I had an interesting meeting with a newspaper editor this morning. One of the things we discussed (in general terms) was the plight of public figures whose life might be remarkable and admirable for the most part, but who are brought down by a single flaw or misdemeanor. This afternoon I read that the Ratsvorsitende of the EKD (German Protestant Church), Bishop Margot Kaessmann, has been arrested on a drink-driving charge.
I don’t particularly want to respond to this – I hate knee-jerk reactions which pile grief on people who know (without us telling them) they’ve screwed up. People should not be used as fodder for vicarious stone-throwing.
Interestingly, the first article I read was in Die Zeit and it was simply a factual reportage of what had happened and noted that she had cancelled all engagements for the rest of this week. It reported that the EKD would be discussing the matter. No further speculation and no great moralising.
Then I went to Bild, the tabloid newspaper that broke the news. Inevitably, they have started polling the ‘angry people’, sought out the voices who will (inevitably) call for her head, and (reluctantly?) noted at the end of its pieces the fact that lots of church leaders are supporting her. My contempt for the moral hypocrisy of those who produce these ‘newspapers’ is well known, so I won’t say more here.
However, what of Kaessmann herself? There will be lots of cries for her blood elsewhere, so I will approach it from a different angle. She has admitted the charge, expressed shock at her own behaviour and said she will face whatever the law throws at her. But she is media-savvy and will know that she now faces being taken apart as a form of public sport. The following is obvious, but needs saying:
- Drink-driving is not only criminal, it is crazy
- Church leaders – in the public eye – should be more careful than most and should not take such risks
- Driving through a red light (as she did) is dangerous
- Kaessmann’s sense of judgement on this occasion should be questioned
- She should be subject to the discipline of her church.
But it is a matter for her and the EKD how she and they proceed from here.
Should she resign? I think not. It would please the self-righteous, but wouldn’t achieve anything else. However, she and the EKD Council will have to ask if this single misdemeanor of itself and automatically obviates all her other gifts and qualities. Does this compromise her ability to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a church that needs little reminder of its own potential for compromise of a more sinister sort?
I still think Kaessmann is a very good thing and am sad to read what she has done. Nevertheless, she has always been startlingly honest in public, and has shown great courage under the spotlight as well as being a powerful articulator of the Gospel and the engagement of theology in the modern European marketplace of ideas. She is flawed as we all are. She is also more gifted than most of us in many respects. I hope the EKD doesn’t lose her.
I doubt if she will ever make this mistake again. I hope, however, that she will be given the chance to start again. Sometimes it is the leaders who need judgment and mercy – with some recognition of the pressures under which they work. That isn’t an excuse or special pleading. Yet, although I don’t drink and drive, I do look at her and think that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’.