In 1976, Jimmy Carter gave what to this day is considered a terribly embarrassing quotation: “I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.’ I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.” He was referring to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addressed a series of relational ethics—culminating with a command to love even our enemies. Jesus taught that women are not objects designed for men’s pleasure. Women are people created in the image of God. Oh, if only that were the kind of sex-talk we were hearing in 2016.
I am saddened by the news today. I am saddened that we are not focusing on how government can function more effectively for the governed and especially the marginalized. I am saddened by the fact that while people have rushed to either condemn or defend one person’s indefensible remarks caught on tape about a woman and what he tried to do with her, we have not rushed to say to the woman he was talking about, “I’m sorry.” Politics has a hateful tendency to turn living, breathing people into issues. He was talking about a woman. She deserves an apology before anything else gets said. And yes, I do think it can come from someone other than the person who demeaned her. It should indeed come from him. I don’t think it will, but it should.
Carter put his finger on a reality we all must face, when it comes to inappropriate thoughts, words and all too often actions regarding the dignity and personhood of women, all men have sins we must confess. Even if our only sin has been the sin of remaining silent in the face of a sexually exploitative and abusive male culture, that sin alone has done immeasurable damage. In the face of what I heard on the video, I want to say, “I’ve never said anything that grotesquely inappropriate.” And truly I have never said anything like what he said. Nor have I heard even my crudest friends say anything close to what he said. But that is all a defense mechanism designed to make me feel less culpable for my own thoughts, words and actions. Instead, I must echo the words of Isaiah and confess, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
We must be willing to name our sin. We must be willing to take steps to act differently and it begins, as Jesus taught, with thinking differently and speaking differently when we think and speak of other people. That’s not something we can do in general. We have to do that in particulars. I saw a man on the corner of Division and Collins holding a sign yesterday that read, “Everybody love everybody.” It’s a nice thought, I guess, but it neglects the reality that we have biases around gender, race, class, age and sexual orientation. We don’t just look at women with lust. We look at others with superiority or arrogance or apathy and from that starting point we excuse injustice, tolerate exploitation and abuse, and trespass the sanctity of people’s lives and dignity. Yes, as Carter said, God knows we will do this. Yes, God offers us forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness does not mean excuse. Forgiveness is the divine offer to try again. Our record as men has been awful. We must do—think, speak and act—better.