Once I was a thief… for about 6 times each week onstage.
A few years ago, I played Jean Valjean in a production of the musical Les Misérables. It was a life-changing experience, and a story that continues to teach me. I used it for so many sermon illustrations, my poor congregation at the time knows the show by heart.
As a newly-released convict, Valjean robs a Bishop who had shown him kindness. When Valjean is apprehended and thrown at the Bishop’s feet holding the loot, the Bishop tells the police the stolen items were gifts. And then, he begins adding more expensive items of silver to Valjean’s cache. He tells the officers Valjean must have forgotten these additional objects when he left.
That was my cue. As I held the bag, I stared up from the ground with curiosity mixed with fear. Valjean can’t help but think something this good must be a setup.
As the Bishop pulls me up from the floor, he implores me to use the goods to start a new life that glorifies God. Each night the scene closed with him singing these words to my face, “I have bought your soul for God.”
And Valjean does just that in the show, living out a life of selfless sacrifice even as the merciless policeman Javert chases him across France. So when Valjean gets the chance to kill Javert, he shows him mercy that confuses the officer. The lesson being when someone has the right to condemn you, but instead saves you, the only appropriate response is to save others you could have condemned.
But the Javerts never learn. By the end of the show, his resistance to mercy is what kills him. And I think that same resistance is killing many officers of the church right now.
As yet another Christian leader has fallen recently, I find myself brimming with righteous outrage just like Javert. I pontificate about what the man should have done differently. I find others talking about it on social media and put in my own two cents worth…
…or in 1st Century terms, I find a few scattered stones laying on the ground nearby and begin warming up the old pitching arm. The “Church of Javert” has always had willing brethren, even in Jesus’ day.
They say that story of the adulterous woman in John, Chapter 8, is missing from some ancient manuscripts. Honestly, I’m not surprised. It’s a story some religious people probably wish wasn’t in the Bible. A night out with the boys just isn’t complete without a little mob violence, but that party pooper Jesus sure knows how to take the “fun” out of “fundamentalism.” Thanks to him, the Pharisees missed a perfectly good opportunity for everyone’s favorite religious “contact sport” — shaming others.
We all know inwardly why we shame others. Quite simply, it makes us feel better about our own inadequacies. It’s like a spiritual seesaw: as long as I keep you down on the ground, I’m sure to be higher up than you!
Shaming is so easy for most church people because we aren’t familiar with the view from the ground. Most of us grew up in church and probably have never been publicly shamed. Few of us know the taste in our mouths of dust kicked up by the righteous.
Acting in Les Mis helped me with this. By trying to feel what my character would have felt looking up at his accusers, I identify a bit better with the ground-dwellers.
One of the most popular sections of our local paper used to be mugshots, with pictures of inmates on public display. I knew one lady who would flip through it with glee most people reserved for the comics. She especially loved finding someone she knew from church. So it was awkward when I later became a jail chaplain and was counseling the very people this friend of mine had used for entertainment.
As I watch the latest religious scandal unfold, the muscle-memory creeps back into my own stone-throwing arm. I “amen” the calls for greater accountability of those in power. I give my own spiritual advice for avoiding those same pitfalls. And I bemoan the stain on the testimony of the Church.
But most of all, I enjoy myself. Because throwing stones at easy targets is quite a pleasing diversion.
Most Christians like me are not on social media to “propagate the Gospel” today. Instead, we are “jot and tittlers,” endlessly finding fault and picking each other apart for the crown of most theologically obnoxious.
That’s when a little voice inside my soul starts speaking to me…
Hey, what do you think it would be like if some of your secret sins were exposed on social media?
What if people could see the selfish motives behind good things you’ve done?
What if you were exposed for the sinner you truly are and the stones were aimed at you?
What if other believers discussed your downfall out of boredom for anything better to do?
Lord, I’m afraid I haven’t spent enough time on the ground after all.
We good church folk forget too soon what it was like to feel forsaken. And though we preen with false humility about our imperfections, we stopped believing we were wretched a long time ago.
If we knew how deserving we all are of public disgrace, we’d seek to “cover over” the sin of another (1 Peter 4:8). Not “cover” to keep the person from facing justice, but out of mercy for the shame he and his family must feel. To cover it the way a mother would protect her child, even when the child is wrong.
Simply put, when we truly love someone, as we’re called to love all people, we aren’t eager to announce their sins to others. When we love, we seek to heal, not to shame.
Continually repeating sins isn’t helpful after the sin is exposed. That is more akin to our culture’s “cancelling” anything spiritual. Healing, restitution, and restoration should be our focus now. But healing is done in private, not on a national stage. Much of our bombast is more play-acting than has ever done on a stage.
We’re not concerned with people’s souls. We’re just spiritual voyeurs – “Peeping Toms” into the failures of fellow believers.
If I realize I deserve to be looking up at handfuls of rocks, I’ll probably keep my mouth shut about everyone else. Instead of shaming others, I’ll be reminded to repent of my own sins and leave judging the world to someone who is worthy.
Thanks to thieves and prisoners I’ve known, I’ve learned a lot about being on the ground looking up. I’ve learned to drop my own stones and use my hands to pull up the other beggars in the dirt instead. Because that’s just what Someone did for me.
And because the stones we gather for another’s execution can be just as easily used in turn for our own.