byFaith | 9.21.15
By Alan Dowd
The data breach of Ashley
Madison—a Toronto-based company billing itself as “the world's leading
married dating service for discreet encounters”—has triggered an international
scandal, suicides and more than a few separations. The sordid story of how an
agenda-minded group of anonymous computer hackers exposed the most personal
information about 39.6 million Ashley Madison members tells us something about
technology, humanity and God.
Let’s start with the least important, most temporary of these three:
technology. For now, set aside what Ashley Madison sells, and consider what
this episode tells us about our plugged-in, always-online lives.
In their 10-gigabyte data dump—equal to perhaps 7 or 8 million
pages of text—the digital vigilantes who outed Ashley Madison’s members, as The
Washington Post reports,
revealed full names, email addresses, personal profiles, credit-card
information, birth dates, marital status and intimate details about members’
sexual preferences. The Ashley Madison hackers “managed to torch the careers,
friendships and marriages of millions of people,” technology writer Caitlin
Dewey observes. “That’s terror. And it should terrify you.”
Indeed, just think about all the stuff trailing behind each of us in our
digital wake: health problems and prescriptions, personnel records and personal
problems, nasty texts and gossipy emails, regrettable selfies and angry
voicemails, purchases made and videos rented and websites visited. And then
think about all of that junk being splashed onto a searchable website for
anyone and everyone to peruse.
This is a brave new world, yet it calls to mind the ancient,
timeless words of Jesus:
“Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless
word they have spoken.” Every text. Every voicemail. Every tweet. Every email.
Every post. Every mouse-click. Every download.
It may be easy to respond—and indeed many have—“Ashley
Madison users deserve what they got. If they didn’t want this information to be
made public, they shouldn’t have engaged in such behavior. There should be a
cost and a consequence to unfaithfulness.”
Heaven knows there is a cost to unfaithfulness—and we’ll get
to that in a moment—but such a response seems to ignore how serious some of the
here-and-now consequences are:
There have been at least two suicides linked to
the Ashley Madison data breach.
AP reports 1,200 email addresses exposed in the
breach have “the .sa suffix, suggesting users were connected to Saudi Arabia,
where adultery is punishable by death.”
There were at least 15,000 .gov or .mil
addresses revealed in the hack, which means they are American military
personnel or government employees. “Under military rules,” as The Washington
Post points out, “philanderers can be punished by a year in confinement
and a dishonorable discharge, which means losing their pension.”
And we’ll never know how many marriages and
families were blown apart by this act of techno-terrorism.
Suffice it to say this is a cautionary tale about how much
we (and our kids) use, misuse, trust and rely on digital technology—and how
much of our lives might be exposed to the lawless jungle of cyberspace. That
doesn’t mean we should try to escape into some pre-Internet cocoon—let alone
surrender the new frontiers of technology to an unbelieving world. Technology is
amoral. By our choices, our will, we can make technology an instrument of
inspiration or a tool of depravity, a way to connect or a way to destroy, an
expression of God’s creative gifts or a doorway to sin. But since so many
dangers lurk in cyberspace, perhaps we should strive to be as gentle as doves
and as shrewd snakes when venturing there.
That brings us to what the Ashley Madison hack tells us about humanity. Unlike
other websites that feed the hookup culture, Ashley Madison unabashedly targets
married people. The infamous photo that represents the Ashley Madison brand,
after all, is a woman making the shush motion with her forefinger pressed
against her lips—wearing a wedding band. And the company’s anything-but-subtle
slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.”
As Christ followers, we know this is wrong on many levels:
God’s plan is for intimacy to be reserved for marriage. God’s plan is for
marriage to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman. God’s plan is for
marriage to be a covenant—a sacred bond. Those who use Ashley Madison’s
services are showing contempt for God and committing a serious sin—and so are
those who provide Ashley Madison’s
services. Remember what Christ said about causing someone to
fall into sin.
