I was interested to read in the New York Times Magazine this weekend an interview with Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. It was a timely interview in some respects, including this bit:
Q: What do you make of Ted Haggard, who just stepped down as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, after he was accused of cavorting with a gay escort?
A: I think it’s very sad. We’re always surprised when we see people’s clay feet. Our culture seems to delight in exposing them. I think we have a prurient interest in other people’s failings.
Why are we surprised when we see the clay feet of others? Allow me if you will a brief pontification.
The expression “clay feet” is gaining popularity, but it has ancient origins in the vision of Nebuchadnezzar, as interpreted by Daniel:
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image … his feet part of iron and part of clay. … And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. (Daniel 2)
The statue represents earthly kingdoms, which at their feet are weak, rendering them susceptible to being destroyed by the stone cut without hands. In modern context, the phrase can refer to governments, organizations, or even individuals who appear strong and mighty but at their base are weak and fragile. As the usage slips more and more towards applying to individuals, “feet of clay” becomes a metaphorical device to represent hypocrisy. I believe this to be an inappropriate twisting from the Bible, but so be it.
Why this interest in the prurient private lives of others, especially those in positions of power? First, I don’t believe that this is a recent trend; we have always found entertainment and meaning in the tragic flaws of the great, whether in Aeschylus’s Oresteia or in later works. We witness our own Agamemnons tread upon the sacred purple cloth, and when their hubris destroys them we too may cathartically exorcise this pride.
That said, the news media are not ancient Greeks, and the heat and smoke of the modern sexualized scandal is no substitute for the light of sorrowing for the downfall of the great. We have lost, I believe, the ability to have compassion for leaders and prominent people, to mourn as they mourn and to learn and grow from their trials. Ted Haggard’s life has been destroyed; and we scoff and say that he had it coming? Where is our capacity to let these emotional events work within us, change us, and purify us?
Maybe we are so desperate for this internal change and the ecstatic feelings that accompany tragedy that we instinctually search out downfall and crave it. Somehow, though, I’m worried that we have waxed too cold. I certainly didn’t blink an eyelash at Haggard’s suffering, even while watching the humiliating video of him being grilled in front of his family. Catharsis has now been wholly replaced with schadenfreude. Is this incapacity to feel pity the feet of clay of western civilization?