Last week, as the Christian season of Lent was getting underway, Tiger Woods, a Buddhist, confessed his sins in public.
Skeptics called it a publicity stunt. Broadcast and cable news anchors noted how “scripted” it was. In one of the sillier attempts at milking this story for all (for much more than) it’s worth, a TV reporter asked a random group of college-age women their opinions on the news conference and, more generally, on the person of Mr. Woods. The resulting five minutes of footage did not make for inspired viewing.
The televised confessions of celebrities and politicians are commonplace now, and conventional wisdom holds that they are a necessary part of damage control and the salvaging of careers and reputations (and, in some cases, of future earning potential).
All of that may be true for Tiger Woods–I don’t know. He seemed genuinely pained to me, script or no script, humiliated by the web of deceit and suffering his actions have spun. But I’m not a fan of these kinds of public mea culpa rituals since confession of sin presupposes a community of trust and accountability, and a roomful of reporters and several million anonymous viewers can’t be that kind of community for Tiger Woods.
What is most striking, though, is the scorn and vitriol heaped on this man; the lack of charity and compassion; the strange, baseless logic that says you can’t feel bad for Tiger’s wife and for him, too.
It’s old-fashioned judgmentalism that looks at Tiger Woods and thinks,
“Thank God I’m not like that guy.”
“I hope his wife takes him for all he’s worth.”
“What he did was unforgiveable.”
Herbert McCabe suggests that the root of all sin is our “very deep fear that we are nothing.” And out of that fear is born the compulsion to “construct a self-flattering image of ourselves . . . an illusory self that we can admire, instead of the real self that we can only love.”
Some may say that this is an apt description of what Tiger Woods has done but, of course, it nails all the rest of us, too. During Lent we are asked to set aside pretense and affect–our illusory selves; to become aware, as James Alison puts it, “of our own complicity in hypocrisy,” and of “how violent that hypocrisy is”; to realize that God does not love us because we are good but because God is good.
As for Tiger’s teleprompted mea culpa, it’s worth remembering that the confession of sin is scripted: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And there are other script(ure)s–the Psalms, especially–that put into words what the human heart struggles to say:
Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
We will pray this prayer in our public worship on the second Sunday in Lent, from the day’s appointed Psalter reading. As we pray it, may we be relieved of our “militant certainty as to the evil of the other” (Alison), and look on others–friends and foes, neighbors and strangers alike–with the same compassion with which God looks on us.