However, Ashley Madison’s employees and members aren’t the
only ones among us who are sinning. The hackers who exposed Ashley Madison’s
secrets have justified their actions by labeling Ashley Madison and its members
“cheating dirt bags” who “deserve no…discretion.”
That may be true, but in this self-appointed morality posse,
we hear an echo of the Pharisees who dragged the woman caught in adultery
before Jesus. Johntells us they brought the woman to the temple courts, “where all the people
gathered around,” and then they declared to the world, “This woman was caught
in the act of adultery.” Not unlike the plight and position of Ashley Madison’s
users, there was nowhere for her to hide; her sin and shame were exposed for
all to see.
Jesus’ answer is twofold: “Let any one of you who is without
sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That’s His message to
those of us, chests puffed up, who are laughing at Ashely Madison’s outed
members. His message for Ashley Madison’s members is equally important: “Leave
your life of sin.”
It seems Jesus is reminding us that all people have feet of
clay. That doesn’t mean we should revel in the muck of our sinfulness; that
doesn’t mean anything goes; that doesn’t mean we have no right speak the truth
in love; that doesn’t mean judgingsomething to be wrong is itself wrong.
It means we shouldn’t delight in the moral failures of
others or make someone else’s sin a public spectacle. Instead, we should share
God’s grace and mercy. We should search for the sin in our lives and celebrate
the good in others, rather than celebrating the good we do and searching for
the sin in others. And when we do exercise our godly judgment, Jesus says we
should do so caringly
and privately: “If your brother or
sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of
That brings us to what this story might tell us about God.
Many of us may be able to march to the temple courts, fold
our arms, and declare that Ashley Madison’s adulterers are dirt bags who
deserve all the shame and blame they’re getting now that their sins are
exposed. After all, we would never do what they did, never break our marriage
vows, never commit adultery. However, our definition of adultery is much
narrower than God’s.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a glimpse of
the vast difference between His definition of purity and ours. “You have heard
that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’” He observes, referring to how the
scribes and scholars—perhaps you and I—interpret the Law. “But I tell you that
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her
in his heart.”
If that doesn’t give us pause, nothing will. The enemy
tricks us into defining the sin of adultery narrowly. But Jesus sets the
standard high by defining this sin broadly. Lustis a form of adultery, He flatly declares. Try as we might to reassure ourselves
that the two are vastly different, from His perspective they are not. And He
makes the rules.
Whenever we lust or entice others to lust, we are committing
adultery. Whenever we fill our hearts and minds with junk that leads away from
God’s design for intimacy—trashy TV, trashy novels, trashy magazines, trashy
movies—we are committing adultery. Whenever we seek physical or even certain
kinds of emotional fulfillment somewhere other than marriage—Facebook flirting,
Internet searching, escaping into work or play—we are committing adultery.
Adultery—both the “in the heart” variety Jesus condemns and
the “in the flesh” variety Ashley Madison encourages—fractures our relationship
with God, with our spouse, with our family. It distorts our vision and leads us
to see people as objects instead of what they are—unique masterpieces created
in God’s image. And it separates us from the spiritual side of our humanity, elevating
the animal and impulsive side—what Paul called our “earthly nature.”
Ashley Madison says, “Do what feels good.” But Jesus says,
“Do what is good.” Ashley Madison says, “You’re only human. Nobody’s perfect.”
But Jesus says, “Be perfect,
just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Ashley Madison says, “Life is short.
Have an affair.” But Jesus says, “Your soul is eternal.
And love is a priceless, precious reflection of Me. Don’t squander either on the
The Ashley Madison scandal calls to mind what Paul wroteabout those whose “god is their stomach.” He wasn’t only talking about gluttons; he was
talking about all who are governed by the flesh. Who can rescue us—the
adulterers and the Pharisees—from this lifelong struggle against the flesh?
Only the One who knows us best, who has seen our worst, who loves us anyway.
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.