Sunday, June 7, 2015

What Do We Do About Scandal?

I shared this article from Breitbart a few days ago, but it has still been on my mind and I want to discuss it a bit further. It has not been easy for me to know what to make of the Duggar Scandal since it broke, and John Nolte, the author of the article, really helped to clarify my thinking. He puts a spotlight on the fact that a terrible crime was committed, and there need to be consequences. So what do we do when scandal breaks out among Christians? We start by making sure we keep in mind the difference between person, and persona.

Disciplining Josh Duggar

In keeping with that, then, let me say I do not agree with Nolte 100%. The fault for Josh Duggar escaping criminal prosecution seems to me to lie with the police, not his parents. From what I know, they did all that could be reasonably expected. I have to empathize with them. What would I do in their place? I think it would be hard for not to kill him, let alone hand him over to the law. But I am not a parent, and I am not in that situation. Jim Bob and Michelle confronted Josh’s sin, took him to the leadership of their church, took him to the police, and sent him away for therapy. By their estimation, and by mine, they followed the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 18:15-17. Josh did not get away with what he did. Rather, he was confronted, forgiven, and restored. By his own admission, this was how he came to Christ. It is a remarkable example of how far the Lord’s love goes, that something like this can be overcome.

Nolte admits as much, but you can tell he is angry that Josh stayed out of prison (or juvenile detention, as would have been the case for him). And again, though I disagree, I empathize. This was a terrible crime, and it seems as though no price was paid. The breach in justice is a hard one to bear. I simply happen to think that if what was done was not perfect, it was at least enough. That should have been the end of it. In spite of his indignation, Nolte even makes that point when he says “the Duggar family, including Josh, have every right to move past this and live their lives.” He adds, furthermore, “It would have been just as appropriate, and even a plus for our culture and Christianity, had the Duggars pursued fame and cultural status after going public about what Josh did, and to have used that experience as part of the narrative of their Christian family” [emphasis in the original]. And it is here that we find what is most important for understanding how to approach scandals like this.

Reality vs. Image

If I read him right, Nolte is not even most upset that Josh escaped punishment. Even more infuriating is that the Duggars had “this giant, neon family skeleton” and tried to keep it in the closet by pretending to be the perfect Christian family. To anyone who has followed the family for years, this is nonsense. The Duggars have been forthright about being imperfect, even if they did not reveal this particular sin. But few people have followed them that closely, and with a cursory glance (and even with regular viewing of their lifestyle), they appear idyllic. And that was the point. The Duggars and TLC painted a rosy picture, one in which mentions of their fallenness come off as an attempt to establish credibility, rather than true honesty. They were held up as models to be emulated, when we did not actually know them. The shame of it is, if we had, they really would have been worth emulating. Their real story, the story of grace, was one worth knowing. But they didn’t let us see it. In essence (and that is an important qualification), they lied to us. Who knows? Perhaps they lied to themselves.

That is not what Christianity is about. To think we have no sin, or to pretend it, is to follow a false gospel, as 1 John 1:8, 10 make clear. The Duggars gambled and lost. Unfortunately, they did not just gamble with their own reputations. They gambled with the reputation of Jesus Christ. There can be no question that this whole episode reflects very poorly on everyone who has been connected with the family or praised them for the example they set, and also that it reflects poorly on their beliefs. Once again, the most important point to remember here is the difference between reality and public persona. Is Josh Duggar forgiven? Yes, if he is telling the truth. Did his parents do their best? Yes, from a certain perspective. But the trouble came when they decided to hold themselves up for public scrutiny and tried to keep this bit out from under the microscope.

The Duggars as a family are whole. The Duggars as a brand are irreparably broken. That brand, their image, cannot be restored. It can be recreated, perhaps even into something better, but it cannot go back to being what it once was. We need to remember that, and we need to let it guide us toward caution in two ways.

Handling Scandal

First, we need to admit that Nolte is right. It is time for Christians to dump the Duggar brand. There is no defending this public image. There is no rescuing their show. There is no demanding they be forgiven by society at large. We should respect and forgive the family, but we should not join in their delusion by acting like there is no reason for them being off the air or for Josh Duggar to have left the Family Research Council (FRC). We need to back away from the idea of the Duggars in order to preserve what we can of the wider Christian image.

Second, we need to remember this and apply it to our own lives, especially anyone who has thoughts of being in the limelight. What we try to hide, may come out. Some might say that means we need to wear our sins on our sleeves. I am not convinced of that. At the very least, though, we need to be upfront about the fact that there is sin in our lives, mistakes in our past that we want to leave there, and that people should not look at us but past us to Christ. If the Duggars had done that, things would be completely different right now. Sadly, they are what they are. All we can do is trust God to rebuild what has been broken, and live in a way that magnifies how “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So how do we handle scandal? By recognizing the difference between reality and image, by letting go of the latter, and by remembering it could be us next time. When an edifice falls, we should not try to hold it up. We should not celebrate its fall, either, taking joy from the suffering of others. We should just stick to what remains true, no matter what failings our public figures have, and share that message with the world. It will be a little harder now. But it has never been easy. And it is still necessary.

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