January 24, 2001
-- Robert M. Franklin
The recent revelations regarding the Reverend Jesse Jackson's privatelife have evoked great sadness and pain. For over forty years, Jacksonhas been a world-class "public theologian," politician, and opinion leader. He was a close aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, and stood at his side onthe fateful day of King's assassination. Since then, he has foundednumerous civil rights organizations, twice run for president of the UnitedStates, and become a death-defying peacemaker able to venture successfullyinto war zones to extract prisoners and embarrass professional diplomats.
The revelations of an extramarital affair with a staff member, Dr. Karin Stanford, the birth of a child now twenty months old, and his secret supportfor the two hit hard and hurt deeply those around the world who have lookedup to Jackson for public moral leadership. Ironically and outrageously,Jackson's illicit relationship was underway while he provided pastoralsupport to President Clinton during his all-too-public grappling with thefrailties of the flesh.
It is too easy to be cynical about Jackson and other religious and political leaders who harbor contradictions in their private lives. This is unoriginalsin. It has happened before and will happen again. Perhapsit is more productive to place this episode in a theological and biblicalframework.
The Old Testament story of David comes to mind. David was a tall,handsome, popular king of Israel who committed adultery with the wife ofhis own solider and arranged to have the husband killed. An extraordinarychild, Solomon, was born from the union. But Second Samuel 12 openswith these chilling words: "But God was angry with what David haddone." So, what light does this story shed on Jackson's troubles?
First, Jackson has been and will continue to be an instrument in God'shands. Like all public servants, he is a feeble, complex, well-intentionedhuman being trying to make his time on earth count.
Second, what he did was wrong. It was sinful. We cannotpretend that it was otherwise, and we should respect the moral teachingsof Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that demand honesty and straight talkabout human sinfulness.
But third, redemption is possible and available for Jackson. Psalm 51 contains the prayer David prayed as he faced his sin and guilt withhonesty and contrition: "I have sinned. . . . Create in mea pure heart." Clinton used the same words to express his wretchedcondition at the moment of public discovery.
Finally, God is most profoundly concerned not with the great sinner(usually the great man) but with the most vulnerable people in the story,namely, the women and children. How do they fare in the end? Arethey cared for financially? Are their reputations restored?
If the most vulnerable receive care and respect, and if the great sinnerpossesses a contrite heart and diminished pride, then maybe, just maybe,we can get beyond the immediate tragedy and get on with the difficult workof healing all of our marriages and family relationships, and taking careof all of our children.
The early signs are that Jackson's pledge to retreat from his public ministry for a while may be short-circuited by the popular demand of hismost loyal followers who yearn for the sound of his trumpet. We cantell he missed playing it during Mr. Bush's inaugural weekend. Black churchestend to be fast and generous in heaping forgiveness upon fallen VIPs likeJackson. He knows this and should resist returning too soon.
American culture suffers from a disconnect between behavior and consequences. We noticed this during the Clinton scandal but failed to do much aboutit. Jackson should insist that the church, if not the society, workon reconnecting these dots. His words of contrition should be buttressedwith weeks, maybe months, of prayer, fasting, study, counseling, and silentacts of service. Ancient spiritual exercises like these would goa long way toward re-establishing an honorable model of public repentanceand atonement.Return, Jesse, return. But not so soon, not so easily.
Robert M. Franklin is president of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of *Another Day'sJourney: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis* (Fortress1997) and is currently at work on a book on the spiritual state of theAfrican-American community.
An earlier version of this essay was heard this past Friday (January 19) on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered."