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On Scumbags and Scoundrels

2011 March 9

Last week here in Austin a well-known and admired local dentist was arrested for having thousands of images of explicit child pornography in his possession. He was the dad of a girl I grew up with and had won outstanding dentist of the year sorts of awards. Such things are always listed when scandals like these are revealed – in part for the shock value and in part for the implicit irony they hold. “How could a man that uses child pornography ever be given such an award” people ask in disbelief. The revelation of his corruption and ways he hurt others nullifies in the public eye any good he’s done or achievements he collected in the past. If he was truly a great dentist or not no longer matters, his sins now disqualify him as any sort of role model in any sphere.

His story intrigued me. I’m all for forgiveness and rehabilitation, but I also agree that the work of being a dentist cannot be separated from this man’s character. Hurting children isn’t acceptable; praising the work of those that harm children therefore isn’t acceptable. The person and the action must be judged together in order to protect others from harm. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing here that we should always be pointing fingers, refusing to forgive, or live in constant judgment of others. Life is messy; no one is perfect and all that. I’m all for mercy, but at the same time if people are being hurt it has to be stopped. This man is being held accountable for how he hurt children. I hope he can repent and change and find mercy, but to stop the harm he had to be held accountable. The public outrage at his actions will ensure that he is held accountable in ways that prevent him from doing further harm.

But in a world full of suffering and pain, I find it interesting that there are very few “sins” left anymore that can so completely discredit a person and force the community to hold them accountable for their actions. Sure we might think Charlie Sheen or Mel Gibson are crazy and need help, or shake our heads when we hear of yet another athlete or entertainer who beat up their girlfriend, or admit a pastor’s misogyny might be bit extreme even as we buy his books – but falling out of favor or assuming boys will be boys is not the same as holding people accountable so that they will stop hurting others.

What if businessmen when given achievement awards were held accountable for the abuses committed in their sweatshops they own or for the pollution they have created? Or if “sealing-the-deal” gifts of visits to brothels full of trafficked young women were listed alongside a company’s stocks? Would we be willing to hold those people accountable for hurting others in such ways? Would it affect our respect for the company or whether or not we used their product? We freak out and lynch the dentist caught with child porn or even the pastor who has an affair because such things are close to home, but we continue to give awards and our money to those that abuse workers and sex slaves. So, why the double standard? Isn’t hurting people the same thing no matter who does it or where it takes place?

I was asking myself these questions last week after this story hit the news and found an interesting response to my musings in the words of Newt Gingrich. As he announced his intention to run for president, news stations brought up his controversial quote about Obama where he said that Obama was conning the American people with his anti-colonial Kenyan mindset and was fundamentally out of touch with how the world works. I agreed in part with Gingrich’s assessment, but not for the reasons he intended. In his view a president has to follow the oppressive and colonial ways of the world in order to achieve power and dominance at any cost because that is just the way the world works. Politicians, businessmen, bankers – the power holders in our world today often operate under a different system than the rest of us. They are looked down upon as weak, out of touch, and con-artists if they seek the good of the whole and not just themselves. We assume that they will abuse the environment and their workers, we expect them to visit brothels and sex slaves, we expect them to colonize and destroy – and never have to take responsibility for any of it, even if caught. Some of us have glimmers of hope when we see people in those worlds attempting to subvert those expectations, but we rarely hold such people accountable for hurting others. In fact we reward them for doing so if they manage to benefit us while they are doing it.

It’s obvious that there are people out there who never take responsibility for the hurts they have caused in the world. But what about our responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions? Most of us don’t even want to admit that we contribute to the systems that cause harm, much less speak out in an attempt to put an end to the suffering of others. We are even unsettled and uncomfortable when we have to face the depravity of men like this dentist who now must take responsibility for the harm they caused children. But I think stories like these need to push us to ask these questions – ask why responsibility and accountability are assumed to just not be part of “the way the world works.” And then choose not to be afraid of actually finding answers.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Daniel permalink
    March 10, 2011

    “Hurting children isn’t acceptable; praising the work of those that harm children therefore isn’t acceptable. The person and the action must be judged together in order to protect others from harm.”

    This is quite a radical view you’re espousing: one’s sins cover up all one’s virtues and render one deserving only of wrath on a basic level. This seems like the kind of view John Piper had in mind with his “Farewell, Rob Bell”: anything good you’ve done is moot in light of this recent action to which I object.

    Would you stand behind the claim that this man’s dental practices must be inferior (i.e., not award-worthy) as a result of his porn addiction? That he is a greater sinner than the rest of us who remain deserving of awards?

    • Daniel permalink
      March 10, 2011

      To tag onto and perhaps temper my comment: I agree with you wholeheartedly that there ought to be far, far more accountability and admission of guilt in our society. However, I also believe that I owe it to the people around me (and to God as good creator) to affirm and cherish their basic goodness as image-bearers of God while also acknowledging and praying against the ways in which they tarnish and attempt to reject that image.

  2. March 10, 2011

    Daniel – I was commenting on how in the view of society this mans sins do cover up his virtues. In public opinion his dental work no longer matters. I don’t believe that represents the whole of his humanity, just how society deals with him. His skill is still intact, the question is if we will continue to reward him for that skill (at least until we are sure he repents and changes). He is till a child of God, loved by God. How culture works in order to prevent harm is interesting and hypocritical at times.

  3. Deb permalink
    March 10, 2011

    This makes me think of how God sees our sin. It doesn’t matter WHAT sin we have committed, we have ALL have sinned and fallen short (of the glory of God). To God, who is holy and perfect, our “sins cover up all one’s virtues and render one deserving only of wrath…” to quote Daniel.
    But God LOVES us, every one of us, and wants to be close to His people (everyone!). THAT is why He sent Jesus, who is perfect, to die; taking the punishment and blame and wrath, for the WORLD to be saved, so that throught Christ, we can be close to God, without blame or worry of being punished, or shame, or have fear of death! Halleluia!
    Imagine what the world would be like if everyone believed that!?!

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