In June, a member challenged me: "How about a sermon on all that mess in Washington." What was developing news in June has now, at the end of August, become repetitive and wearisome. Still, the sermon topic was announced, and I thought that looking at the currents moving in this country today from a biblical perspective would be useful.
One point need to be emphasized. We gather here as Christians, not as Democrats or Republicans, and not as supporters or detractors of President Bill Clinton or Special Council Ken Starr. I emphasize this because I have found that conversations quickly turn into statements of party affiliation. Very simply, a Republican will tell me that everything happening shows Clinton to be the scoundrel that the person always knew him to be. Democrats excuse Clinton with "but" sentences: "I don't condone his behavior, but the relationship with Monica Lewinsky was consensual." Or, "I'm disgusted, but he didn't do anything as bad as Nixon." Political affiliation is a constant conversational companion.
Today, I speak as a Christian to Christians out of what I find
in the Biblical record, and I would like you to remove party affiliation
from your mind during this sermon. After worship is over, you
can return to your normal state.
The title of today's sermon is immediately recognized from Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. In the Hawthorne story adultery is public through the visible wearing of the scarlet letter. Today, adultery is publicly visible in the media. The difference between our society and seventeenth Puritan society centers on the public/private nature of adultery. It is Hawthorne's story that, no doubt, has helped us avoid the self-righteous hypocrisy that is so easy to generate in this area.1
The seriousness of adultery can be seen in the fact that adultery made it into the Ten Commandments. Now, I don't believe that the Ten Commandments dropped out of heaven or, as in the movie with Charlton Heston as Moses, were carved into rocks by a fiery finger. The Ten Commandments and the laws in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus rose out of the community of ancient Israel, under the leadership of Moses. Adulterers were to be stoned to death. Such a drastic punishment was decreed because adultery was never viewed as a private affair. Along with killing and bearing false witness, adultery was seen as a rot--weakening, straining and breaking the bonds of community.2
Adultery is a perennial human problem. For example, two words we use to describe times of sexual repression are Puritanism and Victorianism. However, on closer examination, we find the reality of those times quite different. Scholars, going through the diaries kept by Puritan ministers in the late 1600s and early 1700s, found that adultery was common enough that ministers wrote of it matter of factly. It is estimated that in Victorian England one out of every seven houses was a brothel.3
So, if everyone did "it" and continues to do "it," is there any reason for concern? The truth of the matter is that not everyone does commit adultery. Reputable studies place the incidence under 50 percent.4
Even if a full 100% of humans committed adultery, we still do not place a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on the matter. Common experience does not necessarily make a norm of behavior. Because every single one of us has exceeded the speed limit, ought we to eliminate speed laws? The result of such a policy would lead to chaos and slaughter on our roads. Adultery tears apart marriages and families and destroys trust. Adultery puts people through hell. Even adultery that remains secret has its effect. People cannot live a lie without it affecting other parts of their lives.
Told that his standards are out of date, a character in an Alan Bennett play replies: "Of course, that's why they're called standards!"
Adultery has swirled around not just the presidency. Air Force bomber pilot Kelly Flinn left the service because of lying, disobeying an order and adultery, and Joseph Ralston's years-ago adultery derailed his candidacy for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adultery has been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Pentagon's new guidelines treat adultery seriously but it is no longer a crime.
Knowing the pain and turmoil adultery causes in people's lives, I find appalling the casual way adultery is minimized as unimportant, dismissed as irrelevant, and trivialized with the statement, "Everybody does it." Please note: recognizing adultery's destructiveness does not automatically lead to self-righteousness finger pointing.
The difference between ourselves and past times is not the incidence of adultery but the attitude toward it. Listen to these words from the "dean" of our country's religious leaders, the Reverend Billy Graham, speaking about President Clinton in an interview with Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" show on 5 March 1998:
Graham said he agreed that the President has a responsibility to provide moral leadership for the nation. He also said, "I forgive him because I know the frailty of human nature and I know how hard it is--especially a strong, vigorous young man like he is. He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him."5
From Graham's advanced age President Clinton may look young, but don't we expect a 50-year-old man to control his urges?
We are not a unique species of the human race, living in a
unique time, having a unique moral outlook, and thinking the moral
strictures of the past ought not, indeed cannot, apply to us.
Such belief is arrogance.
