Another Scandal: Why Are We Still Surprised?

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Dr. Arthur Porter is officially dead and charges against him have therefore been dropped. He is merely the latest hero to be toppled from his pedestal as his misdeeds—well, let’s call them what they are: serious crimes—have come to light.

The Globe and Mail reports that Porter, a medical doctor and former CEO of Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), was also “a member of Air Canada’s board of directors, [who thus] travelled the world for free. His former friend Prime Minister Stephen Harper had him sworn in as a member of the Privy Council so he could serve as chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, or SIRC, the country’s spy watchdog agency.

Porter was also “close to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a relationship that began in 2004 when the politician, a neurosurgeon by training, was provincial health minister. Like many of Dr. Porter’s friendships, theirs ended with the news of the hospital’s megacost overrun and a $22.5-million fraud inquiry connected to the MUHC’s decision to award the construction contract to a consortium led by the Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.”

The Globe goes on to quote Jeff Todd, an Ottawa-based journalist who co-authored Dr Porter’s memoir: “In a way, Arthur was like Icarus, who came crashing down to earth when his wax wings melted because he flew too close to the sun.”

Really? His only fault was mere ambition?

“He told me that if he did anything wrong, it was to go way too fast,” said Todd. “There was never a peak he didn’t want to climb and if there was a huge challenge, he always thought he would simply fly over it. But he couldn’t always do that.”

True enough. Not when the Sûreté du Québec concludes that you accepted more than twenty million in bribes. That’s not “going too fast.” That’s flagrantly breaking the law and betraying the public trust.

Meanwhile, in the completely different sphere of American college football, one ethics scandal after another arises in association with institutions (Baylor University) or coaches (Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze) who publicly identify themselves as exemplary Christians.

And if one looks in yet another direction, one can’t keep up with accusations of sexual misconduct among Catholic priests all over the world, such as here , here, and here.

What I find most surprising about all of this, however, is that I keep finding all of this surprising.

As a Christian theologian, I am supposed to know better. Among the most basic teachings of the Christian religion is that people are sin-full, not just occasional committers of sins.

Most forms of Christianity, in fact, teach that sin is an affliction of the core, the very heart, of our being. Sin is a deep derangement of our appetites that not only confuses us about where our true interest lies, but gives us a positive taste for evil. We not only mistakenly chase the wrong things, that is, but we sometimes chase the wrong things because we like wrong things.

This is basic theology, taught in any reputable textbook. As a Christian person, furthermore, I am supposed to know better not only in theory but in practice. I not only realize that I am capable of serious sin, I recognize that I have committed serious sins.

I might appear to be a decent chap, and in many ways I am. But all of the people featured in these sensational stories appeared to be decent as well, and then it emerged that in some important way they weren’t. Nor am I.

Murder mysteries trade in the fact that almost everyone is capable of almost anything. Knowledgeable and experienced detectives are rarely shocked when the perpetrator finally comes to light.

Knowledgeable and experienced theologians shouldn’t be shocked anymore, either.

Indeed, why are any of us still surprised?

The challenge, then, is to respond practically to these dark revelations of the shadow that lurks within each of our hearts.

We can put in place, and insist that everyone comply with, systems of transparency and accountability not merely in case someone tries to pull a fast one, but in the clear-eyed expectation that someone almost certainly will.

And it is especially charismatic leaders who most need such systems—as these news stories keep reminding us.

Secondly, we can refuse to be fooled by what I call “the trust gambit,” in which people trying to get away with something retort to those who rightly question them, “What, don’t you trust me?”

The correct answer should be, “No, I don’t. Nor should I. Nor should you. So what exactly is going on?”

And thirdly, we can be willing to forgive those who sin seriously, since all of us are capable of serious sin and most of us have committed it.

The test of genuine repentance, of course, is not extravagance of expression, but appropriate and adequate amendment of life, as the old spiritual guidebooks required. If someone is truly sorry, then someone truly tries to change, and particularly to avoid the contexts that prompted the sin that brought them low. So, once all the tears have been shed and words have been shared, what changes have actually been made?

None of this is new advice. But the problem isn’t new, either.

This is living in the world as it is, the world we wish it weren’t, the world we know it to be…just from attending to the news, as well as theology.

 

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).