There are two seemingly unrelated quotes that have come to my mind in recent days. They are worlds apart in their origins and history, yet both contain historic observations regarding good and evil, sin, judgment, and public exposure.
The first quote is from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is part of Mark Antony’s address when he came to bury Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The second is from John’s Gospel, and it concerns the woman caught in adultery: “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’” (John 8:6–7).
Julius Caesar had committed terrible crimes, made poor judgments, and grew powerful through sins of ambition that seemed to warrant death at the hands of Brutus. The adulterous woman also committed crimes against the law of Judaism at the time. She too, according to the Book, deserved to be killed brutally by stoning. In a theocracy, people took it upon themselves to render judgment and act upon it.
In our own time, people continue to take it upon themselves to render judgment and act upon their convictions. One of the more controversial actions of late has been to tear down any kind of apparent glorification of historic figures who appeared racist in their lifestyles and public agendas. Is it forgotten that time affects values, and that in our modern secular society values are relative, not absolute? What is considered a moral offense today, according to popular social standards, may not have been morally wrong at another time in our history, and vice versa. In our godless society we live with an ethos of moral relativism, and yet we seem to make our judgments about people based upon moral absolutes. Are we not contradicting ourselves?
In other words, the times seem to dictate what is right and what is wrong, and yet when statues are torn down and Thomas Jefferson is called a racist, we are making judgments and decisions according to some sort of absolute and timeless standard. That is de facto contradiction concretized. In this morally godless day and age, the “right thing to do” changes depending on historical circumstance. Yet this is not the Christian way to approach morality. The Jesus way does not change with the seasons of humanity and the politics of the time.
The Mount Rushmore Independence Day event this year revealed the harsh contrast between good men—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—who were at the root of our values, literally in the vanguard of creating the United States of America, and our perceptions of them today. The judgment has been made that these same men were and are evil, timelessly, because for one reason or another they held racist beliefs and did not treat people as if they were created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must disavow their greatness because of their sins, sins that are now, finally, acknowledged and recognized as such by the relative standards of our time. Here in 2020 does the insight of Mark Antony ring true once again: “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Who among those casting these stones is sinless? Each and every one of us can be negatively judged and is worthy of having our character defamed publicly for something we did in ignorance. Do we have a yearbook that sings our praises? Ah, but we know the sins of our youth. Have we gotten a pat on the back for a job well done? We should be honest; let us tell those who praise us that we are sinful and evil at heart. Who is without sin? At the same time, who is not also full of grace and goodness? We are all saints and sinners simultaneously. How can we possibly judge one another?
In our time it is fairly common that a celebrity or a well-known person making headlines is called out as a sinner, even though that word is not used. Often it happens when a woman reveals that she was abused by a popular personality, one who seemed beyond reproach and was riding high on his seemingly wonderful career, deep in the public eye, to be sure. His life comes crashing down, exposed by someone who finally, following the trend of the times, was willing to risk publicizing the ugly truth of what happened to her. Another sin is exposed, another life is wrecked. Justice has been done. The stones have been thrown.
If there is a pattern of abuse, then it is a criminal offense and needs to be addressed. Evil is writ large. That means it may and ought to become public knowledge. In this sense there are the Larry Nassars and the Harvey Weinsteins of this world who made a profession of sexual assault on women. Those and others like them are separate stories because they are deeply criminal and harmful to the moral standards and fabric of our society.
Then there are the sinners like you and me who have made lots of mistakes in the course of our lives. If we were Hollywood or TV personalities, in the eyes of today’s competitive and sensationalizing media we would be exposed publicly, resulting in a lifetime of shame, tossed on the junk heap of humanity. Many in this category have had their lives exposed to a greedy, scandal-hungry public because someone decided to cast the first stone.
My contention is that calling out the sinner is wrong. Too many people are too anxious and willing to expose the sins of good people who have made terrible mistakes. When done in a sensationalistic way, it is selfish, thoughtless, and in keeping with the “me first” attitude of our time. “Me first” is not an evangelical attitude. It has nothing to do with the Gospels. If the judgment and exposure of someone’s private life does not have a worthy aim, we might ask the question of who is really evil: the judge or the judged.
I take a risk by talking this way because it is unpopular to take the side of the sinner or the apparent sinner. However, I am not condoning the sin nor siding with the sinner. I am challenging those who are the first to cast stones. In conscience, how is it justified? On the grounds of ridding the world of evil and sin? A specious argument, to be sure. Nor is it always the intention of the victim to rid the world of another evil person. It may instead by motivated by a desire for revenge.
Of course, there are other reasons for testifying to an evil perpetrated against another. It may be an attempt to heal wounds, to find relief from a gnawing memory of injustice, physical and mental harm, and continuing anguish. It is good to find relief and the feeling of peace. But there is that primal impulse within us for revenge, a vengeance bred of hatred and not the desire for truth and justice. Then it is primitive and barbaric to stone the sinner in the square of public opinion. That is exactly what is happening when the news media report the crimes of celebrities—or anyone, for that matter. These reports may be clad in jacket and tie or a stylish dress, but take away the trappings of modernity and beneath is pure, unadulterated barbarism, the worst of our human nature coming to the fore.
“May you burn in hell.” That is vengeance. Yet we hear it, most likely in other words, whenever the perpetrator of a sin is convicted and supposed justice has been done. Is that what we are all about in our day and age? And even at those times God is invoked, as if God would have wanted that kind of retribution. That is evil. God does not want the death of the sinner nor the stirrings of human hatred. “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. Regardless of the time or the season, there must always be room for repentance and openness to grace, for rooting out the desire for revenge and cultivating in its place a desire for forgiveness.
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.