Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that Gods judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that Gods kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4, NRSV)
I must admit that I am a “gladiator in a suit.” For those who are watchers of the ABC hit series Scandal, the preceding phrase is the mantra of ‘discipleship’ in the series. I hesitated in getting on the bandwagon but decided midway through the second season to give it a shot. Needless to say, I am hooked. The show features wonderful storytelling and riveting plots. While those elements of television plots always make for good drama, this is not why I am hooked. The element that has drawn me into the series is its theology.
Scandal is pure entertainment that draws (in part) on the real life ‘fixer’ and PR consultant Judy Smith. Its entertainment value is strengthened by the strong plot and storytelling of veteran producer Shonda Rhimes. Even with the good stories in the plot, there is a strong theology at work. The drama centers on the work of ‘Olivia Pope & Associates’ as legal and political masterminds that help clean up the mess that powerful people can get themselves into. On one level the work of ‘Pope & Associates’ is about covering the sins of people who perhaps are undeserving of such grace. (MESSAGE #1!) The series features everyone from preacher’s wives to potentates seeking to hide their behaviors from the prying eyes of the society that so respects and reveres them.
A second theological motif centers on the persons of Olivia Pope and the dysfunctional married President of the United States, one Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (or ‘Fitz’ for short). These two characters are involved in a mind-numbingly complicated and incredibly passionate love affair in which both seem to think more with the Freudian ‘Id’ than with the intellect that both of them are effective at wheeling. The audience falls in love with the intelligence, power and will that both Olivia Pope and Fitz exude while at the same time abhorring their choice of behaviors that make them so reckless and chaotic. (MESSAGE #2!) They conduct trysts in the most obvious of places (to include the Oval Office on Inauguration night!!) demonstrating their careless blind love/lust.
These two characters (in particular) are trapped by the sum of their choices and their wild reckless abandon toward each other, forsaking all the rules of life. These are very same rules that make each character so powerful, so able and so confident in themselves. Each week, we ‘gladiators in suits’ are addicted to the potential nobility in moral living while at the same time witnessing the hypocrisy that is so often caused by selfish desire and unbridled passion. All of the characters are so much more complex and poly moral than any television show should ever portray. It so often allows for us to take the moral high ground in denying the truth of what we see each week.
Our text for today highlights the irony of our attempts at comparison and competition before the holiness of God. Paul, in writing to the church at Rome, reminds the Romans of the power of our human desires and willingness to compete and compare our behaviors and beliefs to achieve a moral relativism. Our morality is always insufficient in comparison to the righteousness of God. Most pointedly he asks, “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” In other words, do you not see that your behavior is of consequence in God’s economy just as much as your neighbor’s?
Paul’s admonition points to the fact that we always see how bad our neighbor’s behavior is (in spite of our identical behavior), simply because it’s our neighbor that acts in that way. Our morals can be relative to our experience. We compare our behavior to the lowest common morality to make ourselves better than the next person. We subsume God’s righteousness into our own morality and make gods of ourself in the light of another’s behavior. We neglect the scandals of our life in order to shine the light on the scandals of others.
We watch television and compare ourselves to fictional characters and say how much better we are in living (“At least I don’t do that” or “I would never do that” syndrome). However, ‘Pope & Associates’, ‘Fitz’, and the entire cast of ‘Scandal’ are not the worst of human behavior, but reflections of it. They are the personification of our most conflicted, confused and complicated selves. We so often do exactly what many of these characters do (except our behavior is real). True we are not conducting an intense extra marital affair with the POTUS, but we do so often make decisions around what makes us feel good and not what makes sense. True we never rigged a national election to get our candidate elected, but we have rigged the truth to portray ourselves in a positive light! True we never exploited a relationship with an US Senator in order to further a goal for our client. We have exploited our friendships and relationships in order to further our own desires.
We are Olivia Pope, Fitz, Huck, Cyrus, Hollis and Mel. We seek to enact our will and live out our passions in the most complex of moral circumstances. Behaving in such a way as to be scandalous in all the ways that Shonda Rhimes so effectively displays each Thursday night. This week’s post is not merely about how “bad we are” in our “sin”. Instead, the vision of truth this week is about recognizing ourselves in the behaviors of others. We are no better than our neighbor in the sight of God (nor are we any worse).
Indeed we are scandalous…..but thanks be to God there is a “Gladiator in a suit”who died for you and for me.