We celebrated the festival of All Saints today at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, complete with incense, Russian Orthodox chant (with real Russians!), baptisms and hymns that shook the rafters. And of course we read old Ben Sirach’s hagiographa on the righteousness of fame and power, “Let us now praise famous men…” (Ecclesiasticus 44:1).
In the midst of all the liturgical seism, I couldn’t help but think of two famous men that were not being praised: Saddam Hussein and Ted Haggard. Each was on the receiving end of guilty verdicts today: Saddam’s for murder and Ted’s for “sexual immorality.” Each had it all, by the standards of those who set those standards: riches, power and influence. Each proved a traitor to the gifts he had been given.
Saddam, once a young reformer, set out to bring his oppressed people into the modern world, but ended as a deposed tyrant, wearing filthy rags, hiding in a hole in the ground. Ted, once a young and idealistic pastor, built a 14,000 member mega-church, and influenced the beliefs of millions of American Christians including the President of the United States. He ended as a defrocked and broken man, bemoaning his own sojourn in “the dirt.”
Saddam gets an appeal, but unless the balance of power shifts in Iraq, he will eventually hang, his body twisting in the Chaldean desert wind. Ted will be shuffled off to counseling to try to make him an ex-gay-ex-pastor (and maybe to get him off crank).
What Saddam and Ted have most in common is not the guilty verdicts, it’s the debilitating denial that brought them to their end. Saddam just couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t be the Caliph of Pan-Arabia. Ted just couldn’t believe he was gay. They each fought wars to try to maintain their fantastic lies. Saddam killed 300,000 of his own people and maybe another half a million Iranians and Kuwaitis. Ted killed his ministry, his family life, his integrity. He may have helped kill the evangelical ascendancy in American politics as well.
There’s another part of old Sirach’s work that doesn’t make it into the Church lectionary. and it’s too bad, because it’s a lot closer to the truth of the human condition than the All Saints lection: “Be not a hypocrite in the sight of men, and let not thy lips be a stumbling block to thee. Watch over them, lest thou fall, and bring dishonour upon thy soul, and God discover thy secrets, and cast thee down in the midst of the congregation.” (Sirach 1:37-39)
The tragedy of infamy is no less painful to watch when it is self-inflicted.