The Common Good
March-April 1998

The Moral Issue

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1998

In the first stage of the White House sex scandal, the media
was obsessed with how allegations of sexual misconduct and
possible cover-up against Bill Clinton might bring down ...

In the first stage of the White House sex scandal, the media was obsessed with how allegations of sexual misconduct and possible cover-up against Bill Clinton might bring down his presidency. "Can Clinton survive?" was the question reporters barraged us with that week. The best answer was, "We'll have to wait until we really know what happened." Of course, the high velocity and fiercely competitive media couldn't do that as they rushed to judgment, turning even mere rumors into instant news stories in a bigger press frenzy than even the death of Princess Diana had created. During Watergate, it took two reliable sources to confirm a controversial news story, but those standards have long since been abandoned.

The second stage of the scandal began with Bill Clinton's successful State of the Union speech and Hillary Clinton's vigorous attack on her husband's critics. When the media saw public opinion polls much more favorable to Clinton than to them, they changed their message dramatically. The press then began saying that the public cares more about the president's policies than they do about his sex life, and started asking religious and moral leaders whether they were appalled by this attitude. Instead of asking, "What's more important, the president's morality or his political agenda?" we should have been asking about the connections between the two.

While we can't predict what stage we will be in when you read this, there are certain issues that still will be pertinent. First, I suspect the current high approval numbers for Bill Clinton reflect public revulsion at the behavior of the media and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr more than they do a toleration of adultery and lying. Most people know how the broken promises and violated trust of marital infidelity destroys both families and the social fabric, and is especially destructive to children. If the presidency is a bully pulpit, then the first family's notion of marriage is important to the rest of the country. It really isn't just between them. If the president lied, he could be in serious trouble. If he is telling the truth, the public's opinion of both the media and Starr will decline even further.

Second, there are even deeper issues here about the changing nature of both power and leadership. They are not Left/Right issues, nor are they finally affected by whether or not one supports Bill Clinton's political agenda.

Simply put, the old assumptions about what "men of power" are allowed to do are indeed beginning to change. Women are not powerless agents who will be quietly victimized or quietly complicit in relationships with powerful men. Already the expectations of leaders in corporate, educational, and even religious institutions are beginning to change, especially in relationship to much younger employees, students, or parishioners where tremendous imbalances of power exist.

The best thinking on leadership today suggests that we lead by behavior and not just by skill. Or, as the leader of the Reformed Church, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, put it, "Leadership has to be morally seamless." That doesn't require perfection, by any means, but it means that leaders deal with their human flaws and weaknesses, especially if they exercise great responsibility over others. In the future, we need leaders with the ability to navigate the troubled waters of their inner lives as well as the turbulent seas of public discourse.

Third, social movements, government institutions, and the common good are shaped by both the personal and public ethics of their leaders. In The Kennedy Imprisonment, historian Gary Wills shows that John Kennedy's reckless sexual life did affect his political performance, and close associates of Martin Luther King Jr. privately describe how the infidelities of King's inner circle had an undermining impact on the civil rights movement.

All this, of course, is about much more than sex. It's about the vital connection between personal and social morality, personal integrity and public trust. The moral questions we should be asking of Bill Clinton concern more than his personal life. We should ask to hear less about the booming economy and more about how he intends to overcome the growing gap between the rich and the poor; about how he intends to confront the real threat of Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons without slaughtering more innocent Iraqis; about when he will offer real leadership on campaign finance reform; about whether he will follow the moral leadership of the pope in opening up Cuba to real democracy and ending an unjust and ineffectual embargo; about how we can restart the crucial Middle East peace process; and about a whole host of other issues that have gotten lost in the narrow focus on his alleged relationship with a White House intern.

Perhaps the most important question to ask about leaders is the trustworthiness of their moral compass, upon which all of their judgments depend. Whatever the state of the Clinton presidency when you finally read this piece, that still will be the most important question to ask—of all of us.

Lives of Peacemaking

On the afternoon of January 27, we got an urgent call asking us to pray for Spencer Perkins, who had just been rushed to the hospital. Son of evangelical leader John Perkins, Spencer had become a powerful symbol of racial reconciliation in his own right. About an hour later, we received word that Spencer had died of a massive heart attack. He was 43, and leaves behind his wife Nancy and their three children.

With his friend Chris Rice, Spencer Perkins co-edited Reconcilers, and with their families and others had started a Christian community in Jackson, Mississippi. Spencer Perkins spoke often across the nation about the spiritual and political imperative of racial reconciliation, and about the need for radical grace if we ever hope to bridge the racial divide in America.

Many today talk about the need for forging deep personal relations across racial lines, while others speak of the irreplaceable requirement of racial and economic justice. Spencer linked the two together and actually demonstrated their deep biblical connection. Spencer's gentle spirit and his sharp intellect made him a very effective activist and ambassador for racial reconciliation.

