten apples look delightful, that sometimes wolves wear sheep's clothing, that sometimes sleazy people act righteous. But the real message behind this encounter with the religious elites is that good people sometimes look bad.

Good, sensible, honest, godly folk sometimes do stupid things. Why? Because even the best among us is, at his or her core, a rotten sinner in need of redemption. The Ashley Madison phenomenon wasn't a secret. This wasn't the sort of thing that only the sleaziest among us knew about. For goodness sakes--the website that invited people to have an affair ran advertisements on television! And you and I watched the shows that made money from it. We may not have signed up (or maybe we did), but we're right there, too. We're part of a society that celebrates casual sex. We are a community that has given up on monogamy. Even if we have a basket full of stones to throw at these latest adulterers, we'd better stop and look in the mirror. We may not have signed up on a website, but we've looked at our coworker. We've flirted with the bartender. We've thought about it. We might put on our dark suit and head to church every Sunday morning with bible in hand, but we might as well put on a scarlet letter and stand in the narthex covered in sackcloth and ashes until our penitence proves we belong back among the least until next Sunday, when it all happens again.

There is no hope in perfection. There is only hope in forgiveness. The only way our society becomes the kingdom of God--a community in which fidelity is uncompromised--is if we acknowledge our true brokenness, confess our sins, and seek God's forgiveness. The institution of marriage and the status of the family and the moral decay of our society will never improve as long as we are pretending that adultery and theft and dishonesty and all the other sins are someone else's problem. They are our problems, too. Take off the mask. Stop pointing fingers. Admit that you are part of the problem of sin and admit that you need forgiveness, too--no more or no less than anyone else.

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