I’ve read the words “credibility” and “character” more in the past two weeks than in the last two years. The underlying question—whom can we trust?—sits at the heart of our (un)civil discourse and seems to be the salient concern behind the Kavanaugh-Ford conversation. Both my newsfeed and personal inbox have been flooded with heartbreaking stories from people who’ve experienced assault (and therefore believe Christine Blasey Ford), as well as testimonies from those who personally worked with Judge Brett Kavanaugh (and therefore believe him). The court of public opinion has issued similar verdicts. The words “liar,” “saint,” and “smear campaign” are leveled with conviction and indignation against both. People may be sharply divided in their conclusions, but they seem to agree on one thing: There’s a guilty party and an innocent one, and it’s obvious which one is which.
As Christians, we affirm that character matters, and the way we handle accusations matters, too. But our attempts to find people above approach don’t negate the fact that we are, as theologian Francis Schaeffer put it, “glorious ruins.” Humans are capable of both egregious sin and tremendous good, and when our political discourse leads us to vilify or canonize people, we’ve overlooked or overemphasized either one or the other—sin or goodness. If we find ourselves continually drawing fixed conclusions along partisan lines, it suggests that our red-tinted or blue-tinted spectacles are preventing us from thinking deeply and biblically about the human condition.
The Kavanaugh-Ford conversation strikes at the center of my work in the areas of law, pastoral ministry, and advocacy against sexual violence. As a lawyer, I’m concerned about the way in which we approach evidence (both testimonial and circumstantial). But as a Christian, I’m particularly concerned about the way we talk about sin and how we weigh evidence of both good and evil in a person’s story. I see a real danger in taking a binary view of sinfulness: We are not “all good” or “all bad” all the time. We are neither sinners nor saints in discrete categories. Rather, the Bible tells us we are both.
Scripture is replete with examples of faith lived out by fallen, fallible people. The apostle Paul called himself “chief of sinners” and was a ringleader for those who persecuted Christians (1 Tim. 1:15, Acts 7:54–8:2), but he is also the one who enjoins us to follow his example as he follows Christ’s (1 Cor. 11:1). Peter may have been the “rock on whom Jesus would build his church” (Matt. 16:18), and yet his failings are well documented: Early on, he denied Jesus, and years later, he was called to the proverbial carpet for pastoral and theological errors (Gal. 2:11–14).
The example that comes to mind most of late is that of King David, described by Scripture as a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). In David, we find someone who faced onslaughts of false accusations and pled his righteousness before God (Ps. 109). 1 Samuel 24 tells of a particular instance when David had an opportunity to avenge himself against Saul but refrained. His fear of the Lord worked itself out in tremendous character: “I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed” (v. 10). In a showdown of damning accusations with witnesses from both sides, Saul finally acknowledged David’s innocence in the matter, and David was later appointed as king.
However, this same David was also the one who forcefully took Bathsheba into his bed and had her husband, Uriah, murdered in the cover-up (2 Sam. 11). Had Bathsheba or Uriah been able to stand up and say, “King David did this to me,” there would have been an army of people willing to leap to David’s defense, touting his trustworthiness as a friend, his humility in service, and his integrity and courage in battle. Every one of those witness testimonies would have been true, and yet he also did what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah and then lied to cover it up. He was God’s chosen king for Israel and also a sinner to the core (Ps. 51).
The implications of this are unnerving. As I read accounts of human sex trafficking, what frightens me most is that the clientele bankrolling the industry are, in large degree, “otherwise ordinary men.” They’re our doctors, coworkers, pastors, and spouses. It’s terrifying to think that respectable, safe-looking people all around us have the capacity to sin so deeply. It’s even more terrifying to ponder the great lengths they will take to suppress testimonies that might expose their evil. As a woman in this world and now as a parent, I would love to believe that I can “tell a sexual predator by looking at them,” but in truth, the only sure way I can tell a sinner is by looking in the mirror.
Here again, the point is not that we ought to let character slide in our assessment of leaders. The point is that we cannot definitively assess a person’s trustworthiness and furthermore, that we have to be willing to see sin in ourselves first before we see it in others.
I hope that when I die, there will be many people who can speak of my character, my contribution to society, and how I was both faithful and fruitful in my life. But there will also be people whom I hurt deeply and whose lives have been fractured by my words and actions over the years. Both of these things are true: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18–19). Scripture teaches us to acknowledge the depth of our capacity for sin, but it also encourages us to leave room for reconciliation, forgiveness, and growth in ourselves and in one another.
This same tension applies to our discernment of leaders and public figures. As believers who acknowledge both sin and grace, we should be cautious of pronouncing absolute judgment on the sinners and saints around us or joining a shouting throng who wish to believe and justify (or disbelieve and discredit) people in the public square. We all have told both truth and lies for which there are consequences, and God—not the crowd—knows which is which.
Guilt and innocence are not determined by the force of a group’s convictions. After all, we serve a Savior who was innocent of every sin, and yet a crowd rallied for his death: “He’s a liar! He’s a criminal! Crucify him!” Accordingly, I am reminded to be aware of my own checkered history, to do due diligence in weighing what I hear about others, and to be slow to shout with the crowds.
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