The Tragedy Of Adultery

The Tragedy Of Adultery

The adultery of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has raised many questions for public debate. But sadly, the debate has only illustrated the incompetence of our media and politicians, and the inadequacy of the Australian culture to deal with these questions.

From the outset, let me make it clear that this article is not written from a political bias. Similarly, I have no private knowledge or personal involvement with the people caught up in this tragedy. I call it a ‘tragedy’ because it is. Nobody involved is now happier than beforehand. While I am sorry for them and would offer to help if I knew them, I am writing about the principles this tragedy illustrates, not sitting in judgement on the people involved (I know I’m a sinner unable to throw any stone, John 8).

My concern is the inadequacy of the debate and the way principles have been ignored, obscured or distorted by the media and politicians alike: Principles of leadership, privacy, marriage, parenting and adultery.

It is a tragedy that sells papers: sex, power, conflict, money – it has it all. An opportunity to embarrass and divide the government, to bring down a leader, to reveal the hypocrisy of a religious moralist – it is a politician’s and journalist’s dream. But apparently the politicians/journalists had to handle it delicately lest they be accused of moralising, invading privacy, returning to Puritanism, or opening up any inquiry into the home life of other politicians, journalists or staffers. ‘Love is love’ and people’s sex lives must not come into any moral question. 

So, last week the discussions began with the media’s right to publish details of politicians’ private lives. Some guilty politicians joined Mr Joyce in claiming the privacy privilege. It moved to discussions of the use of the public purse and finding jobs for a paramour. And finished with the Prime Minister making new rules (with a gender perspective) about relationships between politicians and their subordinates. All of which is just smoke and mirrors – pretending to deal with an issue without even naming the problem. Making sure the ‘power agenda’ of Canberra is central and the moral lessons of a tragedy and the corruption of our political/media elite are never exposed.

Even the Prime Minister, who was ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ at seeing the ‘world of woe’ that Mr Joyce had inflicted on his wife and daughters, could not bring himself to deal with the moral reality of the situation. He reduced the whole tragic affair to ‘an error of judgement’. While he spoke of ‘forgiveness and understanding’ he said nothing of wrongdoing, or immorality, or adultery. Rather, he explicitly eschewed ‘moralising’, while introducing a new morality! A new morality with a ‘gender perspective’ of ‘respect and integrity’ in the workplace and ‘honour and respect’ of politicians’ families – expressed in a new moral rule of ministers not having sex with their office staff. All the while journalists were writing sentences like “One good thing to come out of this godawful mess is a baby who will be kept by its biological parents and no doubt grandly loved.” I wonder how much fatherly love the four daughters feel now?

So, let me return to the five principles I mentioned earlier “leadership, privacy, marriage, parenting and adultery” and look at each in turn.                                                                         

1. Leadership

True leadership is a matter of character more than competency, or to put it another way, the chief competency of leadership is character. People who can exercise power and influence over others are very dangerous. The quality of their character is what differentiates the great leaders from the wicked abusers, and worse, tyrants. Leadership that ennobles and enhances followers is a matter of character. While competencies are easily seen and demonstrated, character reveals itself in actions over time. Competencies may get you a job but failure in character will get you sacked.

Leaving your wife of twenty-four years and your four daughters, to enter into a sexual relationship with another woman, whom you impregnate, reveals a serious character flaw. It is more than ‘an error in judgement’; it is failure to live by Mr Joyce’s stated values or those of any responsible husband or father.

Community leaders are rightly expected to demonstrate higher standards of character. Judges, teachers, doctors, ministers – whoever is in position of community leadership is required to demonstrate high standards of personal integrity. Even professional footballers are required not simply to play football well but also to act socially in ways that will not harm but bring credit to their code!

Nobody is more of a community leader than somebody elected for the good government of our nation. Trust is what every leader needs. But if a man will not keep his solemn promises to his wife, why should the electorate ever believe his political promises? With so many adulterers in parliament and the media, is it any wonder that the community doesn’t trust our parliamentarians or journalists.

2. Privacy

The public discussion has been conducted in terms of privacy. Should the media have revealed this affair? Or should journalists continue the censorious and hypocritical practice of turning a blind eye? Journalists appear to have no qualms about intruding on other people’s privacy, so why do they turn the blind eye on this issue? Is their concern for politicians’ privacy a defence mechanism to protect their own privacy and avoid accusations of hypocrisy and double standards? Are they using their power of censoring the news in order to change community standards on sexual morality?

We keep being told that nobody wants the government or the media to be investigating the activities of people in their homes – but frankly that’s a straw man. It is not even remotely relevant in this case. Over many years, Mr Joyce publicly presented himself as a family man using pictures of his wife and daughters, actively engaged in his campaigns. The issue of the moment is not a prurient interest in sexual behaviour but of the morality, integrity and hypocrisy of such a public family man being destroyed by an equally public admission of adulterously fathering another child.

