Been scandalized much lately? Impropriety, misconduct, immoral behavior, unethical behavior, outrageous behavior – are there even any such things in our society anymore?
Not to beat a dead horse, but when Hannah Montana hits you upside the head with all the subtlety of a Wrecking Ball, you begin to wonder if previously scandalous behavior has become the new societal norm.
Scandal is defined as, “An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.” – but recently public outrage seems to be strangely lacking. Outrage? More like an indifferent apathy.
In a society which has lost all sense of propriety it’s pretty hard to feel outraged.
Propriety is defined as, “The state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.” Decorum, respectability, decency, courtesy, politeness, rectitude, morality, civility, modesty – again, are these concepts we are even familiar with anymore? The problem as I see it, is there can be no scandal, no outrage, in a society that doesn’t acknowledge, “accepted standards of behavior or morals.”
When there is no such thing as decency, there is no such thing as scandal. It’s as simple as that.
Political Scandal? Not so much since the Clinton era. I mean, really, where do you go from here?
Entertainment Scandal? Where would I even begin?
Financial Scandal? More like business as usual with all the government bailouts, golden parachutes, and businesses who are, “too large to fail.”
Literary Scandal? Hardly, Fifty Shades of Grey has topped bestseller lists around the world and has laughingly been described as, “Mommy porn” by the media.
Religious Scandal? Ahhh…now there’s an area where we can all still share a sense of moral outrage!
It’s odd to me that in a society as laissez faire and “anything goes” as ours is, that religious failings can still incite such public indignation. Awash in a sea of apathy towards all of the other shortcomings of our society, we nevertheless manage to summon our collective vitriol when it comes to the failings of religious institutions and people. We rage against abusive priests in the Catholic Church and shrug when it comes to abusive school teachers; all while statistics reveal that the problem in our schools is far more dramatic than the problems in our churches.
According to Dr. Philip Jenkins from Pennsylvania State University,”If anyone believes that priests offend at a higher rate than teachers or non-celibate clergy, then they should produce the evidence on which they are basing that conclusion. I know of none. Saying ‘everybody knows’ does not constitute scientific methodology.”1
In fact, only approximately 4% of all all active priests between 1950 and 2002 were even accused of abuse – a rate far lower than that of other males in the general population. As a comparison, a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report reported that “the most accurate data available” reveals that “nearly 9.6 percent of [public school] students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career.” This result prompted Hofstra University’s Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, the author of the study, to opine in 2006, “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” And when it comes to comparisons with the general adult male population in the US, it turns out that children who have anything to do with priests are somewhere between 2 and 4 times LESS likely to be abused by them than by anyone else. That’s something you don’t often hear.
Statistics aside, even one case of legitimate abuse is one case too many. And we should all be morally outraged. Religious abuse is a scandal in the truest sense of the word.
A Double Standard
But it still doesn’t change the fact that there is a double standard at play. And it’s not just the clergy and religious institutions that bear the brunt of our displeasure. We don’t waste our time judging politicians or celebrities – but our neighbors? There’s some real scandal!
“Can you believe that so and so calls themselves a Christian and…”
- Wears that skirt?! (or bikini, or t-shirt, or whatever)
- Lives in that large a house?! (or drives that sort of car, or vacations in those types of places)
- Listens to secular music?!
- Uses that sort of language?!
- Hangs out with those sort of people?!
- Watches R-rated movies?!
- Smokes or drinks or eats fatty food?!
Let me just say it for all of us, “Scandalous!”
And meanwhile the rest of society gets a free pass while we crucify our clergy, family, and friends. Yay us.
A Stumbling Block
Having said that, I also get it. There’s really no point in trying to tell a non-Christian culture how to behave. There’s really no point in trying to argue ethics with people who believe that all morality is relative. And as Christians, we should be held to a higher standard.
We can trace the root of the word scandal clear back to the Middle English in the sense of a “discredit to religion by the reprehensible behavior of a religious person.” In the ecclesiastical Latin scandalum meant a “cause of offense,” and before that in the Greek skandalon was a “snare or stumbling block.” Starting to sound familiar?
“Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”2
St. Paul recognized that eating meat offered to idols wasn’t an issue. But he also recognized that if eating that meat caused a problem for someone with a weak conscience, then he was sinning against Christ. Yikes!
Is cussing wrong? If it offends my brother it is. Is watching a particular movie or TV show a problem? If there is someone there who would be offended it is. We are called to Christian charity.
But, when we look at the other end of the spectrum we see other Christians who are all too willing to use their “sensitivity” or “weakness” as an excuse to judge their brothers and sisters who do enjoy greater freedom of conscience. Luckily St. Paul has something to say to them as well.
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So each of us shall give account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”3
In other words we ought to avoid giving cause for scandal, but we also ought to avoid judging those who we consider to be scandalous.
The Right Sort of Scandal
I know, avoiding scandal (or the urge to tell other people that they are being scandalous) doesn’t sound like much fun. In fact, it sounds kind of boring. But, take heart! Scripture actually encourages the promotion of scandal in certain cases! “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block (scandal) to Jews and folly to Gentiles,”4 It turns out that the very gospel message is a scandal to the rest of the world!
“Love your enemies? Scandalous!”
“Give away all that you possess? Ludicrous!”
But it’s not just the world who finds Christ so scandalous. It’s also us religious folk, “I mean he hangs out with whores and ‘gasp!’ bureaucrats!”
Listen, I get it. I myself am often not afraid to throw a few stones before retreating to the safety of my glass house. I was thoroughly nonplussed with Cardinal Dolan’s decision to act as grand marshall of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade despite its decision to allow an openly homosexual organization to promote itself in the parade. I felt that his decision brought scandal to the Church, especially since the LGBT group will be the only group allowed to participate under their own banner while promoting an agenda having nothing to do with Irish heritage. As an example, pro-life groups will not be allowed to march under a pro-life banner.
I struggle with this. To me this isn’t the sort of “good scandal” that we need to be causing as followers of Christ. But…again, I’m forced to consider the sort of folks Christ hung out with, and the sort of reactions he received from the religious people of his time.
Ultimately, Bishop Dolan will have to give an account of himself to God – not to us.5 Ultimately, we will all have to stand before God – not before each other. Ultimately the Gospel should cause scandal – it is a stumbling block and folly.
And, it is the very power of Christ at work in the world.
God became human and walked among us?!
He loves us even though we are sinners?!
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