3.6
March 4, 2011

Anti-gay Christian Pastor Caught Masturbating While Watching Kids on a Playground

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. –Romans 7:15, 18b-19

I hear people use the word “hypocrite” a lot, and I fear that most of the time it’s a pretty blunt instrument. And the more promiscuously we fling around a loaded term like that, the blunter it becomes.

The word is actually derived from the Greek word for a stage actor, and refers to “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”[i]

By this definition, Moliére’s Tartuffe, who feigns religious ardor for the sake of social advancement while actually being a libertine, is a classic example of a hypocrite.

And few will dispute that when Newt Gingrich was spearheading the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair while he was actually having an extra-marital affair himself at the time, it was breathtaking hypocrisy.

And when John Edwards, champion of the working class, was allowing his marriage to be held up as a model of traditional family values at work–and to be contrasted with the rocky matrimonial histories of prominent Republicans–while hiding his pregnant mistress in expensive hotels, it was surely the most vile hypocrisy.

But the soul, as one of the Desert Fathers said, is a vast country, and I wonder if things mightn’t be more complicated than that sometimes.  Maybe the name of “hypocrite” cannot be bestowed on everyone who acts in a manner contrary to their professed beliefs because, despite what their actions imply, they actually and sincerely believe what they profess.

If anti-gay Christian pastor Grant Storms was really masturbating in his truck while watching children play in the park, that is pretty hideous; I think we can all agree on that. And although there is no link whatever between pedophilia and homosexuality, it’s clear, even if we assume that anybody has any business criticizing other people’s sexual behavior, that the gay-bashing Storms doesn’t. But I’m not sure he really deserves to be called “hypocrite,” as many have been quick to do.

I suspect that Storms, George Reekers, and other religious leaders who have been caught up in sex scandals genuinely believed what they taught, and failed, despite enormous effort on their part, to live up to their own sincerely held standards. Rather than hypocrites, I see them as tortured souls­–people at war with themselves, who try and try to do what they believe is right, and cannot.  They continue to act as they do publicly because they believe their outward actions are good in spite of their inward dispositions, and they make war on their own desires by attacking them–or something they perceive as similar to them–in others. Paul gives these self-alienated people a voice in his moving letter to the Christians in Rome:

I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[ii]

We “mindful” people like to go around preaching self-compassion and reminding everybody that what we resist persists, but when someone who has been loudly professing beliefs we don’t like is caught out in behavior that contradicts their message, does it occur to us that they, too, may have been futilely resisting desires that, despite their best effort, persisted?  Or do we immediately brand them as hypocrites?

When I think of my own daily failures to live up to my standards, my never-ending inability to put my deeply held beliefs into consistent practice, and multiply that frustration by the magnitude of the moral failures of these justly pilloried leaders–my God, the pain, the despair these people must live with! To call them mere hypocrites—liars who never believed what they said they did–is to rob them of the dignity of a struggle that must have given them titanic anguish every single day of their haunted lives.

Yes, there are actual sexual predators who use religious authority as a blind, and they are truly hypocrites and worse. But as sordid as it may be to acknowledge it, even if Storms was jerking off while looking at kids, he wasn’t luring them into his truck. Jesus said that whoever looks with lust has already sinned in the heart,[iii] but for temporal purposes, public indecency is a lesser charge than child molesting, which is as it should be. Other religious leaders—and atheists, too–have resisted temptation less effectively than Storms.

This is why the church traditionally distinguishes between the “remission” and the “forgiveness” of sins. The latter means canceling out the guilt of sinful actions, while the former means abrogating the penalties that attend them. After a condemned criminal confesses and receives absolution, he still goes to his execution. The fact that we are forgiven doesn’t mean we don’t pay the price for our crimes. But it does mean that we need not be alienated any more, as Sri Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me, rightly resolved, in utter devotion.  I see no sinner, that man is holy. Holiness soon shall refashion his nature to peace eternal.  O son of Kunti, of this be certain: the man who loves me shall not perish.[iv].

Of course, even if we believe that, forgiveness still comes hard to us mortals.  “It’s very hard to feel forgiveness to people like this,” said a friend of mine about Storms, ”that claim to be leaders because of God, publicly shame others and then turn out to be hypocritical and beg for forgiveness. People have this expectation of instant forgiveness that I just can’t give. Prove first that you have changed.”

Fair enough; I wouldn’t ask anybody to forgive someone to whose actions they cannot be reconciled. But in a way, demanding proof that someone has changed before we forgive them is like not letting them into the gym until they have lost some weight. Making forgiveness contingent on demonstrable goodness will only discourage struggling souls from confessing their wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness. “If you tarry till you’re better,” says the old hymn, “you will never come at all.”

Justice will be done; the seeds of karma will sprout when the right conditions arise.  “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” said God to Moses, “and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”[v] We don’t forgive people like Storms to spare them the consequences of their actions, or because our forgiveness has any effect on the state of their souls. We do it, in the end, for ourselves. If I harden my heart, then I become hard-hearted, and a hard heart is a terrible burden to carry around.  And if I sow hard-heartedness, what will I reap when I, having willed what is right with all my power, fail in spite of myself to do it?


[i] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hypocrite

[ii] Romans 7:21-24

[iii] Matthew 5:28

[iv] Bhagavad Gita 9:30-31

[v] Exodus 33:19

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