This week the media has been aflutter with stories about New York Representative Anthony Weiner and his extra-marital infidelities. His case is particularly unique because the infidelities were not explicitly physical. His actions were limited to the cyber world, which relegates them to a rather blurry realm. The scandal raises questions about what actually constitutes cheating, and what exactly Weiner was guilty of doing.
One of my favorite responses to the scandal was written by Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior for Her.meneutics. In her piece titled Anthony Weiner, Gnostic, Prior exposed the body/mind divide inherent in Weiner’s defense. To some of Weiner’s defenders, the severity of the transgression is blunted by the fact that it never happened in person, and it does not impact his ability to lead. It was a cyber affair that never culminated in an “actual affair,” and we should let his private life be private.
Prior, on the other hand, argues that the logic behind such reasoning is as old as the infamous heresy of Gnosticism. Any ideology that draws a hard, clear line between the body and the mind, ranking physical action above heart orientation, is departing from Christian orthodoxy.
Here it is important to note that Gnostic belief was far more complex than the simple divide between body and mind. In fact, after first posting this Prior contacted me to say the use of the term “Gnostic” was the editor’s insertion, not her own words. But all terminology aside, I appreciate Prior’s perspective on the unhealthy dualism in play. She provides a terrific lens for thinking through the questions raised by this scandal. The idea that we can compartmentalize our bodies from our minds so cleanly–or that sins are only real if committed bodily–runs up against the very words of Christ. When that sort of language is thrown around in the media, we need to name it properly.
However, as detestable as Weiner’s actions were, he is also a scapegoat of sorts, a symbol of our generation’s blatant double standard between “real world” and “virtual” behavior. In addition to the pervasive addiction to internet pornography in the church (ie. it’s not cheating if it’s not real), Christians freely hate others in their hearts and on their Facebook statuses, even though few would have the guts to express that hate in person. We are rarely as bold in “real life” as we are on the internet or in our minds.
This double standard is typically attributed to the anonymity of the internet, but Prior’s accusation of body-mind dualism is fair. Let’s be honest: As long as we can limit our vices to the virtual reality of our minds and cyber space, it doesn’t seem quite so real. Yes, those vices are wrong but they seem just a little less wrong than actually having an affair or inflicting actual physical harm on a Christian brother or sister.
Of course this flimsy logic is easily rebutted by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. In God’s economy, sins of the heart are real. You don’t have to meet a woman in person to sin against her. What you think in your heart and what you see or do on the internet is just the same to God. It is just as real as the act itself.
On a final note, this mind-body dualism has a sister. While some Christians rank the body over the mind, others do the reverse. For some, what we do with our bodies matters less than the heart orientations of love and mercy. This camp gives greater weight to the heart and the mind, and what we do with our bodies is a little more relative.
This dualism, too, is theologically problematic. It is against God’s design for holistic human beings who reflect God with both our bodies and our minds. While love and mercy are certainly essential to God’s intent for us, they fit hand in hand with God’s instructions to honor Him, and others, with our bodies.
In sum, if you remember nothing else from the Weiner scandal and the discussions that follow, remember this: All of you matters to God, and all of you matters to the church of which you are a part. When we divide ourselves in two (or three or four or five), we end up hurting ourselves, hurting others, and disobeying our First Love. Who you are, every bit of you, matters.