We will miss Spencer sorely. While we will all have to go on without our brother, his legacy and vision will endure. May Spencer Perkins' death become an occasion for each of us to renew our own commitment to true racial reconciliation—with both justice and love. I encourage readers to make a memorial gift to the Spencer Perkins' children fund, c/o John Perkins Foundation, P.O. Box 32, Jackson, MS 39205.

I will also never forget Maurice ("Mac") McCrackin, who died in December at age 92. Called "Cincinnati's own Mother Teresa," Mac was an exemplary Christian pastor and activist who "just spent every day helping people," as his friend Chuck Matthei once said. Mac's gentle soul contained a passionate fire for peace and justice that never diminished, even with failing health in his last few years. He was arrested more than 20 times for nonviolent civil disobedience and said, "I never had more peace of mind than when I was in jail because I believed in what I was doing and I had followed through." But it was in the less public moments that Mac's commitment to the victims of racial segregation, the poor, the homeless, prisoners, the sick, and the elderly was so amazingly faithful and consistent.

I've seldom met a person with such strength of conviction. I'll never forget a time he came to Washington to join our Peace Pentecost actions. Once in jail, Mac always quietly but steadfastly refused to cooperate with his captors by not eating, drinking, or moving on his own volition. Tough federal marshals tried to force Mac to walk by brutally twisting his arms and fingers, breaking his thumbs, and finally using a electric "stun gun" on an 80-year-old man—all to no avail. Later Mac was literally dragged into the courtroom, only to hear the charges against him dropped. "I don't know what happened," he said to me. "They're just afraid of you, Mac," I replied. That day the system had taken on more than it could deal with in Mac McCrackin, who had the capacity neither to be rude nor to compromise the things he believed.

Ernest Bromley, the person that Mac McCrackin said was responsible for "my adult delinquency," died just a week before Mac, at the age of 78. Also a longtime civil rights and peace activist, Ernest met Mac trying to desegregate the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music in 1948. The two pastors each got into trouble with the church over their actions for racial justice and peace. Ernest was one of the early founders of a group called Peacemakers, which supported a whole generation of activists from the 1950s onward.

That generation of "elders" represented by Mac and Ernest has almost all passed now, but their legacy and influence continues in the countless people whose lives they touched. Their lives stand as testimony of their determination and faithfulness in taking unpopular positions, often against great opposition. In 1991, 85-year old Mac McCrackin and 71-year-old Ernest Bromley climbed the White House fence to protest the Gulf war. "We made it over the fence, with a little push, believe it or not," said Mac. Ernest and Mac made believers out of many of us.

Finally, we mark the passing of John Howard Yoder, a peacemaker who made his contribution from the academic, church, and publishing world. Yoder died of a heart attack December 30, the day after his 70th birthday. Possessing one of the sharpest analytical minds I've ever encountered, Yoder made the most articulate and thorough case for the nonviolent way of Jesus of any scholar in the last half of the 20th century. His Politics of Jesus stands out as one of the most influential theological works of our time. Yoder, an early contributing editor to Sojourners, was a formative figure in our development. He taught and served as president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkart, Indiana, and later taught at the University of Notre Dame.

The breadth of John Yoder's intellectual and theological interest was truly extraordinary. He forced pacifist Christians to think much more rigorously and to be honest enough to confront the hard questions. At the same time, he forced non-pacifist Christians to take the nonviolent way of the cross much more seriously. Yoder carried on a remarkable dialogue with those from the just war tradition, including military officers, about its strengths and weaknesses. He would say it was an effort to keep everyone accountable.

Incidents of sexual impropriety two decades ago brought Yoder estrangement from the Mennonite Church and dismissal from AMBS. More recently, he went through a formal process of restitution that included apologies to all of the women involved, after which he was reinstated in the ministry of his church. At his memorial service, John Yoder's son-in-law, Tom Yoder Neufeld, described his father-in-law as "a strange combination of power and weakness," in a meditation on II Corinthians 4:7, "treasures in jars of clay." Neufeld noted that "in the best of times certain earthen vessels have rough edges," and "in the worst of times they fall and break and have shards that cut deeply and wound." But earthen vessel as he was, John Yoder inspired a whole generation of Christians to follow the way of Jesus into social action and peacemaking.

A Significant Transition

We are also approaching a significant transition here at Sojourners. You may have noticed the ad in this issue seeking a new publisher/managing director. Joe Roos, one of our founders who has served as Sojourners publisher since 1971, will be leaving later this year to explore new venues of ministry. Since we first met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 27 years ago, Joe has been colleague and confidante, brother and friend. While we will miss terribly his invaluable dedication, wisdom, and leadership, we go forward with the knowledge that this ministry that Joe helped birth will always carry his spirit. In a future issue we'll have further opportunity to celebrate this milestone in Joe's journey, and ours.

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