As I scan the Bible, the closest and clearest message on adultery comes from the book of Second Samuel, a book that tells the story of David and Bathsheba and, even more importantly, the aftermath of that affair.
I find parallels between King David and President Clinton. Both love life and people. Both draw women and men to them in deep loyalty. Both are opportunists. Both have a native sense of what to do and say at the appropriate time. For example, the Jonesboro, Arkansas, high school killings happened while Clinton was in Africa. Without a script or a teleprompter, Clinton spoke just the right words of shock and support. One important difference between the two men is that David had credibility as a war hero.
The record of the affair between Bathsheba and David begins in the 11th chapter of Second Samuel. I always understood that David initiated the affair, but it may be that Bathsheba made herself visually and enticingly available to David. Henry Kissinger probably got it right, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."6
I believe that David and Clinton have something else in common: a compulsiveness to live on the edge. At the peak of power both threw caution to the winds.
Bathsheba was not just an ordinary woman. She was well-connected. Bathsheba's grandfather was David's counselor, Ahithophel of Gilo, the renowned elder of Judah. Her father and husband were both members of "The Thirty," David's most honored officers. Bathsheba's husband Uriah was a foreign mercenary, but he had adopted the religion of Yahweh. Thus, Bathsheba was too intimately connected to the royal establishment for David to risk a flirtation. Yet he was recklessly dismissive of the danger.
The pregnancy made secret things visible (even though Bathsheba's going to the palace must have caused rumors), so David schemed to get Uriah to have intercourse with Bathsheba to hide the child's paternity. Failing in that, David asked his general, Joab, to arrange the death of Uriah in battle. David sacrifices a loyal follower for his own personal need. With Uriah dead, that should have ended all but the rumors.
Two people, though, didn't let the affair slide out of sight.
Ahithophel was outraged by the scandalous behavior of both the
king and his granddaughter, and Nathan the prophet was outraged
by the injustice. Finally, Nathan stands before King David.
II Samuel 12:1-14
The Prophet Nathan Confronts David
The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan went to him and said, "There were two men who lived in the same town; one was rich and the other poor. The rich man had many cattle and sheep, while the poor man had only one lamb, which he had bought. He took care of it, and it grew up in his home with his children. He would feed it some of his own food, let it drink from his cup, and hold it in his lap. The lamb was like a daughter to him. One day a visitor arrived at the rich man's home. The rich man didn't want to kill one of his own animals to fix a meal for him; instead, he took the poor man's lamb and prepared a meal for his guest."
David became very angry at the rich man and said, "I swear by the living Lord that the man who did this ought to die! For having done such a cruel thing, he must pay back four times as much as he took."
"You are that man," Nathan said to David. "And this is what the Lord God of Israel says: 'I made you king of Israel and rescued you from Saul. I gave you his kingdom and his wives; I made you king over Israel and Judah. If this had not been enough, I would have given you twice as much. Why, then, have you disobeyed my commands? Why did you do this evil thing? You had Uriah killed in battle; you let the Ammonites kill him, and you took his wife! Now, in every generation some of your descendants will die a violent death because you have disobeyed me and have taken Uriah's wife. I swear to you that I will cause someone from your own family to bring trouble on you. You will see it when I take your wives from you and give them to another man; and he will have intercourse with them in broad daylight. You sinned in secret, but I will make this happen in broad daylight for all Israel to see.'"
"I have sinned against the Lord," David said. Nathan replied, "The Lord forgives you; you will not die. But because you have shown such contempt for the Lord in doing this, your child will die."
Genuine repentance can lead to forgiveness for the individuals involved. But, forgiveness does not put a stop to consequences. Usually people do not confess until they can no longer avoid the truth. In the David story, it is a prophet who confronts David.
Who are the prophets in our own day? Who speaks to and confronts those in power?
In ancient Israel there were two groups of prophets: official and unofficial. The first belonged to a prophet guild (like Nathan), and the second were freelancers (like the prophet Amos who said he was "not a prophet nor trained as a prophet")7. Functionally, we call today's unofficial prophets "whistleblowers." Like Amos, they bring to light injustices in our corporate life. Also, like Amos, the establishment tries to dismiss them. Discredit them and even destroy them. Even Jesus spoke of how we "kill the prophets."
