Petraeus, Sex, and Sin as a Spectator Sport
Photo credit: 2009 Jon-Phillip Sheridan/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
The extramarital affair of former CIA Director General David Petraeus is making headlines across the nation as you already knew. Some reports are examining what the development suggests about our government’s intelligence apparatus, but most of the coverage spends its time zeroing in on the salacious details. Perhaps it has always been true, that public intrigue follows personal stories of drama and decline. What I find unique about this moment in history is our nation’s unquenchable appetite for human weakness coupled with distribution geared to maximize consumption. This is an age of sensationalism on demand, where vice is a commodity and the line between news and entertainment disappears before our eyes. Not unlike pornography and the more mean-spirited forms of reality TV, we can sit down to watch national scandals unfold, and fail to realize the harm that our participation does to the players and the audience. By using stories like the Petraeus affair as an occasion to gawk or denigrate those involved, Christians risk elevating the significance of misdirected sexuality while downplaying other sins closer to home.
The church is known for handling the topic of sex with the finesse of a wrecking ball, laying waste to everything outside of the box labeled ‘marriage.’ By applying a pass or fail mentality to matters of human sexuality, messages coming from the pulpit and the congregation appear antiquated to the culture. Sexuality is complicated. It is one of our more vulnerable gifts- shaped and informed by past mistakes, quiet longings, recollections of rejection and affirmation, and the very human need to be noticed and desired. The correct response is not sexual anarchy or an abandonment of Biblical scholarship, but a frequent renewal as Christians to navigate our own sexuality with humility and a sincere effort in purity whether single, married or divorced, along with an invitation welcoming the broader culture into a discussion about human sexuality, by a church body agreeing to wear a thicker skin.
The wonderful Christian thinker Dorothy Sayers once wrote “a man may be greedy and selfish; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct- and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.” There is a Biblical framework for sex to be shared and enjoyed, but there exists no proper context for other sins such as greed, arrogance, or selfish pride. Why is it that Christians are at times apathetic towards what we consider to be garden-variety sins, and yet appalled by misdirected sexuality on a personal and national level? Perhaps a cultural focus on celebrity and upward mobility conditioned us to equate the “whatever it takes” mindset of unbridled ambition with charisma and personal strength. It is true that a roaming sex life has the potential to destroy a life or a home, but the same is also true of greed, arrogance, and selfish pride.
Why are we in the church fascinated by the carnal mistakes of other people? My concern is that too often, we end up living vicariously through the details of events like the Petraeus matter and then find some level of satisfaction in passing judgment on those involved. It is understood that emptiness, hopelessness, and restlessness can lead a person into sexual infidelity, and this makes for easy finger wagging. What is rarely explored but important to consider is that we fear sexual promiscuity, not because of its faults but because of its thrills, short-lived as they are. It is possible to adopt condemnation towards the mistakes of others as a way to disguise jealousy and the fragility of our own spiritual and moral convictions, and in doing so, be driven by the very discontent driving sexual affairs. Sayers put it this way: “covetousness breaks down the standards by which we access our spiritual values and causes us to look for satisfactions in this world.”
It is important to think about sin beyond the word itself, for it is so overused and misapplied as to be occasionally meaningless and frequently counterproductive. Sin is not so much about right or wrong as it is about freedom or slavery; life reminds us how easy it is to be consumed by errant desires. The forgiveness of sins is not extended so that mankind can become moral, it is extended so that mankind can enter into a union with God. We then attempt to live more purely not to be an impressive citizen, but to surrender ourselves to God, that we might notice and have the courage to respond to the prompting of God’s spirit in us, and live out a faith expressed in love. This is true freedom.
Perhaps this is why Jesus chose not to shame the woman at the well over her indiscretions (ranging from multiple past husbands to a live-in lover), and did not propose an improvement in moral performance as the key to a new life. Observing moral law was the Pharisee’s oppressive gig, and Jesus gave them an earful about it. Christ knew that sin management, when left to mankind, was impossible, beside the point, and a total dead end. No, Jesus instead told the woman that he was the solution. The same is true for the rest of us. For those who seek to grow with God, and engage a new life of freedom over slavery, my hope is that we increasingly treat scandal in our community and the headlines not as an opportunity to suggest our superiority, but rather to say “we understand.” For we too know temptation, we also fall short, with desires and longings that we have chased down the wrong path at times. That is why we rejoice in a God who restores us, rebuilds us, and loves all people vigorously. The Gospel is, after all, good news. May we remember.