We’ve all seen it coming over the past week, and we’ve all heard far more about it than we ever wanted to, but news of Congressman Weiner’s resignation over perverted behavior on the internet does open up a couple of interesting biblical-ethical points.
First, therapy as penance.
A week or two before he resigned, Rep. Weiner said he was sorry for what he did, but he wouldn’t resign. He would, however, get treatment for his problem with online lewdness. He may not have intended this, but it sounded like he saw psychotherapy as a form of penance or, more likely, a substitute for penance. I’ve heard it used that way in other cases, including several in which ministers were caught in sin. They’ll step down, or at least get benched for a while, get some counseling, and be good to go before too long. I believe in counseling and psychotherapy (and am nationally certified as a clinical mental health counselor myself), but they’re not a form of penance. A therapist can help someone sort out his behavior, come to a point of real repentance, and decide what to do about it. But submitting to treatment in itself isn’t an act of teshuvah (return or repentance).
This is important from two standpoints.
- The perpetrator shouldn’t be able to say, or think, “Hey, I got treatment for this behavior; what more do you want out of me?” Treatment can be helpful and appropriate, but it isn’t in itself teshuvah and shouldn’t be used to avoid it. Teshuvah requires concrete, objective, and usually costly change of behavior.
- Therapy is already stigmatized enough and shouldn’t have the extra stigma of being something only for the guilty. Some guilty persons need therapy, but so do lots of innocent persons (to the extent that anyone is innocent in this fallen world). When we think of therapy as penance, we make it less accessible for many people who would benefit from it.
My other biblical-ethical point has to do with public vs. private behavior.
Earlier on Rep. Weiner had a few defenders, not that anyone defended his behavior, but some defended his initial decision not to resign. Some raised the point that his private behavior shouldn’t be anyone’s business. One commentator said that Congress was wrong to impeach President Clinton for private behavior, especially because he was doing an effective job as president. Likewise, she said, Weiner is effective in his public service, so we shouldn’t concern ourselves with his private behavior. Biblically, though, I don’t see the public-private divide. Before David ever goes public, he is a man after God’s own heart in private (1 Sam. 13:14). Before a man is placed in public leadership in the congregation, he must prove himself through the private care of his own family (e.g. 1Tim 3:1–5).
Actually, I’m saying “public” and “private” here, but my point is that Scripture generally doesn’t support that distinction. Character is character and values are values in whatever realm. In my book Divine Reversal, I discuss public versus private (or personal) applications of Yeshua’s teaching on turning the other cheek (in a passage I cited not long ago in “Bin Laden and the 10 Plagues”).
Yeshua phrases his whole instruction in Matt. 5:38-42 in personal terms. In the plain sense he speaks of “you” being struck, being sued, being forced to go a mile. It is one thing for me to turn my other cheek to the one who struck me. It is another thing to figuratively turn someone else’s cheek by not resisting the evil perpetrated against them. It is one thing for me to relinquish my own demand for justice, quite another to demand that someone else give up his or her demand for justice. The individual believer may practice something that corporate groups cannot, or should not, practice, given the realities of evil in our world. . . .
At the same time, Yeshua’s teachings do have implications for public policy. Thus, he may not require his followers to be pacifists because national defense may be a grim necessity in this world. The Scriptures, however, teach regard for the enemy as created in the image of God, and Yeshua expands that teaching to mean love for the enemy. His followers, therefore, must be hesitant about the extremity of war, cautious about collateral damage and harm to innocent civilians among the enemy, opposed to torture and any maltreatment of prisoners, respectful of the image of God present even among those on the other side, and so on.
There’s not a sharp divide between public and private, but one public-private issue is relevant here. If someone uses public office, whether governmental or religious or anything else, as a platform for sin, the process of restoration becomes far longer and more rigorous. In other words, if a religious leader has an affair that’s a terrible thing, but if he uses his position and power to attract or entice a woman, that’s a multiple transgression. He can be forgiven and restored, but he might be disqualified from ever holding that office again. Here the public-private distinction makes sense. Someone can be restored as a private person, restored to God, to family, to friends and loved ones, long before he’s ready to be restored to public office. Some public figures should never be restored to office, and the true fruit of teshuvah will be that they’re willing to let it go to be right with God.