3. Marriage

Closely related to the previous point, is a failure to understand marriage. This is appalling given the last six months of discussion about marriage in the political arena. The Canberra community of politicians, staffers and journalists have been leading the nation to change the marriage act. Yet, for years they have been acting in ways contrary to marriage and hypocritically covering it up under the guise of privacy.

In this current tragedy, the Canberra elite are demonstrating, especially by their discussion of privacy, an almost total misunderstanding of the nature of marriage. For fundamental to marriage is its public nature. The difference between a de facto relationship and a de jure marriage is not a pretty dress and a big party but the publicly expressed and registered declaration of a sexual relationship. Marriage, qua marriage, is never a private matter – it is by its very nature the public building block of our society.

While the best way to conduct a marriage is in love, the heart of marriage is found in faithfulness. Marriage is a contract, publicly declared and registered, conveying in words the promise for the future. It only works when people are trustworthy i.e. faithful. The nature of Australian marriage is monogamous – bigamy and polygamy are not acceptable. We make promises about forsaking all others until death parts us. Adultery is an open breach of publicly declared undertakings. Indeed, adultery is the most pointed and extreme form of unfaithfulness.

In nearly fifty years of pastoral ministry, I have seen repeatedly the devastating effects of adultery. It’s not the sex, per se – but the faithlessness: the lies; the double life; the betrayal. It breeds insecurity in relationships and identity confusion in children. This brings us fourthly to parenting.

4. Parenting

The current debate fails to understand parenting. To a large extent marriage is about reproductive sex. It is about creating and maintaining a context in which children are not only brought into the world but also raised into adulthood. Mr Joyce’s behaviour will have done irreparable harm to his daughters and to his unborn fifth child. Their life will never be the same as they seek to adapt to this betrayal.

5. Adultery

Lying behind all the aforementioned problems is the failure of our society to call out adultery, for the harmful, hurtful, violent, antisocial evil that it is. Adultery is not ‘an error of judgement’; it is an intentional action of wilful immorality. The man is not the only guilty party here. Guilt must also be laid at the woman’s feet. She must have known that she was having sex with another woman’s husband.

Adultery is not “falling in love” but always “failing in love”. You may feel loving but that’s confusing love with lust – for love is always concerned for the welfare of others. Adultery is never concerned for the welfare of others. For you cannot love your spouse and commit adultery. You cannot love your paramour’s spouse while committing adultery. You do not love your paramour when you commit adultery – it is never for the other person’s welfare.

Adultery is profoundly antisocial. The intense pain that adultery inflicts on the spouse does not finish with the spouse and the children. The dissolution of the family soon causes pain to aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, parents and grandparents. The sorrow and grief spreads like cancer through the society. The economic ruin of the family is unevenly and unjustly distributed in a no-fault divorce society.

The idea that respect expressed in consent is all the morality required is wholly inadequate. The Prime minister’s new morality implies Ms Campion was a woman not able to make a free and informed consent because she was not as powerful as Mr Joyce. The ‘power difference’ becomes the new morality trumping the real issues: the nature of marriage; the importance and responsibility of child rearing; the place of sacrificial love over sexual lust – the evil and disastrous consequences of adulterous unfaithfulness.

It's sad times like these public events, when we see so clearly the destructive consequences of adultery destroying lives and reputations, that should stop us fooling ourselves with some kind of new morality of consent and respect. There is no indication that either Mr Joyce or Ms Campion failed in consent or respect when they both consented to intentionally disrespect Mrs Joyce and her four daughters. Yet, as the Prime Minister said, their actions have “set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us”.

6. God

Finally, there is another dimension to this whole issue when you include God in the debate. For the God of the Bible is not only ‘loving’ but equally ‘faithful’. He made a loving contract with Israel and he faithfully kept his word. He expressed that love for us and his faithfulness of character in the contract’s commandment: “You shall not commit adultery”. God is faithful, and he requires his people to be faithful; faithful to him and faithful to one another, especially in marriage.

Sin has awful consequences. Adultery is no worse than other sins though it does carry some of the worst, irreversible consequences. Addressing the tragedy properly does not start by watering down the seriousness of sin. Failing to call sin, ‘sin’, is not only itself immoral and untruthful but it’s also failing to love our neighbour as ourselves. We do not deal with our sinfulness by pretending we are not sinful or that sin is not sin. We must accept our guilt, acknowledge our failure and, in a real change of heart (not simply a feeling of sorrow or apologising), we must beg for the mercy and forgiveness of those whom we have offended: God, our family and community. Sometimes our family and community will forgive – and sometimes they will not. It is their prerogative to forgive, it is not our right to demand it – we who are guilty can only ask. The great news is that because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, God will forgive – even sinners like me.