In our own time it seems quite clear and logical to me that, functionally, our official prophets are the independent councils like Kenneth Starr. He was given the legal right to investigate possible misuse of Presidential power. People can and do question how he is carrying out his task, but he was officially appointed as to uncover possible corruption.
When David repented, admitting his fault, he received forgiveness. It seemed that David weathered the crisis and continued to be king. However, actions have consequences-"to the third and fourth generation," as the Bible puts it. The rot spreads and first affects David's family. The child conceived with Bathsheba dies. Then more happens. There is rape and murder in the family, rebellion against David, a civil war, and the death of David's favorite son. All are the terrible consequences of David's action.
II Samuel 13:1-18
Amnon Rapes and Disgraces Tamar
David's son Absalom had a beautiful unmarried sister named Tamar. Amnon, another of David's sons, fell in love with her. He was so much in love with her that he became sick, because it seemed impossible for him to have her; as a virgin, she was kept from meeting men. But he had a friend, a very shrewd man named Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shammah. Jonadab said to Amnon, "You are the king's son, yet day after day I see you looking sad. What's the matter?"
"I'm in love with Tamar, the sister of my half brother Absalom," he answered.
Jonadab said to him, "Pretend that you are sick and go to bed. When your father comes to see you, say to him, ëPlease ask my sister Tamar to come and feed me. I want her to fix the food here where I can see her, and then serve it to me herself.'" So Amnon pretended that he was sick and went to bed.
King David went to see him, and Amnon said to him, "Please let Tamar come and make a few cakes here where I can see her, and then serve them to me herself"
So David sent word to Tamar in the palace: "Go to Amnon's house and fix him some food." She went there and found him in bed. She took some dough, prepared it, and made some cakes there where he could see her. Then she baked the cakes and emptied them out of the pan for him to eat, but he wouldn't. He said, "Send everyone away" - and they all left. Then he said to her, "Bring the cakes here to my bed and serve them to me yourself." She took the cakes and went over to him. As she offered them to him, he grabbed her and said, "Come to bed with me!"
"No," she said. "Don't force me to do such a degrading thing! That's awful! How could I ever hold up my head in public again? And you - you would be completely disgraced in Israel. Please, speak to the king, and I'm sure that he will give me to you." But he would not listen to her; and since he was stronger than she was, he overpowered her and raped her.
Then Amnon was filled with a deep hatred for her; he hated her now even more than he had loved her before. He said to her, "Get out!"
"No," she answered. "To send me away like this is a greater crime than what you just did!"
But Amnon would not listen to her; he called in his personal servant and said, "Get this woman out of my sight! Throw her out and lock the door!" The servant put her out and locked the door.
Absalom, Tamar's brother, keeps Tamar out of sight for three years. The calm quiets the turbulent waters, but out of sight does not mean out of mind. The adultery provided the context for the rape, and the rape now leads to murder.
II Samuel 13:28-29
Absalom Kills Amnon
Absalom prepared a banquet fit for a king and instructed his servants: "Notice when Amnon has had too much to drink, and then when I give the order, kill him. Don't be afraid. I will take the responsibility myself. Be brave and don't hesitate!" So the servants followed Absalom's instructions and killed Amnon. All the rest of David's sons mounted their mules and fled.
David exercised no discipline over his own passion nor over his children. Absalom is ëpunished' by being kept out of Jerusalem. When Absalom is invited back to town, David isolates him by refusing to see him. Seething anger over his father's lack of outrage at the rape of his sister and at being excluded from his father's company leads to the next step in this continuing tragedy.
II Samuel 15:1-6
Absalom Rebels Against David
After this, Absalom provided a chariot and horses for himself, and an escort of fifty men. He would get up early and go and stand by the road at the city gate. Whenever someone came there with dispute that he wanted the king to settle, Absalom would call him over and ask him where he was from. And after the man had told him what tribe he was from, Absalom would say, "Look, the law is on your side, but there is no representative of the king to hear your case." And he would add, "How I wish I were a judge! Then anyone who had a dispute or a claim could come to me, and I would give him justice." When the man would approach Absalom to bow down before, Absalom would reach out, take hold of him, and kiss him. Absalom did this with every Israelite who came to the king for judgment, and so he won their loyalty.
