Critics of Pitino are missing the point

Contributing columnistSeptember 26, 2009 

Jesus observed that in our spiritual judgments we tend to "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel."

Similarly, referring to our eagerness to condemn others' sins, he asked, "Why do you worry about the speck in your friend's eye, when you have a log in your own?"

I pondered these sayings as the responses to my Aug. 22 column about the University of Louisville's basketball coach, "What if I were Rick Pitino's pastor?," jammed my e-mail inbox.

I heard from readers as far away as Canada's tiniest province and South Korea. People follow Pitino in Prince Edward Island? In Korea? Who knew?

The majority agreed with what I'd said.

The minority who disagreed, though, gave me the fantods. Not because they disagreed per se — I'm OK with that — but for the specific reason some took issue.

Pitino, a Catholic who is married, had sex in 2003 with a woman named Karen Cunagin Sypher. Later, he paid Sypher $3,000 to, depending on whose account you believe, buy health insurance or get an abortion. Sypher has since been arrested for allegedly trying to extort up to $10 million from him.

After the scandal recently went public, Pitino admitted his misdeeds, apologized and asked for forgiveness.

I wrote that, if I were Pitino's pastor, I'd accept his apology and welcome him at church, while also seeking to help those wounded by his errors, such as his family.

Several readers got torqued up about this paragraph: "When we condemn a miscreant, we're claiming we're somehow superior. That's stupid. I guarantee you, whether or not you've committed his specific error, you've done something equally bad. And if you haven't messed up that badly yet, wait. You will."

People assured me they had never done anything as awful as what Pitino did.

"I certainly agree that we are all flawed," one wrote, "but if you believe that everyone is as flawed, in some way, as Pitino, I suggest that you are isolated from much of society."

And this: "I've never cheated anyone in a business deal, cheated my wife or family, or committed any major offenses. ... Please don't assume everyone does something equally bad in their lifetime."

Some who wanted to hang Pitino from a lamppost identified themselves as Christians.

What Good Book are they reading?

It can't be the same Bible I've been studying for 30 years. In that Bible, arguably the most malevolent sin a human can commit is pride — the opinion that he or she is in any way superior to the lowliest prostitute, tax cheat or adulterer.

In Genesis, it's not eating an apple that gets Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden and consigns us all to futility and death. There is no apple. The original sin is hubris. Adam and Eve become proud, when God knows they're literally and morally naked.

The writer of Proverbs tells us, "These six things doth the Lord hate: yes, seven are an abomination unto him." No. 1 on the list: "A proud look."

When Jesus comes along, he pardons and protects adulterers, hookers and drunks. He reserves his bile for religious leaders who, in Luke's description, "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others."

The scary thing is that, by anybody else's definition, these Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and priests really were fine people. They prayed, fasted, tithed and kept dozens of other religious laws.

Jesus calls them "hypocrites," "sons of the devil" and "white-washed tombs," and says they'll spend eternity sizzling in hell alongside Satan and his demons.

St. Paul had been a Pharisee, zealous about right living, satisfied with his own goodness. Remembering his former attitudes, he calls himself "the chiefest of sinners."

Some readers hinted that, since I thought Pitino ought to be forgiven, I must be guilty of his very sins. Not so, for what it's worth. I've managed to make it 53 years without committing adultery or participating in an abortion.

Or maybe that's not exactly true. Again, it depends on your definition.

Jesus said anyone who has ever looked with desire on someone other than his spouse is an adulterer in his heart. Like Jimmy Carter, I'd plead guilty to that one. But I'd wager you would as well, if you were being honest.

That was Jesus' point: When you get down to it, we're all adulterers.

But among our worse sins, if not the very worst, is proclaiming to God, ourselves or others that we're not as debauched as any philanderer, thief or abortionist.

I've been through periods when I believed I was a great guy. There have been times when I looked at obvious reprobates and thought, "Wow, I'm glad I'm not like him." Instead of recognizing myself for the reprobate I am.

That in itself makes me at least as sinful in God's eyes as Pitino, and possibly the chiefest of sinners.

A core Christian principle is that none of us is truly good. The only hope we have is that a loving, gracious God will show us compassion.

Luckily for us, the Bible promises that God will indeed grant us mercy — precisely to the extent we demonstrate mercy toward the failings of others.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. E-mail him at pratpd@yahoo.com or visit his church's Web site at www.bethesdachurchky.org.

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