This morning I read that more allegations of sexual harassment and predation have been made against Kevin Spacey, who has been widely criticized for coming out as gay as a way to deflect attention from the first public allegation, which involved attempted child molestation. In a case of life imitating art, it turns out that Spacey may be as creepy as Frank Underwood. And as his reputation and career are taking hit after hit, it looks as if his own house of cards may experience the collapse Underwood always manages to avoid.

I’ve always admired Kevin Spacey as an actor and entertainer. His performances have been among the most moving and captivating of the past 25 years. Along with the many other actors and producers who are being exposed as sexual predators, we’re left wondering what to do with their work. Can I still watch Spacey’s performances, as beautiful as they are, now that I know what he was doing behind the scenes? Does anything less than a complete rejection of his work make me complicit in his behavior, which was no doubt obscured for so long because of the power and influence of his craft?

I can live without ever watching another Kevin Spacey film or television show. But what about the work of flawed men (and women) on which I depend in a more significant way?

Paul Tillich

This hit home for me today as I made plans to read Paul Tillich with a friend and ministry colleague. Tillich’s theology has been deeply influential for me personally and professionally. Yet it is well known that sexual abuse allegations have been made against him. When I was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the early 2000s, rumors still circulated about his unwanted advances on female students. Jokes were made and his behavior was written off in the way our culture is increasingly unwilling to do. After so quickly turning on Kevin Spacey, I feel like a hypocrite for sticking with Paul Tillich. Even though Tillich is long dead, am I just as guilty as those who enabled Harvey Weinstein by turning a blind eye to his “openly secret” behavior?

Unfortunately, for Christians the list of compromised theologians and spiritual leaders goes well beyond Tillich: Augustine; Peter Abelard; Martin Luther; John Calvin; Ulrich Zwingli; John Knox; Soren Kierkegaard; John Wesley; Jonathan Edwards; C.S. Lewis; Karl Barth; Martin Luther King, Jr.; John Howard Yoder (sources: here and here). Marci Glass brought to my attention that there has been an allegation of sexual abuse made against Elie Wiesel. Elie Wiesel! Shall we jettison all of these? And what about deeply flawed biblical heroes like Moses, David, and Solomon?

We’re all flawed, of course. I hope my work isn’t judged and dismissed because of moral (and other) failures, big or small. But, as our social media age is demonstrating, we can’t dictate or control how other people feel about us and our sins. We also can’t control whether these sins are publicly exposed. Thank goodness the empowerment of voices long silenced is bringing to light the sexual harassment and abuse that has clearly been prominent among men of power for centuries, regardless of their sphere of influence.

The truth is, we all live and work in houses of cards. It’s just a matter of time before they collapse. The question is, what do we do with our cards—and the cards of others—after they come crashing down?

I believe that redemption is possible if we sincerely change our hearts and lives. For those who are no longer living, it may be possible to redeem their legacy if we are open and honest about their flaws and learn from them. We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we play our cards now and in the future.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. Thank you John. I have been both fascinated and appalled by the sheer magnitude of the allegations and accusations that have flooded the media these past several weeks. Many of us have been sexually harassed at some point in our history — not necessarily by prominent figures — but what catalyst has opened the floodgates at this moment in our history? Has it been the empowerment of women coming forward because they simply will no longer tolerate being abused in this manner? Is it the horrible examples being set by the media (and our current administration). Or is it some other factor of which I’m unaware?

    • I think it is the power of social media, which is where most of these reports and allegations are lodged. It’s analogous to the way social media were leveraged in the Arab Spring.

  2. John that was well written and timely. Leave aside for a minute the failings of men and women who we have admired for their art or wisdom or inspiration. It is as hard to come to terms with things I have done that make me embarrassed to think about. I can only think that as you say we are inevitably flawed as humans but are offered grace anyway. Perhaps that means we can celebrate the real contributions those you named have made while learning and teaching from the flaws. Of course that is simplistic but maybe it is a start

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