A Rock That Made No Ripple

One senator called this week’s proceedings against Brett Kavanaugh a “sham”. To me, it seemed more like a skit – a half-hearted effort to dramatize foregone conclusions. A man stands accused of a heinous and violent crime that – if the accusation is true – should end his career and destroy his reputation. His life is at stake, but he is only a prop on this stage, a man being reduced to a caricature.

The charge against him was odd from the start, launched at the perfect moment, ugly enough to command our attention, probably impossible to disprove. And odd in other ways.

A dramatic life event is like a rock thrown into the water. It produces ripples that spread far and remain long after the initial splash. From such a crisis as Dr. Ford describes, one expects ripples. Screams or torn clothing, bruises, concerned questions from friends or parents, diary entries, gossip, scandal, social realignments… something. But we hear of no ripples. Those called upon by the accuser to confirm her account know nothing of the event. The alleged attack is like a rock thrown into the water that somehow made no ripples, and perhaps not even a splash.

This does not disprove Dr. Ford’s account, but if there has been a conspiracy of silence to cover something up, that conspiracy was led by Dr. Ford.

And so, we are left to choose sides, unable to say anything for certain. And that, I think, was the purpose of the skit. To reduce the man to a caricature. To weaken what we know and strengthen what we are told to imagine, to dramatize foregone conclusions.

What I know, after all of this, is that Mr. Kavanaugh is trusted by the women and men who know him best. His reputation – before this week’s bizarre events – was good, both personally and professionally. Perhaps more to the point, he honors the Constitution, which he is both required to do by his office and hated for doing by those who staged this week’s skit. That hatred is the real story, and may God help us if it wins.

The Sins of the Strong

It’s a disturbing scene. Two people in a desperate struggle. The stronger one attacks, the other tries to resist. Terrible damage is done that always disfigures and sometimes destroys. This is what it means to accuse.
Our system and our nature put force in the hand of the accuser. We’ve been raised on tragic stories and it’s easy for us to believe them, easy to believe that anyone might be a secret villain. We root for the underdog, the small person exposing the sins of the strong. We root so hard, we don’t notice the tables turning.

In dark corners, it may be one person’s force against another. But in the bright light of public life – in courtrooms and newspapers, on social media and TV – force is multiplied. The accuser’s voice takes on the cumulative power of everyone he can influence, everyone whose sympathy he can win, everyone who likes him better than his adversary. The accuser may be small, but he is not the underdog. He swings a devastating club, and we – the cheering audience – are that club.

Add to that the fact that accused people do not rouse much sympathy. Even the suggestion of wrongdoing is enough to taint a reputation and when the accused deny their guilt, as the innocent must do, even this tends to make them look guilty.

It is a dangerous and miserable thing to be accused and that’s why the presumption of innocence is so important to a just society – to counter our natural presumption of guilt. It’s an old principle that can be traced from our laws through the English Common Law and ultimately back to the Bible, including passages written by Moses around 1400 BC. “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15. Cf. Matthew 18:16, John 7:51, John 8:17, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, Hebrews 10:28, Numbers 35:30)
The Biblical law is also concerned about the crime of false accusation. “The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar… then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party.” (Deuteronomy 18:19)

Credible accusations must be taken seriously – examined in search of corroborating evidence and prosecuted if such evidence is found. But some in our country, even some in the church, have called for a new standard in responding to accusations that cannot be proved. Some say that accusers should simply be “believed”, even in the absence of evidence, and those looking to discredit Mr. Kavanaugh are finding this a helpful and timely concept.

But it is not an American concept and certainly not a Christian concept. If people did not lie, we could believe the lone “witness” but then, if people did not lie, there would be no need for witnesses at all.

A Time to Not Know

Over 240 years, this nation has endured a lot. Wars, assassinations, terrorist attacks, storms, slavery, riots… a long and terrible list. And yet, though no one will die, I think this week deserves a place on that list. Something precious is dying.

