“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” ~ Proverbs 18:17
Whenever big public hearings take place, whenever big political kerfuffles dominate my newsfeed, I am reminded of the Proverb above—that the first to speak seems right. Our media world is dominated by first impressions, and the first to speak, to get the scoop, to tell the story, has an ongoing advantage in public discourse. We humans are also, as a rule, quite bad at impartiality—when we tell a story we weight the evidence in our favour. But these first impressions always get a little rattled when “another comes and examines him.” We get to hear the other side of the story, and, the more we listen carefully, as often as not, that other person begins to sound plausible.
All of this has, of course, been rattling about in my head as I’ve witnessed the nightmare Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Christine Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 35 years ago. Brett Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegation. And at this point, things have boiled down to what amounts to a fairly straightforward he said/she said. What that means, in the briefest possible sense, is that the only sure conclusion we can draw from this stalemate is that somebody isn’t telling the truth. Either Blasey Ford, or Kavanaugh, is deceiving or deceived. And in such a climate both Grace and Truth are the real casualties.
Before we wade into these complexities, let’s outline, for a moment, what I think are the only six options for what has happened. We’ve got three options each for Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford:
K1) Kavanaugh is innocent, and ignorant of this attempted rape because he didn’t do it.
K2) Kavanaugh not innocent, but is ignorant of this attempted rape because he doesn’t remember it.
K3) Kavanaugh is not innocent, and is consciously lying about it.
BF1) Ford was assaulted by Kavanaugh as described.
BF2) Ford was assaulted, but has misidentified her attacker.
BF3) Ford was not assaulted, and is accusing Kavanaugh out of malice.
In each case option one presumes honesty, option two considers the possibility of some form of self-deception, and option three presumes a kind of malice. I think it’s fair to reason, given their vivid public testimonies, that neither party is here engaged in malicious denial or accusation. The cost of leveling a false accusation (socially and politically), or of perjuring oneself before the court, is too high and improbable. That means that, most likely, some combination of options one or two for both Ford and Kavanaugh are probably the case—in other words, either Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Ford as misidentified her attacker (K1 and BF2), or Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh doesn’t remember (BF1 and K2). But how are we to determine the truth? What evidence will we gather that can effect a change one way or the other? And, in this politically supercharged scenario, does anyone even care about the truth at all?
What has emerged, instead of a sincere desire for the truth of what happened, is a welter of politically motivated partisanship and of culturally motivated virtue signaling. Viewers, failing even an attempt at impartiality, have entered the foray of opinions with their pre-judged conclusions in hand, little ready to listen and readjust their thinking to the other who “comes to examine.” On the political right, Democratic tactics look suspiciously like a purely political smear campaign. On the political left, Republican tactics look suspiciously like a hastening to get Kavanaugh in place before mid-term elections (potentially) swing key votes in the Senate. On the conservative side, a good man is being destroyed because of his pro-life stance and what that means for the Supreme Court. On the liberal side, the ‘rights’ of women are being threatened by a man who appears to be himself the embodiment of white, privileged male power. On both sides, tribalism reigns, impartiality withers, and the truth suffers.
In this maelstrom, the tribalism of #metoo emerges as a particular threat to impartiality. For those of you who read this blog, you will know that I have been, generally, supportive of the aims of the #metoo movement. There is something vital, and deeply Christian, about listening to the voices of people who have suffered and seeking justice on their behalf. But in the present public displays we see some of the real ugliness of the movement as well. There is in its accusations an immediate presumption of guilt, a guilt by association, a condemnation by gender, and an abandonment of due process. The hashtag #believewomen is itself emblematic of this trouble. Women can be deceived as well as men. Women can be mendacious as well as men. Women can be malicious as well as men. An accusation is never in itself definitive proof of guilt, and the supposition that Ford, because she is a woman, ought to be believed outright is a distortion of the very justice #metoo claims to seek. In fact, these kinds of single-declaration accusations are not the stuff of American democracy, but of Maoist “Struggle Sessions” and of Stalinist “public denunciations,” where politically unfavorable persons may be publicly destroyed, without recourse, simply by the accusations of their peers.
At the same time, as conservatives double down on their narrative of liberal obstructionism (whatever its political merits) they communicate to a host of women that women’s voices don’t matter. In the minds of many Republicans the primary story here is about the Supreme Court and the Democratic hatred of the Republican agenda. In their minds, #metoo has nothing to do with that process, and yet by ignoring its subtext Republicans appear to be callous and uncaring. These are the horns of the dilemma.
On both sides of the political divide, the truth plays a secondary role. Political or social aims are primary, and in the battle for the Supreme Court I think it fair to say that both Ford and Kavanaugh are reduced to pawns in other people’s fights.
But let’s imagine that we could, definitively, discover the truth. (This is, for the record, highly unlikely.) What if we discover that, indeed, Kavanaugh attempted to rape Ford in 1982 when he was 17 years old. Of course, if such a thing could be proved, Kavanaugh’s perjury about the incident would render him unfit for a seat on the Supreme Court. But laying that aside for the sake of argument, a bigger lurking question pertains to what is to be done about the past. Where is grace, accountability, and transformation? When the allegations about Bill Cosby became more than allegations, and as the scores of women emerged to accuse him of serial sexual assault, it was clear that in Cosby’s case there was a habitual pattern of predatory sexual behavior. The same was true of Harvey Weinstein, as the stories about his life emerged. But with Kavanaugh we have a different story. We have a lifetime of admirable service and (so far) impeccable character. So how do we judge a person’s past when the past is truly ‘in the past’? What do we do with the Jean Valjeans? With the Apostle Pauls? With the Chuck Colsons?
I’m a pastor, and that means I’m in the forgiveness business—I believe in change, I testify personally to change. I am not (thank God!) the same person I was in high school. I am not, of course, a candidate for high office, but nevertheless I can’t help but feel that we’re in the grip of a world that is high on vengeance and knows little of forgiveness and change. John 1:17 records that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The law, with its dictates and death penalties, was the old order. The law provided a courtroom where the truth could be a thing that was distorted by the lack of impartiality in its witnesses. But with Christ we encounter both truth and grace—truth, in that Christ reveals the secrets of our hearts, the secrets of our actions, of our self-deceptions, of our sins omitted and committed. But in Christ we also encounter grace, the gift of a saving God who takes of our imperfect flesh and transforms it into something new, something fresh, something that restores.
We may never find out what happened in 1982 to Christine Blasey Ford, and we may never achieve full satisfaction with regard to the character of Brett Kavanaugh. If we listen only to our newsfeeds, then we will likely be mired endlessly in partiality, vengeance, and partisanship. I would hope, however—and speaking as a Christian—that we might take this opportunity presented to us as a Church and rise above our political and cultural turmoil to advocate for truth, justice, grace, and forgiveness. They are things for which our world deeply hungers. They are gifts that Christ has entrusted to us for his world.