Lost amidst the pursuit of those who hacked Ashley Madison and buried beneath the millions of email accounts revealed in the aftermath lay the limits of personal piety. Christians braced themselves wondering if their pastor or friends would be implicated in the email dump.
What would be done to the person discovered to have accessed the site? There were not a few articles and blog posts encouraging people there would be life after getting caught. I suppose it was not the thought that there might not be life after getting caught but that the real issue was what kind of life it would be.
Words of Forgiveness, Weight of Shame
Last evening I watched the video version of the story surrounding John Gibson, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Professor who committed suicide six days after the Ashely Madison hackers exposed the names of those whose emails were found on the site. His would be among them. Wrenching.
One of the remarks that drew my attention pointed to the spirit of the family,
“It wasn’t so bad that we wouldn’t have forgiven it, and so many people have said that to us, but for John, it carried such a shame,” she [Christi, Gibson’s wife] said.
First, the family expressed what we would all hope to hear. Forgiveness is powerful. In fact, sometimes I believe we should operate from a posture of forgiveness. Those we know will let us down. Why not be ready to forgive?
Pastors let people down often. We do not do it intentionally. Often we cannot live up to the idealism painted by pristinated stories of saints. You have read them. The descriptions of personal piety reach such heights one wonders if those portrayed in those pages lived in a bubble, void of human contact, untouched by human tragedy. We do live afraid to be too revealing. As Jen Hatmaker rightly noted, some people cannot abide honesty of that sort.
The problem seems rooted in a system designed where the professional Christian, the clergy, becomes the figure to bear the weight of the ideal for the other/Others who know all too well they cannot bear it. In order to maintain the rouse, they must hold the pastor, the minister, to the higher standard, the one described as perfection. If he or she fails then there is no hope for the rest of us.
Second, the system of shame overwhelms. We pastors tend to want to live into that ideal. After all we have studied the life of Jesus, scrutinized the call of discipleship, and worked to communicate with an air of confidence that borders on certainty. That is, certainty that the vision cast is THE vision to be lived.
Truth be told most of us know we cannot bear the weight. We live with shame from moments small and great where we know more than any other the sermon was both for us and indicted us. It is a curse to live a vocation where our daily reflection comes with knowing our own struggles in the face of the high calling. You know, the one the Apostle Paul, that idealized figure, remarks as, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Maybe this is what Gibson’s wife had in mind when she noted he carried such a shame.
The over emphasis upon personal piety makes the dynamic of community elusive. No, it does not mean that we should not undertake to experience a transformational experience born out of wrestling with the life of Jesus, the One whom Christians declare is Lord. But, the cultural context, what we live and breathe, is constructive. That is, it constitutes our identity as independent individual rather than interdependent human being.
We, Christians that is, quickly take up the idea that we cannot make it without God. We are not so quick to admit we cannot make it without each other. Maybe we give lip service to the idea but in truth, or rather in practice, we strive to live out our personal pieties so our community will think well of us rather than work out our pieties in community where shame cannot hold us, cannot control us, for we understand together that he bore our shame.
A shame-less community might be a more messy place but it would surely be a more forgiving place. Especially if everyone submitted to working out his or her pieties in community where we cannot hide but instead are buttressed by a freedom forged in an already forgiveness.
Hard for the Professionals
I once had a dream to be a professor. Sometimes my congregation thinks I live out that dream on them. The truth is, if the church is a difficult place, Seminaries, I suspect harbor more. Who gets the blame when preacher boy fails? Maybe he does. But in many circles it is that Cemetery that ruined them. And here is where Gibson lived.
One wonders, at least I do, if we are not continuing to nurture a system where young men and women receive idealized visions as examples by which to mark their spiritual progress. Anything less than progress is failure. Add the fact that some who teach in our Seminaries codify their understanding as THE faith once for all delivered to the saints a perch from which to excoriate any and every youngster working out his or her own salvation with fear and trembling. On their face these troubadours of truth are vanquishing vultures.
I did not know John Gibson. From what I can tell I would have been better to have known him. I like fixing cars. Maybe we could have found an old Mustang to tinker on. But, I do not think it a stretch to suggest I know the weight he must have felt thinking about how his action might have transgressed the trust given him by students new and old. What would have happened if on Seminary campuses there existed the formation of community that did not require every one to live up to the President but live down to the disciples?
That’s right. If there ever was a vision of the long obedience in the same direction, to borrow from Eugene Peterson, it is in the practice of pieties within the community. The formation of a safe place, a shame-less space, would be a great place to belong. And that, noted Christi Gibson, would illustrate the power of love.