It is with great pain and sadness that I write this. One should never celebrate the fall of another.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that there is nothing we despise in another that is entirely absent from ourselves. Charlie Peacock, the great singer/songwriter/pianist and conscience of contemporary Christian music put it this way: "There's no insult like the truth." Nothing gets to us, bringing out the worst in us, like the private truths we don't often admit even to ourselves. When these truths are exposed, accusations of hypocrisy abound. All of our moral arrogance, our posturing, our blustering, our superiority; they all look hollow.
Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of the evangelical mega-church New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a man who has led the charge against gay marriage in Colorado, has resigned his leadership positions after having been caught in a gay sex scandal.
When I first saw this, I quickly vowed not to write about it. Lord knows that as the dust clears more than enough will have been said about this unfortunate event. Rev. Haggard will rightly be raked against the coals for the most shameless hypocrisy, denying gays full inclusion not only in the body of Christ but also in the wider culture, attacking the morality of consensual, monogamous, committed homosexual relationships while paying another man for illicit sex. Stories will focus on sex, religion, politics, and the incestuous relationships between the three.
For sheer titillation, nothing beats a political sex scandal, unless it also involves a religious leader. And if the sex scandal includes hidden homosexual tendencies, male prostitution, and a blustery, holier-than-thou religious leader caught doing something far worse - by any standard - than the behavior which he has publicly condemned... Well, you're looking at the perfect media storm.
So why should I waste my precious time - far more precious now that most of it is spent punched in to a time clock - writing about a story that is bound to get overblown in the media and blogosphere? Because there is an important angle which may not get explored, and because, while activists on the left and right scream at each other about who's to blame here, someone needs to approach this tenderly, pastorally.
Despite his untenable religious and political position, despite his blatant hypocrisy, I can empathize with Ted Haggard. That is not to say that I can condone his actions, or the distance between his hidden sex life and his public proclamations. But I can certainly empathize with someone who wrestles against their own nature, keeping a shameful secret hidden even from themselves.
Rev. Haggard's public position on homosexuality is a product of his cultural and religious environment. But it is also, perhaps, a product of a deep-seated self loathing. You don't just wake up one morning and think: What the hell, I'll pay another man for sex today. That's not a desire that just comes out of nowhere. He must have wrestled with his natural sexual appetite for some time before he reached the point where he was so desperate that he chose to hire a male prostitute from an escort service.
Now, if the story is accurate, Rev. Haggard has been seeing the same prostitute almost every month for three years, all while making his most public attacks on uncloseted gays seeking to live normal lives with public relationships. Could it be that the two are related? Could it be that, in attacking gay marriage Haggard is really attacking the part of himself that he can't own up to, that he can't stand, that he must keep hidden at all costs? Could his public battle really be a private one, seeking to distance himself as far as possible from his own sexuality?
If so, I think that this is much more complicated than brazen hypocrisy, but no less tragic. I can, after all, relate to someone who wages a public battle against their private demons, all while trying to keep those demons private. I have written a great deal here an elsewhere about violence and anger, identifying peace as one of the goals of the religious life. I have condemned acts of violence done in the name of God, or of church, or of state. Yet, privately, I must admit, I am a violent person.
This must come as some surprise to people who have seen my public face. That face is so unflappable that I have been asked if anything at all bothers me. My wife knows better. She knows that privately I am a perfectionist who falls apart whenever anything goes wrong. And, when I fall apart, I really fall apart. My quite, serene public persona masks a blustery temper, prone to fits of hysterical screaming and the most belittling insults.
I know, then, what it's like to wage war against a part of myself, and to take that war public while trying to keep the sin private. I can't condemn anyone for that. The problem here, however, is that Rev. Haggard has identified the wrong enemy. Publicly and privately he's been fighting the wrong fight. While attacking the phenomenon of same-sex attraction in part because he hated it in himself, he could have spent his time wrestling with, say, economic injustice, prejudice, violence, oppression, or any other actual evil. Instead, he's hated himself and so many other people simply because he was fooled by a culture and a religion which forgot that while Jesus talked a great deal about money and how we should use it, he never once mentioned homosexuality.
Clearly Ted Haggard has a great deal of ability and a great deal of charisma. He rose to the top of one of the world's most challenging professions. I hope, as he stares at the ashes of his once brilliant career, he can find it in himself to accept himself as he is, to work toward healing, and then to use his natural abilities to build up love in our culture and the body of Christ. His career as a homophobic evangelical leader is certainly over, but his life doesn't have to be.
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