Stunned, saddened, but not surprised. That's how many Illinois residents reacted to news that the FBI had arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich on December 9. Despite the state's pride in "Honest Abe," Illinois has earned a reputation for dishonest dealings. Chicago politics gave us "vote early, vote often" in 1960 when John F. Kennedy won the presidency with the help of a controversial, narrow victory in Illinois. George Ryan, the governor who preceded Blagojevich, is already in jail following a corruption scandal. It didn't surprise Illinois residents when Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, asked President Bush to pardon Ryan, a Republican. Partisanship takes a back seat in this state to the unseemly privileges of power.
Illinoisans in the theological blogosphere registered their stunned, saddened responses to the Blagojevich news. "The corruption in Chicago politics is staggering," Justin Taylor wrote at Between Two Worlds. "I'm grateful for [U.S. Attorney Patrick] Fitzgerald's labors, and pray that justice is done." Ed Gilbreath observed, "The astonishment and hyperbole that's been used to describe this latest scandal, from the mouths of federal investigators who have seen plenty of corruption, speaks to the tragic and unfathomable nature of these events." Scot McKnight asked, "How do people with this sort of character rise so high in our political system?"
The good people of Illinois aren't the only ones asking this question. New Yorkers learned in May that their governor, Eliot Spitzer, had solicited a prostitute. Spitzer, like the prosecutor who indicted Blagojevich, rose to prominence by taking on the rich and powerful. A onetime darling of the Democratic Party, Spitzer's downfall was swift. Down South, Alabama has seen two of its last four governors—Republican Guy Hunt and Democrat Don Siegelman—indicted. Then on December 1, the mayor of the state's largest city, Birmingham, was indicted on 101 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and other chicanery. The allegations extended back to Larry Langford's days as a Jefferson County commissioner. Federal investigators sniffed around Langford's involvement with a multibillion-dollar sewer bond deal that nearly caused the county to declare bankruptcy. Indeed, why do we hand such power to politicians lacking moral character?
A better question might be why we expect other politicians to clean up the messes. Our theological anthropology has apparently succumbed to promises of quick fixes. We want to believe there are some leaders who cannot be tempted by self-interest. So we vest them with increased authority to make things right. Only we do not recognize that it was unchecked power that got our leaders into trouble in the first place. We forget that Blagojevich won his first term as governor after promising to bring change and reform to the state capital.
Our gullibility betrays a lack of understanding about the Bible's teaching on sin. Sin does not discriminate. It does not target only the vulnerable, those unable to will themselves toward right living. Sin pervades everyone. The apostle Paul, citing Psalms 14 and 53, wrote, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10b-12).
Thankfully, Paul did not end his epistle there. His teaching on sin grows more personal as the letter progresses. "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Rom. 7:18-19). Finally, he exasperated: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24) Immediately he answered the question with exaltation: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:25a)
Jesus Christ is our first and only sure redeemer from sin, a lifeline who saves us from ourselves. Evangelism, then, is an essential and potent way of addressing our problem with sin. However, even this strategy may disappoint. People continue to sin after they've become disciples of Christ. Evangelism does not eliminate hypocrisy, but creates the possibility for it!
And the Fall's effects extend beyond individuals to the entire creation. The very social structures we inhabit have been corrupted. "The particular social situation in which we involuntarily find ourselves—including the political and economic system, our intellectual and family background, even the geographical location in which we were born—inevitably contributes to evil conditions and in some instances makes sin unavoidable," Millard Erickson writes in his Systematic Theology. "Sin is an element of the present social structure from which the individual cannot escape."
Some structures, such as Illinois state government, evidence more corruption than others. So they regularly churn out spectacular sins. Any successful effort to reform government, then, will account for both the individual and social effects of sin. These efforts will resist the temptation of seeing any particular leader as a messiah untarnished by sin. And they will recognize that concentrating power in the hands of any one leader will make him or her more vulnerable to sin.
So far, it appears that Illinois will not learn this lesson. Fellow politicians and media commentators have labeled Blagojevich "crazy," writing him off as a delusional oddity. Crazy he may be, but Blagojevich is no isolated case. As they say, original sin is the easiest doctrine to prove, because the empirical evidence is overwhelming.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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