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What we learn about ourselves from our response to the Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders affair

Kristen Stewart via Wikipedia
I don't bring a lot of celebrity scandals into these open spaces, but this one needs some air. Yesterday, the press just about exploded over the Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders story, in which both parties issued public apologies after photographs surfaced indicating that the 22 year-old actress and the 41 year-old married director were having an affair. As I posted on my Google+ and Facebook pages, I don't usually pay a lot of attention to or weigh in on celebrity scandals, but this one bugs me. Stewart and Sanders’ behavior and choices were hurtful, wrong and destructive. But I have grown increasingly disturbed by how the press and public ire circulating about their adulterous behavior is being aimed mostly at Stewart. Headlines make Stewart the subject while the married director (who has two children) almost feels like a footnote. And the fan response? Some of it bordered on violent. While I don't think Stewart should be excused for her behavior by any means, I am bothered by the public instinct and thirst to, well, stone the woman.

After I posted about this, I was reminded by a film critic of the mythic nature of Stewart's relationship with Robert Pattinson, her boyfriend of four years. The two play the title roles in the gigantically popular Twilight films, and their romance in real life only fuels fan adoration and fascination. As is sometimes the case, the actors become inseparable from their roles. Add to this that Stewart is much more famous than Sanders, and it goes a long ways towards explaining why the attention would be drawn more towards her than the director—as well as the extreme emotional response by fans.

Rupert Sanders via Wikipedia
But what bothers me is the thirst and instinct to attack Stewart—the woman and the younger of the two. A 41 year old director and a 22 year old actress? Seriously, this age and rank difference doesn't raise red flags with anyone? While we don’t know who instigated the affair, I am bothered that the age and rank difference is rarely brought up—and if it is, it’s usually the age difference which only gets a brief mention. Forty-one may  not be ancient, but compared to a 22 year-old? It bothers me that both issues are passed over or ignored in the media frenzy. It should at least be given consideration.

But I don’t want to paint Stewart as a victim. Even if Sanders used his position and age to instigate the affair, Stewart—an adult—had a choice. Again, what bothers me is the way we have responded to the story by blaming Stewart (with astounding viciousness) as if Sanders is more or less her victim, or at the very most, gave into a wayward impulse.

Of course, this instinct is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, we were doing the same thing:
Jesus went across to Mount Olives, but he was soon back in the Temple again. Swarms of people came to him. He sat down and taught them. The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. 
They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, "Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?" They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him. 
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, "The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone." Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt. 
Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. "Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?" 
"No one, Master." 
"Neither do I," said Jesus. "Go on your way. From now on, don't sin."

Scholars have noted the stark absence in this scene of the man with whom the woman was caught in the act. It is only the woman. Our instinct is indeed ancient.

But how Jesus deals with this is, at least to me, unexpected. He not only calls them on their instinct, he diffuses it by turning their focus inward. While we don’t know what Jesus wrote in the dirt, some have suggested it could have been the names of men in the crowd who had also had sex with the woman or perhaps sins the men in the crowd had committed. Whether they were convicted by what he wrote or the silence diffused their frenzy enough to consider his words, all of them (interestingly, starting with the eldest) turned and walked away—not because the woman wasn’t guilty but because Jesus shifted their attention to themselves and their own destructive behavior.

In some ways, the Stewart and Sanders frenzy feels like a modernized version of this story. For some, their response to the Stewart and Sanders affair comes from the pain they’ve suffered because of similar actions by someone in their life. But for the rest of us, perhaps Jesus’ encounter with this woman says something about the instinct we have to join a crowd with stones in our hands because it allows us to focus, if only for a brief moment, on someone else’s destructive behavior rather than our own.

If we follow through with this modernized idea, then we need to allow Jesus to confront us again with how we are to treat those caught in destructive and wrong behavior: humbly and with mercy.

This doesn’t mean wrong and destructive behavior is excused; to the contrary, as Jesus sets the woman free he tells her to stop behaving that way. Later, he tells the same crowds that choosing destructive and wrong behavior is a dead-end: "I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can't come and go at will.” Jesus, however, sets us free—“through and through”—from that kind of life. He frees us to become the kind of people we were created to be, ones who increasingly base their choices and behavior on their love for God and others.

Now, lest you think I’m placing myself on some sort of pedestal, you can forget it. When this story started to break, I found myself on the edges of that crowd, stone in hand. But Jesus is faithful—and merciful. And for that, I am thankful.