Reprinted with permission from "Sightings," from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. 1/24/01.

The recent revelations regarding the Reverend Jesse Jackson's private life have evoked great sadness and pain. For over forty years, Jackson has 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 on the fateful day of King's assassination. Since then, he has founded numerous civil rights organizations, twice run for president of the United States, and become a death-defying peacemaker able to venture successfully into 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 support for the two hit hard and hurt deeply those around the world who have looked up to Jackson for public moral leadership. Ironically and outrageously, Jackson's illicit relationship was underway while he provided pastoral support to President Clinton during his all-too-public grappling with the frailties 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 unoriginal sin. It has happened before and will happen again. Perhaps it is more productive to place this episode in a theological and biblical framework.

The Old Testament story of David comes to mind. David was a tall, handsome, popular king of Israel who committed adultery with the wife of his own solider and arranged to have the husband killed. An extraordinary child, Solomon, was born from the union. But Second Samuel 12 opens with these chilling words: "But God was angry with what David had done." So, what light does this story shed on Jackson's troubles?

First, Jackson has been and will continue to be an instrument in God's hands. Like all public servants, he is a feeble, complex, well-intentioned human being trying to make his time on earth count.

Second, what he did was wrong. It was sinful. We cannot pretend that it was otherwise, and we should respect the moral teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that demand honesty and straight talk about 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 with honesty and contrition: "I have sinned. . . . Create in me a pure heart." Clinton used the same words to express his wretched condition 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? Are they cared for financially? Are their reputations restored?

If the most vulnerable receive care and respect, and if the great sinner possesses a contrite heart and diminished pride, then maybe, just maybe, we can get beyond the immediate tragedy and get on with the difficult work of healing all of our marriages and family relationships, and taking care of 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 his most loyal followers who yearn for the sound of his trumpet. We can tell he missed playing it during Mr. Bush's inaugural weekend. Black churches tend to be fast and generous in heaping forgiveness upon fallen VIPs like Jackson. 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 about it. Jackson should insist that the church, if not the society, work on reconnecting these dots. His words of contrition should be buttressed with weeks, maybe months, of prayer, fasting, study, counseling, and silent acts of service. Ancient spiritual exercises like these would go a long way toward re-establishing an honorable model of public repentance and atonement.

Return, Jesse, return. But not so soon, not so easily.

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