The other day I checked my high-school yearbook to see what might keep me from confirmation to the Supreme Court (besides being completely unqualified). In it, there is a quote from former education secretary William J. Bennett: “Saints are not born through other people’s sins.” That seems relevant in so many ways these days. By the time you read this column, we may be closer to finding out how the Brett Kavanaugh nomination story ends. But it doesn’t end with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court or with his name as a new verb like the one coined after ideology won the day in the failed nomination battle of Judge Robert Bork. There’s clearly too much underlying this all.
We seem at times a nation of the older brother in the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. He thought he could earn a place in his father’s house. In his new book The Storm-Tossed Family, Russell Moore, president of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conference, writes:
My drive to succeed is really not ambition but a drive to belong, to hear the words, “You are my beloved son, and with you I am well pleased.” Behind virtually everything I do, from teaching my children dinner-table manners to writing this book, there’s a little boy looking behind him for his parents, to see if they’re looking, to see if they’re proud of him. That’s brokenness. But that’s not my identity, and that’s not my inheritance.
That parable has a lot to teach us about sin, redemption, identity, and the confusions of our times. Many have told me they’ve cried over politics and news stories lately, chief among them those relating to this Kavanaugh ordeal. I know I’ve cried for Kavanaugh and his family, for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of assault during their high-school years, and I cry for our nation, too.
Whatever the truth is, the fact of the matter is that the Ford story is believable because we all know that what she describes is not always alien to our culture. We know from our own experiences and from the widespread resonance of Me Too that sexual assault and harassment and inappropriate words and actions happen much more frequently than we care to admit.
Speaking of saints: Mother Teresa talked about how we are called to be not successful but faithful. But faithful to what, exactly? The truth. But if we don’t see and believe that we are created by a loving God, and with a purpose, it’s going to be hard to break out of the drive to succeed, to put on a show that suggests we are somewhat superhuman and can handle things quite well ourselves, thank you very much. The prodigal-son story, on the other hand, invites us to be honest and at some peace about our weaknesses, our sins, what we are ashamed of because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us. Whatever it is we are holding on to that hurts us and causes us harm in our relationships with others we can call by its name and give it to God for our healing. That may very well require that we talk to others about it, too. What we should aim for is freedom. And there is freedom in the welcome that the prodigal son received from his father. That’s the welcome God offers. It’s why the sacrament of confession is good. It restores our relationship with the Creator.
“The Devil was not just trying to tempt Jesus; he was trying to adopt him.” That’s the sentence that jumps off the page of Moore’s book most starkly for me. He’s talking about when the Devil approached Jesus. Moore explains that “family is meant to teach us, among other things, that we are creatures, that we cannot, ultimately, provide for and protect ourselves. We are dependent in our infancy, and dependent again in our old age. That sense of need is the first step to overcoming, in a war-torn universe in which the family is often ground zero.”
Our lives and the life of our nation involve spiritual battle — it’s why “thoughts and prayers” can never be mere sentiments but must be real pleading with God that men may truly know Him and His mercy. In all the confusion of our times, when we fail to live from the gratitude of created people for whom all is a gift, everything is poisoned. We see this so clearly, don’t we, in our politics today? And so the collective confusions between men and women, and the escapes and the excesses we seek in our misguided ways, become Supreme Court nomination fodder. And our polarization makes it all the worse.
We need to take a few steps back and acknowledge our common reality as created beings in need of one another. We need to honor the family, reverence innocence, and help people see what good they can do because they have such good in their hearts and to see their potential for flourishing. We live in a time in which our temptation is to lash out, in our anger, at the injustices all around us. If we learn anything from this ordeal, may it be: There’s a lot of pain out there, let’s not exacerbate it, let’s seek rather to heal ourselves and our neighbor. Let’s not let the Devil adopt us. Saints can be born in daily life and even in politics. But it’s not going to be accomplished by destroying another for sins that may or may not be his but that certainly are the plagues of the times.