First published 26 October 2012
I remember Sir Jimmy Saville on TV as I was growing up. Jim’ll Fix It was a show that I tuned into every Saturday evening, eager to see what wonders he was going to work for lucky children. He seemed kind, jolly, genuinely happy to be making kids smile. And one of the great things about him was that he used his fame and celebrity status to raise money and raise awareness for children’s charities and hospitals – things that he never got paid for.
But now (October 2012) barely a year after his death at the age of 84 his reputation is in tatters because of growing accusations of sexual abuse involving teenage girls. How let down we feel, those of us who looked up to him in our youth. There is a temptation to deny the truth of the allegations, I don’t want it to be true, but the evidence (whilst not yet tested in court) seems too overwhelming.
And then there is Lance Armstrong, the winner of seven Tour de France between 1999 and 2005, the guy who conquered cancer to come back to the top of cycling, the co-founder of the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised around $500m for cancer research and support. A living legend so we thought.
And then came the US Anti-Doping Agency investigation, which found that he had been the ringleader in the systematic distribution and taking of performance enhancing drugs in his team, throughout his time at the top. Many of us didn’t want to believe it, even the International Cycling Union at first didn’t want to believe it, but 1,000 pages of evidence, including 26 detailed witness statements have forced the truth out. Armstrong has now been stripped of his Tour de France titles. And such was the pervasiveness of the doping culture in cycling at the time that those titles cannot be handed down to anyone in the second and third place positions, because most of them have questions hanging over them too.
What are we to think? If our heroes turn out to be, well, less than heroic, what hope is there for us? And do their bad deeds cast a shadow over the good that they brought about? Does that good – the progress in cancer treatment, the happiness and healing brought to children – become tainted because it came from people tainted with evil?
October 2012 definitely is not a time to have faith in human nature. Human nature, it appears, if we measure it by those we think are at the top of their game, is a pretty horrid mixture.
Sometimes we’ve taken a much too optimistic view of the progress we’ve made as human beings. Not in scientific knowledge and technological advances, which are undeniable, but in our capacity for making the right moral choices. Sometimes we have tried hard to believe that we were making progress there too, with humanity getting better, giving more, caring more, persecuting less, tolerating more, living more peacefully. But it’s all self-deception. It’s less than a century since the bloodiest war the world has ever known. It’s less than a century since Stalin’s genocide in the name of progress and equality. We’re still processing the war crimes from the civil war in the Balkans twenty years ago. We’re still reeling from the atrocities uncovered in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had Idi Amin in Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Syria now takes its turn in showing how brutal human beings can be. And lest we forget, our troops are still in Afghanistan to try to suppress terrorist extremist groups that would threaten our hard-won peace. And in the West, we have riots and looting, widespread sexually transmitted disease, and increasing social fragmentation. How is the 21st century any better than the 1st century or 1,000 years before that? The same evil is perpetrated, but with TVs and communications technology that enables us to see it wherever it happens in the world.
And on top of that we know deep down that we too are capable of some horrible, evil things too. We can’t sit and tut-tut as we watch the news, thinking how much worse other people are, much as we like to. In fact we love to. And we love to do that because it allows us to place the blame for all of humanity’s woes onto somebody else – the uneducated, the lazy, the sexually stupid (not that they are more promiscuous or adulterous or perverse, but they don’t take adequate protective measures), the religious fanatics, the fundamentalists, the psychologically unstable. But if we’re honest, we have the same flaws.
Jimmy Saville and Lance Armstrong are examples of people who make us feel uncomfortable, because they were as good as we liked to think of ourselves, and we can’t ignore the good that they’ve done. They were not religious fanatics, psychologically unstable, lazy or uneducated. They were just like us, but they had the opportunity to indulge some of the things that we can’t. And they went for it big time.
I don’t know why, but modern non-religious Westerners, even in the face of all that, still do not like to talk about the concept of sin. They are quite content to talk about evil, because evil is an extreme word for extremely bad people, not people like us.
And this is the crucial point for the non-religious West. We have to grasp the reality and pervasiveness of sin, around us and within, affecting each and every human being. Far from having faith in human nature, we need to recognize that human nature is tainted irreparably. Michael Jackson was right when he pointed the finger at the ‘man in the mirror’. We are all much less than perfect.
Why do we need to face these facts? Why do we need to feel the guilt and despair of seeing the reality of our sin? Because without that we will know nothing of our need for salvation. And without knowing our need we will not cry out for salvation. And if we don’t cry out for salvation, God – who alone is able to save – will not give us salvation. We need to know that sin is the core of all the problems of the world, all the problems of our relationships, our temptations, our failures and all the problems of our own personality.
God graciously gave His Law so that we would know both His hatred of sin and the reality of sin in our lives. But He also gave us His only Son to save us from our sin if we repent and believe in him. Mary was told by the angel before his birth, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Jesus Christ is celebrated and worshipped by His people because He has saved them from the worst enemy, the thing that would have resulted in their eternal damnation under the wrath of the holy God. Sin is what separates us from God. And the gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news – is that Jesus took to the wrath of God upon himself, the penalty that we deserved, for the sins of his people, so that we might be reconciled to Him.
So let’s face facts. Humanity is fallen. Humanity cannot save itself. Humanity on its own cannot build a better future. Everything we do is tainted with sin. And let’s turn to Him who alone has the answer – not Lance Armstrong, not Jimmy Saville, but Jesus Christ the Son of God, our suffering saviour.