This morning, I received a message from a European friend of mine who relayed an update on a story I have written about concerning accusations of child abuse against one of the Netherlands’ most powerful political figures. As it happens, this man, and associates of his, have been called in to a judicial process as witnesses to answer the accusations of an accuser . While all of this is going on, the saga of the former Subway guy continues with audiotapes supposedly from conversations where horrifying conduct is being discussed. Naturally, these are to be released on television on a talk show for two straight nights in hope of large audiences. We live in a world where great wickedness in places of cultural or political importance is expected, and where it receives a great deal of attention. This is not a new phenomenon, either that people who are guilty of great wickedness seek or obtain positions of great authority and influence, or that people rejoice in seeing those who are high and mighty exposed and taken down. Both aspects of this phenomenon of the public version of the walk of shame are sufficiently common that they seldom attract deeper notice or commentary.
Be that as it may, it is worth examining this phenomenon, for both sides of it represent a serious difficulty to coming to terms with our human nature as well as our place as beings simultaneously sanctified and sinners, at least if we are believers, and simultaneously children of the Most High as well as defendants standing at the bar facing His justice, and hoping for His mercy. Powerful and influential people find it easy to minimize their sins by pointing to the great work that they are about that makes their private and immoral monkey business unimportant. On the other hand, when people are exposed for their wickedness, it is simultaneously easy for others to disregard any good such people have done in the past, are doing in the present, or may do in the future because of the horror and notoriety of their sins. Those who wish to vainly wash away the stains on their hands may point to the ways that others have sinned against them in the past, while those who wish to pin an identity of a sinner permanently on someone will be quick to point out the innocent victims of their sins as a way of increasing the condemnation against the one who has been exposed.
Yet both of these types of behaviors are improper in that they serve to oversimplify and distort people and make them less fully human and less responsible. Part of the way we come to terms with our own complexity as beings is by recognizing the complexity of others, in remembering that neither their good deeds nor their evil deeds are without importance, and that even where we are forgiven of our evil, its repercussions cycle through the generations and cause burdens for other people to deal with. To the extent that we are able to honestly and courageously face the warped and complicated nature of our background and our context and to live as decently and graciously as possible, the better we are able to help create and shape a better world for others out of both our public and our private deeds, our personal and our social morality. None of those aspects are trivial, and none of them are unimportant. We cannot appeal to our private morality to overturn wickedness in our behavior with others in the offices we may hold, nor can we wipe away the stain of our personal lives by appealing to our sterling public record. The sins we commit do not in any way mitigate the guilt others have for sinning against us, nor are we justified in sinning against others because others have first sinned against us. We are responsible for all that we say and do, and so is everyone else.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a person of graciousness and honor is giving honor and respect and concern for those who have shown no respect to others without in any way minimizing or trivializing their wickedness. In order to accomplish this task we need to understand that people have many facets or layers about them that are simultaneously true without canceling out the truth in other layers or facets of their lives. When we treat people as means to an end, we fail to recognize that as children of the Most High they too are royalty and worthy of being treated accordingly. But when we fail to see even wicked sinners as being God’s children, we do unto them what they did unto others, and so overstep the boundaries of appropriate treatment of God’s children. It may be necessary to inflict discipline or punishment on the wicked deeds of others, once those deeds have been proven and not merely taken on account of prejudice or suspicion. However, even the worst of sinners is still a son or daughter of our Heavenly Father, our wayward brother or sister, who may be punished with regret, but who has not forfeited the honor due to their position as a child of God simply because they have abused the life and the opportunities that they have been given.
Let us not pretend that this is an easy task. It may be among the most difficult tasks for people to accomplish, to see people in at least some measure of their complexity, to honor them for their identity as God’s children and treat their wickedness with justice because it was done against other children of God, and to recognize that no matter how great their wickedness, so long as they repent and turn to God there is the opportunity for restoration, even if the repercussions of the sins will not go away for all of that. Yet there is at least one reason above all why it is worthwhile for us to do this task, even though it is difficult, and even though we tend to feel greatly ambivalent when viewing people in the sort of complexity in which they exist. That reason is two-fold. For one, the only way that people will be able to do justice to us is by viewing us in all of our complexity and not simplifying us or distorting who we are because of their own prejudices and suppositions and biases. If we wish for justice from others we must be willing to give it to others, even those people who hurt us and who treat us unjustly. And the way we view others is the way that God promises to treat us (see, for example, the first few verses of Matthew 7, or the last dozen or so verses of Matthew 25). Let us act in such a way that God may be merciful to us, which requires us to be merciful to others, even those who do not deserve it. After all, in the end, none of us deserve mercy, otherwise it would not be mercy in the first place.
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