It is vital that all of us, whether or not we hold positions of leadership, are held accountable for personal transgressions. Accountability becomes even more important when those who wield authority – politicians, clergy, business leaders and others – abuse that authority for personal gain. In the language of the church, we are talking about matters of sin. All of us, at various levels, fall short.
A century ago, Walter Rauschenbusch, talking about the Social Gospel movement that remains an important source of inspiration in the theological life of the church today (using the language of the time that was non-inclusive) noted that sin is not just about mistakes made by individuals but also about mistakes made by societies and governments that harm the common good:
Still today, we pay far too much attention to personal sin – often times matters that should remain private and within the confines of family conversations with clergy and perhaps therapists. This is not an effort on my part to excuse bad behavior. Sometimes such behavior crosses such a threshold that it remains impossible for people in positions of authority to maintain their positions because for their personal gain they have used their positions to further relationships or financial dealings, or engage in abuse, that is unethical and raise questions about overall judgment. We have seen this from certain Wall Street bankers, clergy pedophiles, and politicians like Bob Packwood and others.
As a society, however, we fall short in recognizing societal sin and the role we all play in that. Which is the worse sin: the politician who engages in an affair with another consenting adult or the politician who votes to cut food assistance to children or prenatal care for pregnant women (or the public that re-elects that politician)? If a politician misuses their office for personal gain perhaps they deserve the 24/7 news cycle that inevitably follows. In a more moral society, however, that same news attention – that same sense of scandal – should follow those political, business and religious leaders who participate in or advocate for sinful economic systems that create poverty, climate change, war and other forms of human suffering.
Recognizing that, in theological terms, we all sin, perhaps in addition to holding our leaders accountable when they fail we should throw fewer stones and find ways to offer compassion (hard as that might be) even as we take steps to restore the public trust when it becomes broken. There is too much glee in throwing people in with the lions when all of us, and I include myself, fail to measure up to the covenantal responsibilities put before us to make the world a better and more just place.