The United States is almost schizophrenic in its attitude toward money: each of us would like to be rich, but, by and large, we have contempt for the rich. Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen seem to float past their indiscretions, while Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant encounter harsh legal ramifications and public ridicule for theirs.
Perhaps the difference is being born to wealth as opposed to achieving wealth. Perhaps the difference is that Lohan, Spears and Bryant still possess the capacity to blush, while Hilton, Sheen and Clinton seem destined to prove that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
However, United States citizens seem to have a special level of outrage when a foreigner misbehaves here, especially when women are involved. Which brings us to the case of Dominique Strauss-Khan, born to a tax attorney father and journalist mother in a wealthy French suburb, with a degree in Public Law and a PhD in economics, a former university lecturer, mayor, Minister of Commerce and Minister of Finance for France, member of the French National Assembly, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund since 2007, and prospective candidate for the French presidency.
His tenure at the IMF (and political future) ended on May 16, when he was arrested while attempting to leave the U.S. on a French-bound jet and held without bail, charged with sexual assault on a New York hotel maid. He was indicted and released on May 18 on $1 million bail and a $5 million bond.
Strauss-Khan has denied all charges and some French publications have stated that he was set up and is victim of a smear campaign. In the wake of his resignation, many talking heads on cable news programs have shared that although Europeans believe the United States is too provincial about sex, especially in the lives of the rich, famous and powerful, this act might be, in one pundit’s words, “a little much.”
On May 24, Fox News reported that he will receive a $250,000 severance payment (in part from the United States) unless Congress can stop it. His salary at IMF was nearly $500,000 annually. If the U.S. citizenry is true to form, that’s the part that will really steam us. After all, we’ll say, he’s a rich man in a New York hotel. Didn’t he have “other” options- still illegal, of course, but much less complicated?
U.S. Christians cannot afford to adopt the same rationalizations or outrages as the pundits. Christians are supposed to think things through biblically. Taking this issue piece by piece, here is a simple scripture approach to the questions arising from this incident in particular and the subject in general.
Is it a sin to be rich? Absolutely not. Many of the great men of faith in the Bible were wealthy (Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea, Philemon). The desire for riches, however, is very dangerous, because Scripture presents money as God’s leading competition for worship. (Matthew 6:21, 24; 19:24; 1 Timothy 6:10; Ecclesiastes 5:10-11). The positive aspects of wealth in scripture are that it is a result of hard work (Proverbs 10:4; 12:27), wise decisions (1 Kings 3:10), and faithfulness to God (Malachi 3:8-12), which is then to be used as a tool to bring glory and honor to God through generosity, good works (2 Corinthians 9), and wise investment (Proverbs 8:21). Rich people in general are neither more nor less moral than anyone else, and therefore should not be hated. Resentment is a sinful attitude.
Do the rich deserve special treatment? The British Police have long held a private operating procedure for dealing with misbehaving nobility: “No one is above the law, but some people are above being annoyed by it.” Solomon talked about “great men” and being careful when you are around them (Proverbs 23:1-8). Jesus understood that the rich could give credibility to someone (Luke 14:7-16). He Himself was the recipient of endorsements from a tax collector and some wealthy religious leaders. Jesus didn’t warn against showing deference to the wealthy and powerful, but warned against them expecting deference (Luke 22:25-27).
Perhaps the answer to that question is like the sign hanging in the tavern: “This is a high-class place. Act respectable.” Neither love nor forgiveness can be earned in the Kingdom of God. Respect must be earned. Beyond that, Christians have an obligation to give respect to persons of every station (1 Peter 2:17). No one’s status justifies showing them disrespect, whether rich or poor, righteous or sinful. Everyone is worthy of our favor, because everyone is created in the Image of God.
Is rape excusable if the rapist is wealthy or powerful? Is it true that “great allowances must be made for great men”? Absolutely not. David was not spared from judgment when he ordered another man’s wife to his bedchamber (2 Samuel 11-12). God, as Peter learned, is no respecter of persons (Acts 10).
Our society has yet to catch up with the levels of respect the Pentateuch specifies for women. It is still a common defense strategy to put the rape victim on trial, insinuating that she is a person of low morals, so raping her isn’t so bad- chances are she was” asking for it.” Scripture defends the rights of the victim- and it always does. Listen to this regulation from Deuteronomy 22:25-27:
…if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.
Treating anyone as a sexual object elicited harsh penalties in the Bible stories. Shouldn’t our culture be more civilized than those that surrounded ancient Israel, fraught with child sacrifice, harems and slavery?
Shouldn’t Americans really be more sophisticated? During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some European journalists made comments about America’s provincial attitudes toward sex. Commenting on this, Neal Cavuto said, “If you were offended by the president’s behavior… good for you.” Mark Twain once commented that “Man is the only animal that blushes- or needs to.” The loss of shame cannot be a good thing, but it is certainly a marketable commodity. How else can we explain TMZ or Chelsea Lately- or the first audition rounds on American Idol? Perhaps shame was the first (and worst) casualty of the self-esteem and feminist movements, but we’re still chauvinistic enough to be outraged when a defenseless woman is molested. Sometimes.
Is it worse when a rich or famous person commits an immoral act? Not… really. But… A famous misquotation of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Ernest Hemmingway goes like this: “The rich are different. They have more money.” What Fitzgerald actually said is more revealing, if less catchy: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” (The Rich Boy, 1926).
The final verdict on the rich, however, comes from Christ: “Unto whom much is given, much is required.” Or, to quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Christians have a duty to remember one concept above all others when considering an issue of public sin, a concept which excuses no one and shows mercy to everyone. Consider the “take heed” verses (quoted from the King James Version because they sound more profound that way).
And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath (Mark 4:24-25).
For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. (Luke 8:17-18)
Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. (Luke 12:14-16)
Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth (Luke 21:34-35).
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
God is no respecter of persons. Neither is temptation. We’re all accountable before God, no matter who we are or how much (or little) we possess.
Despair.com sells a lithograph with a picture of a ship colliding with an iceberg, followed by this caption: “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others” (Ashleigh Brilliant). We don’t seem to learn much from good examples. Maybe that’s why we have so many bad ones.