About two decades ago or so I visited the country of Ghana, and while I was there I had the opportunity to talk with a taxi driver who was somewhat bitter about his experiences in the United States before being deported on drug offenses and returned to his home country. He seemed to think that America was a country of great moral corruption, which is certainly true, but he did not seem to be particularly sensitive to the reality of his own position that he was not in a position to judge the moral corruption of the United States as it related to drugs and sexuality given his own conduct. The other people in the taxi with me at the time were ministers in our church and graciously sought to bring the taxi driver to a self-awareness of the way in which his own lack of repentance about his own moral corruption made him unfit as a judge of the moral unfitness of a culture that includes a great many people who are likewise critical of the same aspects of corrupt culture that he found so reprehensible. A more nuanced and balanced view of American culture would recognize a morally corrupt culturally elite as well as a wide swath of moral corruption that was present within the lives even of those who had much to be critical about concerning that morally corrupt elite giving the nation as a whole a a bad reputation in more traditional societies.
It is a sad reality that moral reformers of one kind or another are not necessarily morally upright people themselves. We can preach a noble standard of behavior and we can speak out against the moral corruption that is all around us while at the same time not being very successful in the fight against the moral corruption that is inside of us. And the value of our preaching when we lack the example of righteousness and moral probity in our own lives is not very high, possibly even negative in value, because when it comes to preaching decency and morality our example is far more eloquent than anything we could actually say. It is thus not my intent today to talk about morality per se. To be sure, the subject I have in mind is filled to overloading with moral aspects and concerns, but my concern is more one of identification, allowing us to recognize the vulnerability of those people who find themselves caught between moral standards they wish to affirm and defend and their own distinct lack of personal as well as public morality, and their own unfitness as a result for the roles and offices they so assiduously seek.
For those who have not guessed, the subject of today’s reflection is that of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who was recently named in the divorce of a DC area doctor as the other woman in an affair her husband had. Omar herself has been married twice, once a marriage of convenience (allegedly to her brother) to allow her to enter the United States and once in a religious marriage to the father of her three children. She is a Somali immigrant who is an avowed feminist who represents a particularly liberal Minnesota district of the U.S. House of Representatives. She is also alleged to have given her paramour a considerable amount of money for travel and other expenses that may have been fraudulently given for personal travel expenses so that the two adulterers could travel together. Whether one looks at Rep. Omar’s politics or the shady aspects of her personal life, there is little in it that I can agree with or support, and I look forward to an investigation of all aspects of potential fraud in her behavior with all possible appropriate punishments and consequences to follow.
That said, despite my general lack of fondness for Omar as either a politician or as a person, there is one aspect of her life in which I have a fair bit of compassion, and that is her being caught between two worlds. There is no question that someone like Rep. Omar would have a much less pleasant life had she remained in Somalia. In fact, had she carried on the way she did, it is very likely that she would have met a very dark end as an open adulteress in a traditional society that does not look very highly on that sort of ungodly and antisocial behavior. It is also likely that if Rep. Omar ever returned to her home country that her conduct as well as her feminism would be fatal for her if someone decided to enforce sharia law on her. And yet as an American from a refugee population she surely wears her hijab as a way of affirming some sort of belief in traditional Muslim values that she views as being superior to the values of mainstream European Americans, even if her own life is not in accordance with such high-minded morality as she wishes to defend. And while it is easy to view her as being a hypocrite for her desire to affirm rules for others and not herself, such hypocrisy is extremely common and should provoke in us a sense of self-reflection, for it is all too easy for everyone to speak out against evils that they themselves practice but at the same time disapprove of.
But what is the alternative to such hypocrisy? If someone had the moral restraint to prevent themselves from falling into all of the evils that they are drawn to and attracted to, they would likely have enough restraint not to seek positions of power and authority where their own corruption is likely to discredit their philosophies and worldviews. If someone had moral probity, they would likely be sensitive enough to realize that we live in a day and age where only brambles seek to have authority over others. Likewise, the fervent desire to use one’s outsider status as a way of criticizing those who are inside does not mean that one does not share the sort of moral corruption that one wants to criticize from the outside. We can be so consumed by questions of identity that we forget the ways in which we may be very similar to those we condemn and may forget to take the time to make sure that we have a leg to stand on when we rise up against others. Far too often, the revelation of the sins of others ought to lead us to repent and turn away from our wicked ways, even as we are encouraged simply to be outraged by someone whose hypocrisy is merely a bit more flamboyantly obvious than the wicked norm.