As I have reflected this week on today’s readings, two men have been very much in my mind. One is dead, the other still alive, but for the reputation of each of them the last week has been a difficult one.
The first, unless you have been on holiday on a distant planet, you will know. He’s Harvey Weinstein, a very powerful Holywood Producer, now a convicted rapist, who stands accused by more than a hundred women of a whole variety of sexual offences. The second, however, some of you may not have heard of. Or if you have, you may not be aware of the recent publicity that has surfaced around his memory. He died last year and his name is Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a world-wide network of communities where men and women with learning disabilities live with people who don’t have learning disabilities, whatever that means. I have never met anyone who did not have learning disabilities of one kind or another. But that’s a discussion for another day. In the meantime, there are currently two L’Arche communities in Scotland, one in Edinburgh and the other in Inverness, both doing wonderful work.
So why has Jean Vanier been in the News this week? Well, it’s because an internal enquiry by L’Arche has revealed that, during his life, he sexually abused at least six women. This was particularly bad because it was done in the course of Spiritual Direction. I should perhaps add that Jean Vanier was a layman, not a priest, and there’s no suggestion that he abused children or adults with learning disabilities. But what has made this so difficult for many people is the fact that, during his life and even more so after his death last year, he was considered a saint by thousands, if not millions, of people. One person called Elizabeth wrote me a long email this week in which she expressed the pain and confusion of many, as she struggled to reconcile the enormous good Jean Vanier did in his life with what he did to those women who put their trust in him. “It’s gross and deplorable what he has done in abusing his power”, she writes, “but should the work he did be tarnished, too?”, adding “I feel sad to see photos on twitter of Vanier’s books being put in the bin and his life now being demonized. It is so easy to build up a hero, a saint, and then feel duped, jump on the popular bandwagon, and knock him off his pedestal.” So what does today’s liturgy have to say about this?
Well, both the book of Genesis and the Gospel speak about temptation. The serpent, we heard, was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made, and that is certainly true of temptation in general. It can be very subtle. You may have heard Harvey Weinstein’s personal assistant, also one of his victims, being interviewed during the week. Asked what she thought would be going on for him in his prison cell, she said he would be convinced he had done nothing wrong. In Jean Vanier’s case he also believed that he was doing nothing wrong. He believed that what was happening was about spiritual healing, something I can well believe, because I have met the victims of two men who believed the same thing and behaved in the same way. Temptation is subtle for us all and the older we get the more subtle it becomes. We can convince ourselves of almost anything. Sin always seems a good idea at the time and when, like Adam and Eve, our eyes are opened, it’s too late. What’s done cannot be undone.
And at the heart of all temptation is power. ‘All power’ Lord Acton famously said, ‘corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Harvey Weinstein was a man who wielded immense power. And so he thought he could do whatever he wanted. Well, maybe now, as he sits in his prison cell, his eyes, too, will have been opened to see the truth about himself. Jean Vanier was not powerful in the normal sense of the word. He devoted his whole life to living with the weak and the powerless. But the serpent is so subtle, that, who knows, maybe all the adulation, all the talk of sanctity while he was still alive, all the books he sold and the talks he gave, became for him, the serpent’s weapon of choice. But we will never know that. But we should all be very wary of people who put us on pedestals. It will not be long until they are knocking us off them.
And then comes Jesus in the Gospel. His temptation was all about power, too. Turn stones into bread. Jump off the temple and people will believe you. Fall down and worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus resists this. He rejects the way of power and shows us a new way where the greatest in worldly terms must become the servant of all. Pride and power are evil twins. They go together and lie at the root of so many evils in the world. The sexual weakness of Harvey Weinstein and Jean Vanier have been exposed this week for all to see. But these are only symptoms of a much deeper evil, the lust for power, the desire to be gods, and it’s that which Jesus rejects in no uncertain terms.
So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Well, be very wary of worldly ambition. Don’t put anyone on a pedestal. They will fall off it. Like Elizabeth, many throughout the world right now are hurt and disappointed because of what we have learned about Jean Vanier. And when this happens, the serpent’s work is easy. How many people in recent years have left the Church because of the sins of its members and, in some cases lost faith in God as well. But if we accept from the start that we are all flawed, weaks human beings, that no-one is without sin, then, no matter what happens, we will survive it. Sin, as Paul said today, has spread through the whole human race, not unlike the coronavirus. It’s everywhere. And so the two big things we need to do are; take the plank out of our own eye first and then put our trust in a God who is never disappointed in any of us because he never had unrealistic expectations in the first place.
And that includes the Harvey Weinsteins and Jean Vaniers of this world. The capacity to do the kind of things they did lies deep inside all of us, and its about dealing with that dark, dangerous, destructive part of ourselves that Lent is for.