A Matter of Trust

[1] I couldn’t stop myself even though I knew the interest was purely prurient–I was continually tuning in to cnn.com awaiting the final blow to Eliot Spitzer’s political career. It’s not just because I’m from NY. I think it’s more knowing of Spitzer’s reputation as a moral crusader, thinking that surely he would run for president in the next decade, and being stunned by the turn of events.

[2] With the juxtaposition of this public betrayal and the release of the draft social statement on human sexuality, it seems an opportune time to reflect on the draft social statement. What resources does the draft social statement give us when confronted with such a situation? If you were Eliot Spitzer’s pastor (highly unlikely, given that he is Jewish but not practicing anything), what response would you give to him?

[3] Those who have read the draft closely have noticed that the theological framework which supports the statement on human sexuality shifts from an argument based on orders of creation to ethical reasoning based on the freedom of a Christian and incarnation, mediated through a principle of trust. There will be many in the ELCA who do not think we should diverge from our historical line of argument, footnotes about the true genesis of orders of creation thinking notwithstanding. Yet, using the Eliot Spitzer fiasco as a case study, I’d like to argue that using trust as a middle axiom yields a much fuller picture of the true impact of sexual transgressions, and offers in its approach to those wronged by them richer understanding of healing.

[4] I’ll quote from a press release of a standard critical voice: “In the Bible, God speaks a clear word about human sexuality-He created us male and female-and gave us a clear word about sexual relationships and behavior. Other than in the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman, all other sexual relationships and behaviors are out of bounds.”

[5] Simply stating what is right and what is wrong does not even begin to describe the “victimless crime” (as some would call prostitution) that Eliot Spitzer committed. What does this leave his family with except he was wrong? What kind of advice is to be found for his wife? Should she forgive him? What does he have to do for her to forgive him? What about his three girls? They have been most grievously wounded by his behavior, but where is their redress in this? And what of the woman with whom he committed this misdeed?

[6] By contrast, the draft social statement goes beyond laying down the boundaries between right and wrong and uses trust to describe what we look for in our relationships. Consider that he has not just betrayed his marriage vows–I’ll leave the closest person to the debacle for last. Consider “Kristen,” the prostituted woman who has been exposed to the public. She left an abusive home, she has abused drugs, and didn’t know how she was going to pay rent even though she keeps half of her considerable hourly rate (nytimes.com, March 13: Ms. Dupré said by telephone Tuesday night that she was worried about how she would pay her rent since the man she was living with “walked out on me” after she discovered he had fathered two children). She was to be offered money by the producer of the Girls Gone Wild videos, that beacon of tastefulness and respect in our sex-saturated culture until they discovered she had already “worked” for them.

[7] From CNN.com March 19, 10:00 am EST: According to a “Girls Gone Wild” press release, Dupre visited Miami in 2003 to celebrate her 18th birthday. After fighting with a friend and getting thrown out of her hotel, Dupre found a nearby “Girls Gone Wild” bus, the company said.

She signed legal papers and spent a full week on the bus, filming seven full-length tapes that included nudity and same-sex encounters, according to the company.

“I personally ended up buying her a Greyhound bus ticket back home to North Carolina,” Francis said.

[8] Eliot Spitzer represents just one in a long line of exploiters. In return for stay and a bus ticket (apparently Joe Francis, the mulitmillionaire producer of the Girls Gone Wild series didn’t have room on his private jet and couldn’t afford a plane ticket), Dupre allows herself to be filmed without clothes and having sexual encounters with other women. Now that’s what you call a cheap date. Does anyone really think an 18-year-old girl (who, it turns later, was 17, and therefore underage) with no place to stay is not being exploited in this situation?

[9] Saying that sex outside of marriage is out of bounds doesn’t really describe the many ways in which Dupre is mistreated. It does not turn our gaze to the circumstances that led her to engage in prostitution in the first place. And before I get angry emails about this, I am not saying that she is not responsible for her behavior. But we are responsible for our behavior, we are responsible for the society in which we live, which is the kind in which Girls Gone Wild is a humongous business, with the videos sold on mainstream sites such as amazon.com, and at every turn someone has exploited her financial vulnerability.

[10] To assess the harm being done by prostitution using an orders of creation understanding, we would arrive at a very shallow assessment indeed. Spitzer would be wrong for engaging in sex outside of marriage, Dupre and the Emperors Club for participating in that. Likewise what Dupre did on the Girls Gone Wild tour bus would be wrong because it is also sexual activity outside of marriage. With that, Dupre is dismissed from our sight. We are not concerned about her sexual and financial exploitation. She is condemned as a wrongdoer, but her act does not occur in isolation from social circumstances. We are primarily concerned with condemning her, and not people like Joe Francis, who may not have committed the act, but have at every turn manipulated women like Dupre.

[11] If the law is to drive us to our knees before God in abject recognition of our unworthiness, then surely being able to describe how profound and complicated our sin is would be a good thing. To truly understand the release of God’s grace, is it not beneficial to dwell on the profundity of our sin? Far from being cheap grace, using a middle axiom of trust asks us to stop and consider the full impact of what we have done from many angles. Applying the measure of trust to the person most remote from Spitzer reveals a cascade of betrayal and lack of care that begins far in her past and will not end with Spitzer.

[12] To apply trust, however, require a measure of empathy that some people may simply be missing. For this reason I can understand how the simplicity and cleanliness of a bifurcated description of sin is more useful for those not apt to engage in soul-searching. Pastorally speaking this might be the best move in such cases. But theologically speaking, if we as a church are to engage in moral deliberation that has reach and meaning, we need a concept that points us to a fuller and more complex understanding of sin.

