“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw stone …”
John 8.7 (NIV)
Today, I’m going to comment on a classically misunderstood verse that isn’t even covered in Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. I normally don’t comment on John 7.53-8.11 as this passage seems to be a late addition, but its frequent quotation has forced me to comment on it. A Christian leader no less than James Dobson says, “I do not condone nor defend Donald Trump’s terrible comments made 11 years ago. They are indefensible and awful. I’m sure there are other misdeeds in his past, although as Jesus said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ I am, however, more concerned about America’s future than Donald Trump’s past. I wonder about how Bill Clinton’s language stands up in private.” This post will show how Dobson’s quotation of John 8.7 is a complete travesty of biblical hermeneutics and literacy.
The story of John 8 is simple. A woman was caught in the act of adultery, most likely in the heat of copulation, and the Pharisees wanted to stone her to death. Jesus asked whether anyone was without sin. Everyone left, and no one condemned her. Dobson and his fan base of course take this as a perfect analogy to Trump’s sexual transgressions. However, the analogy is completely misplaced in the following ways.
The nature of sexual sins is different. In the woman’s case, she was having consensual adulterous sex. While adultery is wrong, it was at least consensual. When Donald Trump says, “I’ve gotta use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful ― I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait… And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab them by the pussy…You can do anything…” Trump just described sexual assault in a few short and lewd sentencet. To many, this happened more than 10 years ago, but sexual assault is the same crime 10 years, 20 years or even 100 years ago. The women gave no consent. Many would find this to be a locker room talk of macho male fantasy. The problem is, Trump has also had allegations launched against him on sexual assault, on peeping at naked underaged Miss Teen USA pageant contestants, and even one pending rape case of a 13 year old girl Katie Johnson. The pattern has never been consensual, locker room fantasy or otherwise. So, please stop analogizing the sin of the adulterous woman with that of Trump. The usage of John 8.7 is immoral!
The problem is never the allegation of sin. Some who look at Trump’s situation are saying that perhaps we should be more forgiving and not judge a man’s words so harshly. In other words, we must silence the critics using religious language. When we look at the story of John 8, Jesus never denied that fact that the woman was sinful. In fact, the language he used in John 8.11 “Neither do I condemn you” is highly legal. Jesus didn’t really pronounce forgiveness per se. He only spared her life. The real person she needed to ask forgiveness should be her husband, but the Bible doesn’t really talk about that. Many want to dismiss Trump’s talk as just locker room stuff, but the locker room stuff appears to be confession of a rape culture that shouldn’t exist in any room, locker room or otherwise. Forgiveness? How about Trump ask forgiveness from those women he groped, but no, he didn’t do that! We don’t have the right or authority to forgive Trump. We aren’t rape victims or victims of sexual harassment. The easy dismissal of a serial behavior from a future leader of the US by Christians makes mockery of all Christian ethics. This easy forgiveness is the reason why sexual abuse is so prevalent in conservative Christian circles (whether Protestant or Catholic). Jesus took sin seriously by using legal language. So should Christians. The usage of John 8.7 mocks the very God on whom this faith is found.
The power relationships between the adulterous woman and Trump are different. Remember the context of the adulterous woman. The Pharisees wanted to stone her. When I read a story like this, I always wonder where the man who committed the crime was. The absence of the adulterous man shows that she was used as a tool to test Jesus. The Pharisees here weren’t after real justice. They merely wanted to force Jesus’ hand in condemning her to death. She was a helpless victim caught in the power game of a society of unequal power between men and women. Trump is far from the status of the powerless. In fact, he’s one of the most powerful men whose accountants and lawyers are capable to help him avoid taxation while he makes millions. We should fix the tax code that enables him to do that. He also acts in a powerful role in the harassment of many women. I know someone’s going to inevitably bring up Bill Clinton. If Clinton harassed women or committed adultery, he’s also wrong, but we’re ONLY talking Trump because evangelicals aren’t using John 8 to defend Clinton at the moment. The status between the adulterous woman and Trump are as far as heaven is from hell. While she was just trying to escape with her life. She wasn’t trying to be the king of Israel. Trump is going for the most powerful position in the free world. The usage of John 8.7 misunderstands both the worlds of Jesus and of Trump.
The situations of the woman’s and Trump are completely different. We must notice that Jesus was quite serious about the adulterous woman’s sin. He never denied it. At the same time, after he dismissed her, he didn’t come out to say that she’s now serving as the paragon of purity. No, Jesus wouldn’t say that. Trump however flippantly dismisses his own moral downfall, and then turns around and says, ” He’s ready to take on one of the most powerful political positions in the world. He isn’t going away like the adulterous woman. While he uses words of repentance, he doesn’t bear the fruits of repentance. In fact, Trump claims, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” How can we trust a man who says one thing but does another? Apparently, Trump’s evangelical supporters are asking us to do exactly that. This sort of ethical suicide is what gives evangelicals a bad name. Again, I’m not saying that Hillary is all that honest, but the evangelicals aren’t using John 8 to support her now, are they? In fact, they really want to stone her. The usage of John 8.7 is a double standard that has plagued evangelicals for ages that has now made the entire movement a running joke.
Whatever one thinks of Hillary (and I’m really not a fan), we can’t dismiss the fact that the failure of evangelical leadership in this election boils down to a kind of dire biblical illiteracy that has infiltrated its ranks. Perhaps, if they REALLY read their Bibles instead of messing about with powerful political people (on all sides), they’d do better as a moral authority. Until then, they’ve become a moral joke.
As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!