Absalom, obtaining the loyalty of the people starts a rebellion
against his father and drives David out of Jerusalem. A
war is fought, and David's army is victorious
II Samuel 18:7-8
A Slaughter Ensues
The Israelites were defeated by David's men; it was a terrible defeat, with twenty thousand men killed that day. The fighting spread over the countryside, and more men died in the forest than were killed in battle.
In the battle Absolom is killed. David's grief spills over. It is David's general who tells him to get on with the country's business.
II Samuel 18:33-19:8
David Cries for Absalom
Joab was told that King David was weeping and mourning for Absalom. And so the joy of the victory was turned into sadness for all of David's troops that day, because they heard that the king was mourning for his son. They went back into the city quietly, like soldiers who are ashamed because they are running away from battle. The king covered his face and cried loudly, "O my son! My son Absalom! Absalom, my son!"
Joab went to the king's house and said to him, "Today you have humiliated your men--the men who saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and of your wives and concubines. You oppose those who love you and support those who hate you! You have made it clear that your officers and men mean nothing to you. I can see that you would be quite happy if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go and reassure your men. I swear by the Lord's name that if you don't, not one of them will be with you by tomorrow morning. That would be the worst disaster you have suffered in all your life."
Actions have consequences. Collateral Damage, a military term for the unintended, but common, casualties which surround a military action, can also result from so-called private sins, including adultery.
I don't know how the future will treat Bill Clinton. Committing a sin, even one with consequences that are horrendous, does not automatically mean disgrace. Certainly David's accomplishments outlived his tragic ending, and the New Testament is very clear that the Messiah was both a physical and figurative descendant of David. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Joseph "was of the house and lineage of David."
The collateral damage of David's adulterous affair tore not only at the fabric of his family but also at the fabric of national life. Adultery in the highest office is not a private matter. President Clinton's statement that what happened is between himself, his wife and daughter and their God is personal is true, but only partly. Already we see the collateral damage, and the end is not in sight.
What about Chelsea's future? I remember watching an interview with one of Richard Nixon's daughters. She was talking about the decades since her father's resignation and how, even twenty years later, people would turn their backs on her and give her angry or pitying looks. Certainly all of us feel compassion for Chelsea, but such collateral damage makes me angry with Bill Clinton. This did not have to be.
Then there is Monica Lewinsky. Her face and her name are indelibly imprinted on our minds. What is to be her future?
What happens to the financial future of those who have spent thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers? Lorraine Voles, a former White House deputy press secretary, had to go before the grand jury. Her lawyer's fee was $3,000. President Clinton's secretary Betty Curie has an estimated legal bill in the six figures. Harold Ickes legal bill is estimated at $1.5 million. Monica Lewinsky may receive some small reimbursement from the Justice Department. Still, her personal bill is estimated to be over $1 million. Over 100 people have been called before the Grand Jury.
The collateral damage continues. There are reports of a deep sense of betrayal felt among some White House personnel, making conversations difficult and cautious. Then, given the hassle and the possible legal costs, are we going to have as large a pool to draw from for government service?
There is the collateral damage of making law out of issues which, I feel, were better left ambiguous-the battle over executive privilege, lawyer-client confidentiality and the Secret Service's testimony.
There is the collateral damage to the body public. What is all this doing to us as a nation? What does it mean to have reported that King Hussein of Jordan was kept waiting because the President was having "inappropriate relations" with Monica Lewinsky?
The affair certainly affected the bombing in the Sudan. We wanted to communicate a message to the government of Sudan that they should not be bombing American embassies. However, the immediate response of Sudanese TV commentators following the air strike was to tell their nation that the air strike was a diversionary tactic to take the Monica Lewinsky story out of the headlines? So much for teaching a lesson.
Then there are the children. Many children have learned at an early age about sex and adultery. Some parents use the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as a springboard for discussion with their children on morality, fidelity, and lying, while others fumble around for age-appropriate answers.
Let me take you back to Inauguration Eve 1993, Bill Clinton's
first inauguration. Barbara Streisand sang and was in top form
that night. She belted out a jazzy version of "God Bless
America" She then sang "Evergreen" and dedicated
it to Bill and Hillary Clinton sitting just a few rows up. Her
third musical selection, though, is stunning in light of what
has happened. It was Stephen Sondheim's haunting song, "Children
Will Listen." Streisand sang:
Careful of the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.
Children will look to you for which way to tu