Recounted in the Gospel of John, the ancient story is commonly referred to as “the woman caught in adultery”. Our modern day story concerns some scandalous behaviour that occurred during the Calgary Stampede.
The ancient story goes something like this. Some Scribes and Pharisees, accompanied, I imagine, by a crowd of onlookers, brought a woman “caught in the very act of adultery” to Jesus. Their motives are questionable. Not terribly concerned about adultery, they want to trap Jesus with a tricky question. They ask him if they should stone the woman. Jesus, who is in no hurry to answer, bends down and writes in the sand before he looks at the woman’s accusers and says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Beginning with the elders, the crowd slowly disperses as individuals slink away in embarrassed, guilty silence. Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, “Does no one condemn you?” to which she replies, “No.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” responds Jesus.
The modern version of the story goes like this. A young woman and two male friends were cavorting in an alley when a Peeping Tom spotted them, filmed their tryst and posted the video online where it went viral. Viewed by several million people, the woman became the object of online shaming, while the men were applauded.
There have been a number of comments on our modern version of the story. Some contend that there has been a violation of privacy, others focus on society’s growing acceptance of online shaming, while others draw attention to the misogyny inherent in the shaming that slams the woman and high-fives the men. All of these are valid concerns that point to the precarious condition of the collective moral compass.
Let’s return to the crowd in John’s story.
A few individuals had probably whipped up the moral outrage of some in that ancient crowd. Others may have just been along for the ride, not wanting to miss out on a good spectacle. And a spectacle it was, although not the kind they were expecting.
Jesus silenced everyone, effectively asking, “Are you sinless?” He created space for people to think about their own behaviour. With the moral compass swinging away from the woman towards their own shortcomings, people in John’s crowd had the good sense to shut up and go home.
Not so for today’s online shaming crowd. With technology providing an instant platform to condemn someone else’s bad behaviour, our crowd was neither predisposed nor inclined towards self-reflection. And with no one but the online mob as guide, it was all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves.
Without even realizing it, the online crowd called its own moral credibility into question. It was, you might say, “caught in the very act” of voyeuristic tendencies, which are hardly a hallmark of integrity. In shaming, the group restricted moral conduct to the breaking of sexual taboos. They forgot that the way we treat others outside of intimacy also speaks to the content of our character.
The collective moral compass is in need of repair. No one involved in this sad and sordid affair can claim the moral high road. Everyone – the threesome, the filmmaker, and those who viewed and commented – sullied themselves with their failure to respect the innate dignity of the human person.
Our ancient story teaches that sin is not excused, but forgiven. Moral slip-ups are not a cause for condemnation. They are an opportunity for tweaking a wobbly moral compass and getting back on track.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.