Having recognized leaders caught in moral wrongdoing or illegal activity no longer surprises us. Scandals are enough a part of our political, social, and, sadly, religious landscape that we’ve come to expect them—almost as a matter of course. Public indifference, cynicism, and disappointment over various misdeeds have in part coalesced into lower voter turnouts, less respect for public figures, and mistrust of those to whom we have given prominent positions. Recent examples in my own country such as the Senate scandal and Toronto mayor Rob Ford do nothing to quell our suspicions that power corrupts.
What stands out to me, however, are not the immoral, unethical, or illegal acts or behaviour; instead, it is the tendency of leaders in nearly every case to deny such allegations until the evidence can no longer be avoided or explained away. Knowing full well that the allegations are true but to continue denying them publicly simply compounds the problem. Certainly, I can understand the instinct. As Scripture says, Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. Most of us experience the temptation to avoid culpability, to throw up walls of denial in the vain hope that our sins will not find us out. But, indeed, it is a vain hope. No doubt people like Mike Duffy and Rob Ford would agree. Better to come clean immediately.
And honestly, if each of us were to come clean, we’d all have some explaining to do. Jesus himself said, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. The upshot of Jesus’ words is that none of us is without sin. Without exception, we are all guilty. We all have skeletons in our closet and junk under our rugs. I take as a given that every single human being has the capacity to do unthinkable things. In Romans 3:12, Paul tells us as much: There is no one who does good, not even one. Worse, according to the apostle, our feet are swift to shed blood. Like the default settings on a computer, our propensity is to be selfish, to consider ourselves first and foremost. We are sinful down to our DNA.
As far as this goes, it isn’t necessarily our sins that ought to disqualify us from being in authority. Should this be our logic, none of us would occupy such positions. Indeed, God’s common grace, like a dam, often holds us back from acting on our most vile inclinations, protecting us from even knowing how bad we are. Give that this is so, we should actually be more surprised when someone in public office carries out their duties and indeed their living with integrity with any kind of consistency. Seeing how it is so infrequent, there should be applause and parades when this does happen!
So, no, I do not expect moral perfectionism from my leaders. Yet I would appreciate and prefer them to have integrity. Especially when certain misdeeds or acts are either illegal or have the potential to undermine the confidence of the public and the ability to fulfill their public responsibilities. For instance, in the case of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, his insistence on staying in power long after his leadership credibility had crumbled beyond repair is nearly incomprehensible. Put simply, he lacks integrity. Having finally admitted to his mistakes is almost worthless since he only did so because the evidence was irrefutable. His sins had found him out.
Integrity involves a wholeness between our inward character and our outward actions. Being a person of integrity does not mean we will be free from sin; rather, it means we will be willing to confess when we do. True, confessing our sins is difficult. Admitting how we have failed, how our choices have hurt those around us, can even be painful. To see the look in our loved one’s eyes when we tell them what we have done is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. When we lack such emotions (what the Bible calls contrition or feeling sorry for our actions) in confessing our wrongs, we lack integrity.
I think, also, that living with integrity means paying attention to our conscience, that God-given voice reminding us of what is right and what is wrong. Reading the Old Testament Psalms reminds us what this is like. Psalm 32 describes what it feels like when we fail to confess: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. David provides us with a profound description of a guilty conscience.
Thankfully, confession is not the end. David continues: Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Coming clean means being made clean. The guilt has been taken away. Being a person of integrity includes, therefore, repentance. And not only because you’ve been caught, but because your conscience tells you that it’s the right thing to do. If only more of our leaders would act in this fashion, because even if their misdeeds are of a kind that do disqualify them from remaining in power, we could at least respect them for being honest about their failures and wrongs.
Unfortunately, my sense is that at least some of these leaders lack integrity not because of their sins but their unwillingness to confess, their sheer stubbornness at holding on to what little public trust they have, adamant that they still deserve power because despite their actions they can somehow manage to get the job done. As distasteful and as unethical some of their actions have been, this is worse. It adds insult to injury.
How long will it take us to learn that we cannot separate character from actions? It is the continuity between our character and our actions that constitutes personal integrity. Several years ago when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke the very same thing bothered me. President Clinton became another example of that bifurcation between one’s personal life and one’s public position. There will always be some degree of continuity between one’s character and one’s actions. Eventually, who you are makes a difference to what you do. This is what makes having integrity so integral. Perhaps if more of our leaders took a few moments to reflect on this, they could begin to save themselves—and us—some grief.