[13] Consider the incident from the perspective of his three daughters. In the social statement, families are described as foundational to building trust and protecting the vulnerable. His daughters are approximately 18, 16, and 14, sensitive to what is passing between their parents, capable of reading the news, at stages where they are acutely aware of social vulnerability, all in various stages of adolescence, where we are beginning to think about how sexual relationships work, even if we are not (we hope!) engaged in them. Using the married/not married dichotomy, the girls would understand that what their father did was most certainly wrong, destructive to them and to the fabric of society. They might not understand what it means for their relationship with him, however.

[14] Using trust as a middle principle, they might come to understand how they have been betrayed as well. Their father was entrusted with their care and development into adults capable of trusting and being trustworthy. He’s betrayed the girls in their developing sexuality. He betrayed their future spouses/partners, who will have to work hard to earn a possibly unattainable trust. His paying a prostitute for sex, clearly unconcerned for her (or for his wife’s!) most basic well-being if he is known to refuse to wear a condom, indicates to his children that women are to be used. Once you pay them for their services, they are yours to do with as you will. He has betrayed his vocation as a parent who should be a teacher and example for his children. He has crippled their understandings of themselves as female and as future spouses. Without a more complex understanding of the sinfulness of his actions, how can we put a name to what those actions mean to his daughters?

[15] And then there’s the matter of Silda Wall Spitzer. I can scarcely describe the degree of both sympathy and empathy I feel, as I’m sure most women do. The prospect of her betrayal being a public event that everyone (including people like me who know better, yet can’t stop themselves from watching) witnesses makes what she has had to endure especially horrible. An argument based on orders of creation can describe the magnitude of the offense to her well. Her covenant with her husband has been violated, the sacredness of the vows desecrated. The sacrilege of what Spitzer has done is clear here. Orders of creation functions at its best for the first day after she discovers what her husband has done. The most important task it can accomplish there is to describe how grave the offense has been. I can’t think of anything that would describe why she should have to stand next to her husband while he tenders his resignation publicly. Surely this barbaric custom is the best example of our inability to draw any kind of boundary between what is public and what is private.

[16] But after the first day, Silda Wall Spitzer wakes up and finds that she is still married (for the time being, anyway) to the man who has so publicly and profoundly wounded her. On this day, where perhaps she decides if she is going to pack a suitcase either for herself or for him or call a marriage counselor or maybe her lawyer, a middle axiom of trust can offer far more guidance. The central question she will want to answer is: Is it possible to restore trust to this relationship? What is necessary for this to happen? Can he ever restore her trust in him? Can she forgive him enough to be a trustworthy partner herself? Arguing from the orders of creation will encourage her to salvage her marriage, but it won’t help her get there, except perhaps by gritting her teeth and deciding that the form of her being married is more important than how or whether the marriage functions. Surely of all the people here, she is most deserving of close pastoral guidance, as she is the one who has been wronged the most outright.

[17] Of course, there are certain details, such as the fact that he did not like to wear condoms while having sex with people who had sex for a living, that the trust motif helps to ferret out and bring to the fore. Does it really matter whether Spitzer had extramarital sex with or without a condom? If you are his wife and have been exposed to his risky behavior, it certainly does. He has failed to fulfill his duty (aka trust) of being concerned for his wife’s physical safety. In the grand sweep of condemnation we might overlook this additional insult. Yet it has very real impact on Silda Spitzer’s well being.

[18] If I were her pastor, I would find much to speak to Silda Wall Spitzer in the draft social statement on human sexuality. In it I could find a way to describe the multitude of ways in which she has been violated by her husband’s actions. In it I could also find hope, through the incarnation, and through God’s gift of trust to us, for a future that includes relationships in which trust is given and occasionally broken and restored. The analogy of fiducia fertile grounds for pastors.

[19] Early on there were commentators who maintained that Spitzer could recover politically from this fiasco. The fact that he did not resign immediately seems to indicate that at least someone thought it would be possible. I guess the rank hypocrisy (and people call Christians hypocrites!) of prosecuting prostitution rings and also engaging in prostitution never occurred to them. Here I must differ with Paul Jersild, a wise man if there ever was one. He argues in these pages that Spitzer has not betrayed the public trust. I agree that it is not reasonable to delve into great depth into the private life of a politician. And yet, one assumes that politicians who are prosecuting people engaged in an activity are not engaged in the very same activity. Running for office implies agreeing to a certain amount of restraint in one’s private life, enough that private life will not become a distraction.

[20] Many people made comparisons to Bill Clinton’s political survival after his relations with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. He survived (by which I don’t just mean that he was not impeached, but that he is able to show himself in public and even campaign for his wife) because although not-quite-intercourse with an intern was distasteful, and an immense betrayal of his wife, what he did was not illegal. He also did not have the same reputation as a moral crusader as Eliot Spitzer. When someone poses as a moral crusader we clearly expect a higher standard of behavior. If we are trusting someone with the role of upholding morals, he’d better be doing a pretty good job upholding his own.

[21] What would I say to Spitzer if I were his pastor? Calling us to be trustworthy calls us to model our responses on our relationship with God. Our relationship with God does not end when we sin. We are asked, instead, to repent and turn again. And so, despite how painful it will be, he cannot seek to escape the reality of what he has done. I would speak to him about the many ways in which he has violated trust. And then I would have to tell him that he might have to spend the rest of his life seeking restoration of that trust. The draft social statement on human sexuality enables us to respond with the same conclusions as we would with orders of creation thinking, but with far greater depth, richer narrative, and fiercer hope.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.