“I have a little story. Do you feel like a story?” It was all over TV, radio, the Internet and newspapers this weekend. David Letterman, host of CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, told his Thursday night audience about being blackmailed by Robert J. “Joe” Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show 48 Hours Mystery. Evidently, Halderman threatened that unless he received $2 million, he would produce a film and write a book about affairs that Letterman had with female staffers on his show. Letterman admitted, “The creepy stuff is that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
Letterman’s actual telling of the story was amazing.
- What he presented as a folksy “Do you feel like a story?” was, in fact, a sordid tale of attempted extortion, which was terrifying to Letterman and his family.
- The reaction of the audience was fascinating. Accustomed to Letterman’s comedic style of poking fun at others and himself, people laughed and clapped through the story, assuming it was some sort of joke. Eventually sensing that something was amiss, the laughter turned nervous.
- Although this was not the occasion for a public apology for his behavior, Letterman confirmed the allegations and even said, “I am a towering mass of Lutheran Midwestern guilt.”
Certainly, we feel sorry for the fear that has engulfed Letterman and his family over the past 3 weeks. No one should have to live looking over their shoulder, wondering who is out to get them. Yet, this is reality for many celebrities, who can’t go anywhere without being surrounded by security guards. A woman was repeatedly jailed for stalking Letterman during the 1990’s, and four years ago a painter on Letterman’s ranch was charged with plotting to kidnap his 16-month-old son.
On the other hand, this bizarre story is unsettling. We wonder: is there more than one victim here? Although Letterman told his story from the viewpoint of being an extortioner’s victim, could the women also be victims of Letterman’s inappropriate sexual behavior? Even if the workplace sex was consensual rather than coerced, David Letterman was clearly the boss, and there was an imbalance or even abuse of power inherent in the act. Almost all organizations today, including our churches, have sexual harassment policies, which demonstrate little tolerance for the abuse of power in relationships. Unfortunately, a company’s culture and unspoken attitudes surrounding workplace relationships can overrule written policies.
It’s also no secret that Letterman, like all late night comedians, has made a great living by making fun of the moral and sexual escapades of politicians and celebrities. Now the tables are turned. How is it that our culture has allowed infidelity to be the object of humor? How have we encouraged comedians to disparage and, at times, even destroy the reputation of others, all in the name of entertainment? What does it say about our society that we enjoy getting our laughs from people who mess up?
At a time when our nation is lamenting the demise of civil discourse and is experiencing increasing polarization around political, moral and religious issues, I am encouraged by the careful reflection that I have heard about the Letterman case. What might thoughtful conversation around sin, grace and judgment look like in our churches, schools, and businesses? How can people of faith speak to our culture?
I propose that this week everyone in our churches carefully read and ponder John 8:1-11, a “little story” about a woman caught in adultery. Maybe you could even gather a few people together to discuss the scripture in light of the Letterman incident. Are you aware that the earliest, most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament do not include this story? St. Augustine gives us a hint by saying that this story was removed from the gospel because “some were of slight faith” and in order to “avoid scandal.”
The scandal is that Jesus seems to perhaps be condoning adultery here and is promoting a casual view of sexual relationships. The early Christian church had to be very strict in its discipline in order not to be corrupted by the world, and it seems as if the ease with which Jesus forgave the woman was difficult for the church to reconcile with its own severe punishment. Therefore, it appears that the early church just didn’t include the story of the woman caught in adultery in its sacred writings. From all indications, the story was so gracious that the early Christians were afraid to tell it! It’s not that they didn’t believe it ever happened. They just thought it was too dangerous to repeat!
As you read the scripture, consider these questions:
- Should we define people by the worst thing they have ever done, whether it’s David Letterman, Joe Halderman, or you? Are leaders held to a higher standard than others?
- If the church has open hearts, open minds and open doors, aren’t all people welcome in the church, regardless of their past? But don’t we need some standards of behavior? Where is it appropriate for someone who has mismanaged money, or a sex offender, or someone convicted of a violent crime to serve in the church?
- If we read Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we notice that both the man and the woman are sentenced to death if they’re caught in the act of adultery. But in this story the woman gets all the blame. Where’s the man? Is this story about morality or justice?
- Is it in our human nature to cast stones at others while ignoring our own sin? How does the meaning of this story change when we learn that the Greek phrase translated as, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” literally means “without a sinful desire?”
- Do you think Jesus was too gracious by forgiving the woman caught in adultery? Is it possible to show grace without covering up, ignoring or minimizing sin?
- Is it realistic to think that the church can become an authentic and engaging place where we open the door of grace and invite others to encounter the transforming grace of Jesus Christ as we honestly wrestle with sin – especially our own sin?
David Letterman’s revelation was an instant success – for CBS, anyway. His Friday night ratings were up 38% over those of the week before. However, there are no winners in this sad story, and I continue to pray for peace for David Letterman, Joe Halderman, the woman staffers, and all of their families.
As you and I journey along the road toward the Christian perfection of which John Wesley spoke, we will continue to struggle with knowing whether to judge or not to judge, to show compassion or not to show compassion, to be hard-nosed or be merciful. We struggle with these stones. All I know is that the story of the woman caught in adultery was too gracious for the early church to even tell. All I know is that Jesus was too gracious for many people to believe in him. All I know is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) All I know is that our God is a God of second chances, and if I haven’t needed that second chance yet, someday I will.
“Woman, there are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”