By Beth Newman
The recent spectacle of John Edwards’ confession of adultery managed to be at once pathetic and instructive.
While bearing in mind Lily Tomlin’s observation that no matter how cynical one becomes, it’s impossible to keep up, I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardened political hack taking pleasure in these events. I am embarrassed for the man and pity his family. And without defending him, I will observe that he is far from the first political figure to commit this very unoriginal sin.
I call it instructive because it illustrates the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of ethical discourse, at least on a national scale.
On a very basic level, the scandal involves our confusion over the public and private spheres. Like all contemporary politicians, Edwards sought to convince us not merely that he was the most qualified to administer the complex machine comprising one third of our federal government. He sought to convince us that we mattered to him as persons. After all, aren’t we all members of something called the American family? While an inkling of this idea has always been present, this age of instantaneous communication has intensified it tremendously. What the Edwards’ family has discovered is that there is no longer a “private” sphere to retreat back into.
In a world in which pollsters routinely ask potential voters whether they’d rather have a drink with Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain, there seems no coherent reason for withholding any detail, no matter how sordid.
The question asked has been asked whether Mr. Edwards has any future public life at all, political or otherwise. I have no prescription for his particular future, but the difficulty in speaking of one reflects the quandary of how or to what extent we can even talk about such things.
Both sides of the political arena speak of a moral vision for America. It is fascinating that both presidential candidates have agreed, as of this column’s writing, to address Rick Warren’s questions at Saddleback Church. I presume they will speak there rather than at Wharton Business School to make a point.
In the past, roughly speaking, when the left spoke of a moral vision, it used words such as “justice” or “equality” while the right spoke of “character.” The question, it would seem, is whether Edwards’ failure of character will destroy his commendable desire to end poverty.
The difficulty is that there does not exist a national story that will allow us to negotiate these difficulties.
The church has such a story. We can, for example, cite chapter and verse to demonstrate that neither our money nor our sexuality can ever be purely private matters. Furthermore, our story contains a procedure for reconciling a sinning brother or sister. Our national story has no such resources, and we are thrown back on meaningless generalities.
Living the Christian story, however, means allowing ourselves to be claimed by the God who created a particular people, Israel, to be a light for all nations. Like Israel, the church, too, is not simply a set of personal beliefs, but a people called to worship and honor God in all of life.
This particular story, in contrast to the story of any nation, gives us resources to name and confess sin, to practice the peace of Christ in the midst of violence, and to see the face of Christ in the poor and suffering.
Most of all, this particular story trains us see that true justice requires the faithful worship of God: indeed that such worship is itself justice. As Augustine claimed, there can be no justice where God is not truly worshipped.
If all politics, as Tip O’Neill has claimed, is local, then all ethics is local as well. This means that through the Body of Christ in its particular local manifestations we learn how to embody the love and justice of God. This is neither a private matter nor a general truth, but a matter of becoming, through divine grace, a part of God’s particular and peculiar people on behalf of the world.