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The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle,

The Scarlet Letter painting by Hugues Merle

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance is an 1850 work of fiction in a historical setting, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is considered to be his magnum opus:

“In June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston, a crowd gathers to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman found guilty of adultery. She is required to wear a scarlet “A” (“A” standing for adulterer) on her dress to shame her. She must stand on the scaffold for three hours, to be exposed to public humiliation…” (Wikipedia)

Hawthorne’s book probably did more damage than any other to the reputation of Puritans. Though this is a fictional account, some want to believe there existed such a mean-spirited and self-righteous bunch as those Puritans. For a considerably healthier counterbalance, and much better historical analysis, I highly recommend J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

Ashley Madison and the Scarlet Letter

But here we are in 2015 with the “great Ashley Madison hack” performed by people allegedly motivated, not by greed, but by “puritanical” (sic) moral outrage in response to the website’s “fraud, stupidity and deceit”. Anne Kingston writes in Ashley Madison hack: Project Unicorn meets The Scarlet Letter:

“It’s uncharted territory, a bizarre hybrid of Scarlet Letter-style moralizing and high-tech vigilantism played out in an amorphous space that’s next-to-impossible to patrol. A cast of thousands—U.S. Homeland Security, FBI, RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, along with ‘top security experts from around the world’—have been called in… to solve ‘one of the largest data breaches in the world.'”

A man looks at the Ashley Madison website in this photo illustration in Toronto on Thursday, August 20, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

A man looks at the Ashley Madison website in this photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy.

Ashley Madison’s provides a voyeuristic portal into mass marital ennui and the fact that adultery still summons shame. The result is a 19th-century morality play enacted in a reality-show digital age, one now punctuated by the potential tragedy of “unconfirmed” suicides. Would-be or bona fide adulterers aren’t only plastered with a scarlet A, but branded for paying to commit adultery, and as naive for trusting that their identities would be protected on an adultery website.

Yes, adultery still summons shame – almost to the surprise of moderns who think “we’ve gotten past that haven’t we?” But when a promise as profound as marriage fidelity is broken, people feel violated; they know something is broken and unhealthy.

Cathy Gulli writes:

Some people were surprised they couldn’t reset their account passwords, and that Avid Life Media, which owns Ashley Madison, wasn’t responding to their emails and phone calls. They couldn’t grasp it’s because there’s an international investigation under way; and the company that promotes adultery probably doesn’t suddenly care about your ruined life.

Adultery as a confused Sexual Identity?

Consistent with my ongoing interest in identity, let me state for the record that one’s identity ought not be reduced to one’s sexuality, including adultery. That the Scarlet Letter is the story of a woman who had to bear the scarlet “A” on her, is demeaning, not only because it lacked redemptive forgiveness and grace, but because it reduced her to a sexual identity that could not possibly recognize the dignity of her worth as a person.

While I have known some men who are “proud” of their extra-marital affairs (until they are caught), I do not know of any adultery-pride parades (yet). That may be because adultery is the largest cohort among all other reductionistic sexual identities. A society that winks and nods at adultery surely has little to say about all the other identity confusions. What remains a mystery to moderns is, “why should adultery still summon shame?”

Perhaps adultery is that last line in the ever-changing and erasing sands of sexual behaviour that speaks to something of great dignity in us. To be faithful in marriage, or any kind of relationship is self-sacrificial, and, I would contend – a parable of the faithfulness of God to us; it says something of His DNA character in us, or of a lingering memory of character in general.

Looking for the right response?

When looking for a redemptive “moral” response to adultery, we need look no further than Jesus’ example in John 8:

While He was teaching, the scribes and Pharisees brought in a woman who was caught in the act of adultery; and they stood her before Jesus.

Pharisees: ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Moses says in the law that we are to kill such women by stoning. What do You say about it?’

This was all set up as a test for Jesus; His answers would give them grounds to accuse Him of crimes against Moses’ law. Jesus bent over and wrote something in the dirt with His finger. They persisted in badgering Jesus, so He stood up straight.

Jesus: ‘Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned.’

Once again Jesus bent down to the ground and resumed writing with His finger. The Pharisees who heard Him stood still for a few moments and then began to leave slowly, one by one, beginning with the older men. Eventually only Jesus and the woman remained, and Jesus looked up.

Jesus: ‘Dear woman, where is everyone? Are we alone? Did no one step forward to condemn you?’

Woman Caught in Adultery:  ‘Lord, no one has condemned me.’

Jesus: ‘Well, I do not condemn you either; Go now and leave your life of sin.

Like the novel, Scarlet Letter, only the woman caught in the act is brought to be judged (where is the man, we do not know), but unlike the Scarlet Letter, Jesus neither shames her, nor reduces her identity to her sin, to her sexual brokenness, or to some sexual identity.

And, neither does He give her a pass, as if breaking the marriage vows could ever be a good thing. Neither is He leading a movement to rewrite the 7th Commandment (do not commit adultery). He is not marshalling the parade away from God, and therefore, away from life.

Instead: Jesus affirms that He does not condemn her, AND He exhorts her to leave her life of sin. It is THIS paradox that speaks more to enigma than dogma – in contrast to people on either side – dogmatically condemning, or dogmatically saying “it’s all okay.”

“Life is short, have an affair” ???

How might the “slogan” of Ashely Madison sound now if you, or someone you know, have been exposed in the website’s “fraud, stupidity and deceit”? I have compassion for the deep pain you are experiencing, and for the realization of the deep pain you have caused people whose trust and love you have broken. I do not demand your personal shame or condemnation. But I do nudge you to look to Jesus in whose presence you will begin to find healing for your brokenness, and restoration of your identity.

Life is Short… but you have just enough time to seek the One who made you for Himself… by His love and for His delight!!!

In Christ you will find the psychic scarlet letter taken off you as He helps you repent – as He walks with you from adultery to relational wholeness (since adultery is more about relationship than about sex). He will do this by His Spirit, and (gasp), He will use His Church in community around you.

For more on the “enigma”, see Looking for a Cosmic Mystery, or Sexuality R Us.