Paul Prather

Paul Prather: For mercy's sake, stop gloating over the fallen

Associated Press

Recently I wrote about the overabundance of anger afflicting our culture.

Now I want to discuss a gaping deficit we have: compassion.

Probably those two traits — too much rage, too little mercy — are related.

Earlier this month, I read on the Internet a memorable news article by Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip.

It recounted the story of New Orleans pastor and Baptist seminary professor John Gibson, who committed suicide in August after he was exposed as a customer of the infidelity website Ashley Madison. That site, you'll recall, was hacked by activists bent on exposing the identities of actual and would-be adulterers.

In the article, Gibson's grieving wife, Christi, candidly discussed her late husband's lengthy battle with sexual addiction, depression and shame.

Phillip, the reporter, portrayed Gibson as a kind and generous man, a minister, teacher, husband and father who also was tortured by personal demons he couldn't defeat. Because of his positions in the church, he hesitated to seek outside help.

It was a nuanced story that didn't excuse Gibson's bad behavior, but clearly showed his virtues as well, and his widow's remarkable sympathy for him.

What startled me far more than Gibson's suicide was the acidic nature of many readers' comments that followed the article.

Here's a sampling:

"If he's a 'Sex Addict' it isn't his fault! He's not a lying hypocrite, he's a poor suffering soul! What Crap!"

And, "Christi Gibson is blaming somebody else for her own husband's hypocrisy, lies and suicide. BS. Blame your husband, lady."

And, "I thought suicides didn't qualify for waking up in the arms of your loving savior. (I'm) not Christian but I was raised as one and I know it pretty well. I'm pretty sure suicides are hell bound and being a cheating (expletive) isn't going to help either."

And, "May all hypocrites find such enlightenment."

There were insightful and humane comments as well. But I never cease to be left whopperjawed by the mass of people so eager to judge others' failings, who behold no gray in the world at large or in individual souls, and for whom every human is starkly good or starkly evil, black or white with no in-between.

They're always clamoring to see somebody punished, punished, punished.

These folks crawl out of their burrows every time there's a scandal large or local: an athlete caught doping, a politician caught taking a bribe, a neighbor caught cavorting with the milkman.

For them, the poor are poor because they're lazy and venal. Imperfect ministers are raw hypocrites. Republicans are all racists. Democrats are all godless pinkos.

Real life isn't so simple, friends. Humans just aren't one-dimensional, whether they're clergy or lay people, atheists or apostles, Jews or Christians, famous or obscure.

For the record, I don't agree with and wouldn't attempt to justify John Gibson's extramarital proclivities, or his suicide, for that matter.

Still, I'm a minister myself, and my dad was a minister, and so was my uncle. Over my nearly 60 years, I've known hundreds of clergy.

Every last one turned out to be human, with all that entails. I've known ministers who were adulterers, and ministers who were drunkards, and ministers who were egomaniacs, and ministers who were depressives.

I've also known ministers who were saints.

Often those were the very same people.

Which is to say that even well-meaning, largely good-hearted people make terrible mistakes, or, if you prefer this terminology, commit terrible sins.

Anyway, this isn't primarily a column about fallen preachers. I'm citing Gibson because I know about ministers' foibles.

The principles herein apply equally to movie stars, presidents, accountants, milkmen, athletes and sales clerks.

People great and small mess up. Royally.

I've messed up. So have you. If you haven't, hang on; your time's coming.

It's inevitable. We mess up because we're flawed creatures. All of us.

That being so, wouldn't it behoove us to show compassion toward other fallen sinners? Couldn't we minimize the snark and condescension and judgment? Couldn't we stop consigning strangers to perdition for deeds we ourselves might have committed if we were in their circumstances — circumstances we may not even comprehend?

When I see all these online commenters, or hear men and women at parties gloating over the fallen, I always wonder what they get from it.

Are they utterly bereft of self-awareness? Are they trying to cover up their own sins by snickering at the failings of others? Are they possessed by a demon of arrogance? Are they crippled by lack of self-worth?

I just don't understand.

Once I heard a preacher observe that we all want sinners to receive their just due. Until we're the sinner. Then we beg for mercy. Justice is what we want for everybody else, the preacher said. Mercy's what we crave for ourselves.

I'd suggest, why not spread some of that same mercy around?