I don’t read as much as I should. I don’t know why that is. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I happened to have started on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter not long ago. It baffles me how a story about an adulterous woman managed to become a best seller back in the day when the heroes of books were usually gallant knights or stalwart soldiers or rich men that ought to be viewed as heroic examples overcoming difficult circumstances to prove themselves worthy. One might expect the story of that day and age to be written the other way around, how a righteous community dealt with sin in it’s midst, turned over the sinners so that they could be punish for a time in the hopes it would lead them to repentance and restoration.
I’ve seen similar attitudes in authoritarian churches that believe in having a plurality of elders in charge and discipline ought to be carried out for the same reason. Perhaps the similarity is more than coincidence, some call themselves Neo-Calvinist and others Neo-Puritan. I just wish all who would identify by that name would read the Scarlet Letter and put themselves in the story.
Would they be one of the righteous townspeople who segregate themselves from the sinners as much as possible to avoid being corrupted by the contagion? Would they be one of the gossips whose imagination would implicate the sinner in new and more creative sins? Would they be like one of the children calling the sinners terrible names, teasing and taunting them? Would they be the righteous pastors, condemning sinners and carrying out judgement and discipline as needed in order to save them? How would their perspective change if they were Hester or Arthur or Roger or Pearl?
The Puritans were people just like we are. They have the same faults we do. They had the advantage of making their mistakes in a time when they could get away with it. Nobody dared question them because that was like questioning God. Today, those who follow in their footsteps aren’t so lucky. They can and will be and are being questioned because we know that they don’t speak for God.
We might not force sinners to wear A’s or H’s or T’s or L’s or letters for anyone else to see as a mark of our shame, but even without them, Christians can be just as cruel and unforgiving as others and sometimes we’re more-so because we act on behalf of God and we know what stance He takes about sin. Which we mean other’s sin, not ours. He always forgives us. Which is why we have to learn to forgive others. We have to learn not be gossips who teach the next generation to hate or be unkind to anyone who has had a moral failure. We need to learn not to put pastors on a pedestal that’s so high above us or believe that they can do no wrong. We’re all human; we’re all capable of anything – good or bad.
Fortunately for us, we can look at an account of a community that dealt with sin the wrong way and ask ourselves how best to minister to everyone the right way were we a part of the story. Can you imagine how much differently the story would have turned out if instead of shaming Hester and treating her as a marriage-breaking family-destroying enemy of God one of the wise women of the church had reached out to her and helped her to raise Pearl? What if someone came to her defense in a scene like this one –
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said,“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman,“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” ?
Whether we know it, we are a part of someone else’s story. We aren’t like the characters in a book who can’t change and are condemned to let things play out according to the author’s vision. We can choose to reach out to someone who’s hurting. We can choose to listen. We can choose to speak up for someone the church refuses to listen to. We can choose to drop our righteous stones and stop branding sinners as souls forever lost. So what part will you play?