When I first heard about the Ashley Madison hack, and the subsequent release of more than 31 million private accounts, my interest was rather low. It was the first I had heard of the online affair-facilitating service, and the one or two articles I read to understand the kerfuffle produced quick disdain for both the site and its users. I never considered that I would be familiar with any of the account holders, so I dismissed it.
Accounts of celebrities, politicians, and community leaders have now been leaked and reported; public apologies have been released. It sounds like more will follow in the weeks ahead. This is serious. These are people in the public eye I wouldn’t have expected; people in ministry and positions of influence, like reality TV’s Josh Duggar, popular vlogger Sam Rader, and Ligonier Ministries’ R. C. Sproul Jr. All have confessed their wrongs—Duggar admitted to infidelity and checked into rehab; Rader and Sproul have both admitted to an account but clarified an affair had never taken place. All now face the searing heat of the spotlight that had once been so kind to them.Our media-saturated lives offer regular opportunities to make private details public. How do we know when to feed our hunger and when to starve it?
Most of the outcry and attention on the exposed account holders has been on famous types such as them; which is why, so far, none of this has any direct impact on my life. But as more names and connections are leaked to the press, the more curious I have become. If I looked at the list, would I recognize any of the account holders?
An article by Ed Stetzer— executive director of LifeWay Research, author, and conference and seminar leader—makes it seem more probable that I will. After reviewing the Ashley Madison data, Stetzer surmises:
“Based on my conversations with leaders from several denominations in the U.S. and Canada, I estimate that at least 400 church leaders (pastors, elders, staff, deacons, etc.) will be resigning Sunday. This is a significant moment of embarrassment for the church—and it should be. To be honest, the number of pastors and church leaders on Ashley Madison is much lower than the number of those looking to have an affair. Yet, there is still much that we must consider in the midst of the embarrassment.”
By Stetzer’s estimation, the degrees of separation between one of these account holders and me will be few. Would it be someone from my state? My town? My church? Would it be a friend’s pastor? Would it be one of my friends? Stetzer’s article was posted this past Thursday, which would mean three days of waiting to know how the scandal would affect people I cared about. It felt like impending doom. But if I just clicked over to the list, I could prepare myself . . . I wouldn’t have to wonder. I wouldn’t have to wait. And I would know. It seemed reasonable to check the list. If it was all going to come out anyhow, why not know sooner than later?
I then learned that someone took the time to organize the hefty list of accounts by state and last name. It wouldn’t take but a minute to go to the list, find my state, view the names, and be done with it. How handy.
Before I clicked, however, I hesitated. If I clicked over and saw the names, there was no unseeing them. My curiosity escalated quickly, giving me pause.
Wanting the full story is the fuel of scandal: Something hidden has been exposed, and the story will build and build until all is in the open. When things are not what they seemed, we demand the truth. Improprieties, unethical behavior, misconduct, offenses, betrayals. Whatever the affront, when the secret comes to light, we are drawn to it. We want to know and be in-the-know. We don’t want to be ignorant, for that is a position of weakness. Knowledge gives us a sense of power. We’ve been duped once; we do not want to be duped again. With the Ashley Madison information leak, we want to know these hypocrites by name. We want to know if we know them.
But therein lies the dilemma. Just because the information is available, does that validate our desire to see who’s who among Ashley Madison’s users?
To be clear, just because someone has an account does not mean an affair has taken place. The impact on marriages and reputations may be the same, however. Whether it’s actual infidelities or the fantasy of it, marriages will crumble. Leaders and pastors will lose respect and possibly their jobs. Whatever the reason for or result of creating an account, there are serious consequences for all involved. The breach of trust must be dealt with; sin must be dealt with. The information hack merely forced into the open what was already festering in the dark.
And so we are left to wrestle with the question of reviewing the names on the list. In what scenario would it be wise to take a look? What is hidden needs to come to light. Relationships with one party looking for an affair are on a crash course. Corrupt leaders negatively affect entire congregations, companies, schools, and communities. If we can discover pockets of wrongdoing, and we choose not to, isn’t that an equal injustice? Should spouses check on each other, just in case? Should congregants check on their pastors, deacons, and elders, just in case? Should parents check on their children’s teachers, just in case?
Certainly the answers to these questions will change based on the details of the situation. But what has happened in the Ashley Madison scandal is not isolated: Our media-saturated lives offer regular opportunities to make private details public. How do we know when to feed our hunger and when to starve it?
Oftentimes we are drawn to exposed secrets because we want to know the latest dirt. Traumatic, life-changing news entices viewers, an audience, us. We read of sordid details in the news and watch accidents and violence caught on video, peering into others’ worst moments made available for our consumption. We watch, we share, we comment. But for what end? Too often I get caught up in a story, clicking my way down a rabbit trail, feeding my desire to see who’s done what. I don’t want to be left out of discussions. I don’t want to be uninformed. I want to be shocked. The problem is, there will be another scandal next week and the week after. I could flip from one hot story to the next, justifying my consumption on my “need to be informed.” This is why we would do well to starve our desire for details about situations that do not involve us.
Sometimes our hunger to know truth is rooted in the responsibility we have to protect others. A friend of mine who is a pastor raises this question in regard to the Ashley Madison scandal: “What kind of responsibility does a shepherd have to the flock in this matter, not only to those who might have been hurt, but also those who have sinned grievously?” He went on to explain that if his leaders are involved, the situation needs to be addressed immediately in the church and within the families affected. Because the data is now available, scanning the names could be a type of due diligence, similar to the background checks conducted on anyone wishing to serve at our churches. We need to ensure those who are provided power and leadership are worthy of it. Pastors and other leaders carry a heavier burden to know details about such scandals, as lack of knowledge has the potential to multiply harm.
Another friend pointed to the nature of this particular scandal as reason not to check the list. Because this breach of trust is between spouses, first and foremost, she believes the issue should be dealt with at home first, rather than coming from the church. She argued that marriage is a much more immediate relationship, the one that would be most harmed by betrayal. In this argument, pastors should not check up on their leaders but should be ready to support and serve couples in need of help after betrayals are exposed.
Another question is what to do if you have suspicions about someone in particular—your spouse, your friend, your pastor. It would be easy to click over to the list to settle those suspicions. But it would also expose you to information about other people, forever changing how you see them, relate to them, and think about their character. Owning information about someone else is no small thing. A brave soul could avoid this over-exposure by going directly to the person and asking outright. It would be a very difficult conversation, to say the least. Interestingly, the evidence I would personally require for braving a face-to-face confrontation would be much greater than the evidence I would need to scan the account list. There’s no danger in confrontation, no requirement to work out the suspicions in the relationship. But if I do not have enough evidence for an in-person confrontation, maybe that alone should dissuade me from checking the list in the first place.