Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov


Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 18 September 2018

I am a firm believer that everyone should generally limit his or her comments to his or her area of expertise. I have written on numerous occasions about the strange fascination among some Orthodox Christians with marital or child-rearing advice coming from monastics who have never themselves been married or raised any children. This rather odd tradition seems just as absurd as would seeking advice on leading a good monastic life from a married lay person. And so, in this brief note prompted by the unfolding scandal surrounding the confirmation process of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I will do my best to avoid expressing any opinion on politics, which is clearly not my area of expertise.

What caught my attention in this political performance of “advice and consent” was the revelation of possibly-inappropriate behavior, possibly sexual in nature or, at least, with possible sexual overtones by Kavanaugh when he was in high school. Not to condone or excuse any illegal or abusive behavior (yes, for obvious reasons, I will make this and several more disclaimers throughout), but the very idea of a teenage boy behaving inappropriately or even sexually-inappropriately somehow does not sound entirely implausible.

Whether anything of this sort did or did not happen, or whether whatever happened (if anything did happen) rose to the level of criminal or abusive behavior is, very obviously, not for me to know or comment about. But I do find it relevant in the present moment in our society to ask the following question: if Brett Kavanaugh did in fact behave inappropriately as a teenager at a party 36 years ago, does this invalidate the rest of his life’s conduct and achievements and disqualify him from becoming the next Supreme Court Justice? Because, if it does not, then this allegation becomes irrelevant at this point and should be addressed quite separately from the confirmation process. The very same question can be asked about every single person whose career was put on the chopping block by the #MeToo movement. I think most people agree that Harvey Weinstein is a creep, but is Asia Argento’s allegation against Weinstein invalidated (along with all of her acting career) by the fact that #SheToo may have had sex with an actor, and an underage one at that? Is Garrison Keillor’s nearly half a century of creative work suddenly worthless to our culture because he may have (and probably did at least once in the last 76 years) had an incident of improper behavior? Should David Foster Wallace’s works be banned because he was a misogynist? Should we stop teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity because he, Einstein, was a racist, as his travel diaries reveal? Should India be converted back to being a British colony because Mahatma Gandhi, before he was a mahatma, volunteered to advance British colonialist aspirations in Africa during the Boer War? Dostoyevsky had a felony conviction. Tolstoy was a wealthy one-percenter and a heretic. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were drunks. The Apostle Paul was a co-conspirator in hate crimes against a religious minority, and Saint Peter denied Christ—not once, not twice, but three times! (As they say, once is an accident, twice a coincidence…)

In my mind, these are not idle questions in an era when Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House children’s series and Albert Einstein are accused of racism. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington owned slaves. So did the Prophet Muhammad, who also consummated his marriage to the 9- or 10-year-old Aisha when he was 53 years old. The Buddha was a clueless and spoiled rich kid who married his cousin, got her pregnant, and then abandoned her and the baby in search of enlightenment. The Reverend Martin Luther King had numerous extramarital affairs. Pope Francis may have known something about a cardinal’s abuse of seminarians earlier than he now admits. In fact, considering that each pope was a priest and a bishop before becoming a pope, who knows what else may in time be revealed about Francis, Benedict, or JPII. Mother Teresa was the biggest client of the Vatican Bank with billions in deposits, which apparently never made it into the “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”

It would be rather silly to fantasize that Orthodox bishops and patriarchs are too much better than the average human being. Between the stories about everything from bad pastoral work and abuse toward priests and their families to the lack of chastity, to involvement in financial and political intrigues—and these are just the issues on the surface, out in the open, without digging too deep—all appears to point to the idea that our own hierarchy is mostly made up of averagely-flawed humans. Once again, I want to reiterate that any cases of criminal, illegal, or abusive behavior should be prosecuted by the proper authorities (which rarely includes Twitter). But can we ever expect any religious, political, cultural leader or any person whatsoever to be completely perfect and lacking anything embarrassing or inappropriate in their entire life? Can anyone live long enough and never-ever make any mistake? If it is now becoming acceptable to go back to one’s teenage years, as is the case with Brett Kavanaugh, and question one’s behavior at a high school party, can anyone at all be found without blemish? Quite apart from the fact that #MeToo has long turned into #He/SheToo–it is no longer raising awareness but, rather, leveling accusations–if we dig deep enough into anyone’s life, will we not find something that at least someone will find objectionable? If the Apostle Paul called himself a “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15—what was he hiding?), can any one of us be found to be anything but?

This avalanche of #MeToo revelations should not only lead to much-deserved punishments for those who have committed crimes or acted in an abusive manner, but it should also bring a sense of humility to all, as accusers find their own sins written in the dust on the ground (John 8:8)—albeit, in 140 characters or fewer. To be sure, we are called by our faith to confront others for the purpose of correcting them (Matt. 18:15). But as for condemning and casting stones—let us leave this task to those without sin. (Once again, this is not in any way to imply that criminal or abusive behavior should be left without prosecution—“For the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” [Rom. 13:4]) It is okay to acknowledge that Keillor is a good writer, even if he put his hand on a woman’s back. It is okay to be inspired by King’s sermons and to value his civil rights legacy, even if he struggled with infidelity. It is okay to like Esenin’s poems, even if it is likely that he wrote none of them while sober. And it is okay to allow for the possibility that Brett Kavanaugh may be a good judge, despite what he may have done at a high school party 30 some years ago, as abominable as it may have been. In fact, in Christianity, we allow for the possibility of redemption. A man who may have acted inappropriately or even criminally 36 years ago may have changed his life, turned it around, left the “sins of his youth and his ignorance” behind (Ps. 25:7), and proved this with his life by not returning to his old ways in the past three decades. As Christians, we sometimes believe in this kind of stuff. Saint Augustine was a drunkard, a partier, and fathered at least one illegitimate child whom he abandoned, along with the child’s mother. Saint Mary of Egypt was a prostitute. Saint Matthew is said to have been an abusive tax collector and an embezzler before he met Christ. Saint Olga slaughtered an entire tribe in a fit of revenge. Her grandson, Saint Vladimir of Kiev, offered human sacrifices and is responsible for producing the first Christian martyrs in Kievan Rus. And the first person in paradise was a repentant thief (highway robber/terrorist/rebel/enemy of the state/freedom fighter—take your exegetical pick).

This is in no way to assert that Brett Kavanaugh has repented and should be canonized a Catholic saint (he is a practicing Catholic, regularly attends mass and volunteers at Catholic charities). I have no way of knowing what he did or did not do, and whether or not he repented before God for what he may or may not have done. But this is to assert that in Christianity, we insist that a man is not always defined by his past sins and failures, and that his contributions to society and humanity are not automatically negated by a past indiscretion, a lapse in judgment, or even a crime.

I do not know whether Kavanaugh is a good judge. I am not a good judge of judges. I know very little about politics (and Supreme Court nominations have become primarily a political act.) But I know that there is one person who never raped or abused women, children, or seminarians, never owned slaves, never committed adultery, never got drunk at a high school party—who is completely without sin. If we are in search of someone who is without a #MeToo incident, we should look to Christ. If #MeToo helps us stop some creeps and punish some criminals, right some wrongs—great! But if this movement also helps us realize that humanity is deeply flawed—to its very core, that all are corrupted by sin, that we need a savior—this too would be a good thing to come out of this movement. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man…” (Ps. 146:3) But put your trust in Jesus Christ, “who committed no sin, nor any deceit found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22)


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