I don’t know what Mr. Kavanaugh was doing 36 years ago and you don’t either. How could we? And yet we are called upon to know, to take sides, to strengthen this tornado of opinion that swirls around a vacuum of information.

And that is death, to choose without knowing, to choose anything above simple justice. There is a time to not know, a time to wait and listen, and this is such a time. Of course, we all have our instincts and intuition. I hope the story is not true. Perhaps you hope it is. But, if we are to share this nation, we must agree on this: Whoever has won our sympathy, we must give our loyalty to truth.

No man or woman is too high to answer for their offenses. No man or woman should be considered guilty just because they’ve been accused. That’s a fundamental idea of America, a nation established by “We the People… in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, [and] insure domestic Tranquility…” Without justice, there can be no union, no peace, no protection for any of us against those who would attack or accuse.

We need men and women of good character to serve as judges. If the accusation is shown to be truthful, I’ll be thankful to see Mr. Kavanaugh rejected. If not, I’ll hope that he and his family can somehow recover the innocence stolen from them. In either case, it’s clear that the confirmation process has been weaponized and manipulated to gain political power, and that’s an attack on all of us.

The Evolving Ethic of Jesus

The name of Jesus has power, though not always in the way I expect. Like salt, it adds season to whatever it’s sprinkled on; a spice of gravity and goodness that can apparently brighten almost anything.

I saw the spice of Jesus used the other day by a political figure. This “deeply religious person” declared the idea of closing abortion clinics to be not only “unconscionable” but “un-Christian”. Well, not to be tedious, but the actual Christ (you know – the one who claimed to be God) held a much different view of children and may be entitled to say what is “Christian”.

But it is the same in the church. We love the name of Jesus, though we find his words a bit awkward. We trimmed away a few unfashionable ideas, thinking it would be enough, but problems continue to arise, and so we keep trimming. Every year, what we used to call the “authority” of the Christian Bible grows smaller. Every year, the authority of culture grows larger. As a church, we are saying very different things than we used to say, but we still say them in Jesus’ name.

Another political figure is in the news, a fellow who – in this age of rancor – enjoyed a remarkably good reputation until suddenly he didn’t. A lone accuser rises. An ugly story is told. The pit of hell bursts open before us and at least one person will be thrown in. Perhaps an innocent woman has been injured. Perhaps an innocent man will be destroyed.

What do we say about this crisis, especially we “Christians” who sanctify our opinions by sprinkling over them the sacred name of Jesus? I disagreed with a Christian leader this week who publicly declared of the accused, with no evidence that the accusation was true, “his past is coming back to haunt him”. This statement faithfully reflects the fervor and impatience in our culture, but it does not reflect the Bible’s concern for justice and protection from false accusations*.

In a related conversation, a woman made this comment about sexual integrity at Christian writers’ conferences: “The code of conduct should apply to everyone – male and female… Don’t wear suggestive clothing!” While that’s a pretty standard expression of the Christian idea of modesty, this poor soul was confronted by 20 (presumably “Christian”) responses, most along the lines of this one: “Please tell me you’re kidding. What a sad, victim-shaming comment. Please rethink it.”

As a church, we’re saying very different things than we used to say, but we still say them in Jesus’ name, and that should be a little scary. The name of Jesus is not magic; it has power because it belongs to an immense person with clear ideas – ideas that do not evolve to accommodate culture.
By Jesus’ own account in Matthew 7, it is possible to honor – and even to do miracles – in his name while surrendering some of his ideas, but the story is not a happy one. In the end, calling on his name is not enough. Even miracles are not enough. Certainly, following the currents of culture is not enough. The ideas of Jesus matter after all and it is those who stubbornly hold to and follow them – those who “do the will of My Father in Heaven” – who survive his examination.

*(e.g., “A lone witness is not sufficient to establish wrongdoing.” Cf. Matthew 18:16, John 7:51, John 8:17, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, Hebrews 10:28, Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 19:15.)