Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1963, a sex scandal dominated British politics. The media reported that the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, had had an intimate relationship with nineteen-year-old Christine Keeler. He was both married and a member of the governing Conservative Party. Keeler was both a dancer and a prostitute; she was also romantically involved with the Soviet military attaché in London. Military attachés, then and now, are generally spies. After repeated denials, some made in Parliament, a letter from Profumo to Keeler surfaced, forcing him to admit the affair and ending his political career.
I have known that part of the story for a couple of decades. When I lived in London, on several Sunday afternoons I went for a walk at Cliveden, the Astor's country house near London at which Profumo and Keeler met, and then enjoyed tea in a National Trust teashop on the estate. I have also attended a London performance of the play based on the incident (A Letter of Resignation by Hugh Whitemore).
What I did not know until very recently was what John Profumo did after he resigned his ministerial post and seat in Parliament. He did not write a book, give interviews, or return to politics. Instead, he went to work for Toynbee Hall in London's East End. Toynbee Hall is a charity that serves the poor, prisoners, and other social misfits. He began by cleaning toilets, washing dishes, and doing other menial chores. He progressed to visiting the criminally insane and working to improve low-income housing. He ended thirty plus years of work at Toynbee Hall as the organization's president.
The Daily Telegraph's announcement of his death at 91 in 2006 declared, "No one in public life ever did more to atone for his sins; no one behaved with more silent dignity as his name was repeatedly dragged through the mud; and few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him."
Today, sex scandals seem more acceptable and unlikely to topple a government or result in a politician's resignation from office. Moreover, when a politician does resign in the aftermath of a sex scandal, more likely the resignation results from lies told in a failed attempt to cover up what occurred than from the original scandal. Most notably, President Clinton survived a sordid sex scandal after lengthy impeachment proceedings.
Eliot Spitzer, noted crime buster who resigned as New York governor after revelations about his paying for sex with high priced prostitutes, is now campaigning for election as New York City comptroller. Anthony Weiner, a former member of Congress who resigned in the wake of a scandal involving salacious texts and emails, is now running for mayor of New York. New salacious emails and internet posts from Weiner, which he acknowledges are his, have appeared since he announced his campaign.
The issue of redemption is not God's forgiveness. No sexual sin is unforgivable.
Nor are personal relationships the issue. A person involved in a scandal, that person's partner/spouse (if the person has one), and any children will, over time, determine the future of those personal relationships.
The issue of redemption is personal: how can an individual who has badly messed up his (or her!) life redeem that life by making something worthwhile out of the remainder? How can that person redeem his/her life by transforming an injury to the public trust and welfare into a life that benefits the public by building trust and improving community well-being? How can that person transform sinful impulses including boundary violations, moral dishonesty, and using people and positions for personal gratification into life-giving spiritual health?
John Profumo did that. When the formidable British reporter W.F. Deeds asked Profumo what he learned from working at Toynbee Hall, Profumo needed only one word to answer, "Humility." Profumo learned that although each person has an exclusive claim to his or her life, our communal existence is about the collective good rather than individual gain or celebrity.
Middle aged, mid-career people do not engage suddenly and impetuously in sexual sins. The sin is symptomatic of a lack of spiritual health. Navigating a course to spiritual health (i.e., redemption) requires much time and effort, as one forges a different self, a self that respects boundaries, strives to live consistently and honestly, treats others as individuals worthy of dignity and respect, etc. This journey is almost impossible on the public stage. Persons who find themselves caught in scandalous behaviors would do well to meditate on John Profumo's example, seeking genuine grace and not a glittering but cheap artificial substitute.