Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, is in a mess. In case you’ve been living under a rock over the past few days here’s the brief run-down of what’s been going on:
- It’s been revealed that he has been conducting an extra-marital affair with a woman who was a political staffer.
- The affair has led to the break-up of his almost-25 year marriage. He has four daughters.
- His lover is pregnant with his child.
That’s right. It’s a mess. And a couple of things further complicate it:
- Joyce, who identifies as a Roman Catholic (although I suspect he is no longer welcome to take Mass), was a strong advocate of the traditional marriage position during the recent public debate. He famously claimed that changing the law would undermine the status of marriage for his daughters while also acknowledging that he was separated from his wife (but not admitting to the affair).
- Questions have been raised about the appropriateness of workplace relationships, given the often obvious power imbalances between the two parties.
- There are increasing questions also being asked about whether there is a difference between how the press handles these matters depending on whether the public figure is a man or a woman. Julia Baird’s article today is a great example of such a piece.
- Finally, there are the usual questions about whether someone’s infidelity in marriage is relevant to their trustworthiness in public office.
What to make of it all?
For the Christian, a story about a prominent leader falling from grace and ending up with a baby out of wedlock isn’t unknown. There’s all manner of acts of sexual immorality to pick from but the most obvious is the events surrounding the famous tale of David and Bathsheba recorded for us in 2Samuel 11 & 12. It’s not an identical story and there are obvious points of divergence but at the same time there are common themes that make it close enough to draw some conclusions.
David, who is king of Israel, decides to stay at home during “the time when kings go out to battle” (2Sam. 11:1). One afternoon he takes a stroll on the palace roof and spies the beautiful Bathsheba bathing on another roof. He sends for her and by the end of the day they’ve gone to bed. In the context of the story it is almost certainly against her will.
She returns home and it should be the end of the matter but, in a twist worthy of a soap opera, we return several weeks later as Bathsheba sends messengers to the palace to let the King know, you guessed it, that she’s pregnant (2Sam. 11:5). Not only this but, as fate (providence?) would have it, Bathsheba is the wife of a man named Uriah who is captain in David’s army (2Sam. 11:3).
What can David do? This will not go away. The problem is going to (quite literally) develop before him. So he gives birth to a cunning plan. He invites Uriah home from the campaign to spend some time with his wife as a “reward”. When Bathsheba’s pregnancy becomes obvious there will be a reasonable explanation for it. Uriah’s response when he appears before the King is comedy gold:
2Sam. 10:11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”
Of course, Uriah has no clue that this is the man who has cuckolded him but nevertheless he speaks more than he knows. David’s sin is laid out bare before him by its other victim and you can be sure that the King does not miss the irony. But rather than allowing it to teach him he doubles down. If Uriah will not be unknowingly complicit in the cover-up then he will simply have to be removed.
2Sam. 11:14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.”
And that’s exactly what happens. After Uriah’s death he takes Bathsheba into his home, marries her and the child is born and raised as his own.
Granted, it’s not quite Barnaby’s story but many of the themes that it raises are relevant and some of the differences between how the Bible and our modern culture respond to those themes are telling.
So first, the morality of what has happened. It’s quite obvious that Bathsheba does not give her consent to what happened, whereas Barnaby’s mistress apparently had no complaints. As Stephen McAlpine helpfully observes, consent has become the new Golden Rule and so the media found itself in a conundrum – both Barnaby and his new lady were consenting adults so what exactly was the problem here? Now at this stage others amongst us will note that she was the only one of 5 women involved to give their consent, but let’s not get troubled over details like that.
So they fall back on noting the “power imbalance”. Joyce is the senior in this relationship, both in age and position. Was it appropriate? Despite her free consent did she end up having as much choice as Bathsheba? Well there’s no indication that the whole thing was anything other than freely entered into. Nobody forced either of them and falling back on questions of who had the power really just serves to obfuscate the clear choices that were made. He chose to sleep with a woman who wasn’t his wife and she chose to bed another woman’s husband. If he represents a self-serving patriarchy then it’s matched with a treacherous feminism. You can’t have one without the other so perhaps best not to go there?
Here’s how I put it:
I think that stands. Just last year we all decided that marriage was really about the nation rubber-stamping the way that we feel about each other. So when the Deputy Prime Minister decides that he now feels differently to how he felt before, what should the nation do? The Bible makes it quite clear that David has acted appallingly, and not simply because of a lack of consent – every adulterer in the Bible gets short shrift and Jesus himself reckons it’s a very serious issue (Matt. 5:28). But open up the weekend broadsheets and watch the opinion writers wriggle and squirm rather than call this what it was – a married man openly reneging upon his marriage vows and abandoning a wife and children who have given up so much for him. They laid down their lives for his political life and so he laid down with a political worker and made new life. But who will call it for what it is?
But they’ll call out the hypocrisy, because that fell on the wrong side of the argument. Mind you, they’d be right to do so. As was once famously said of British politician Tim Yeo, he was so much in favour of family values that he decided to have a second one. It’s a really bad look when a champion of marriage turns out to undermine it. Here Joyce lines up right alongside David who, as King of Israel, was meant to lead in all things but instead decided not to lead at all. It’s even worse in David’s case because he is the anointed one; a proto-Christ that’s meant to point us towards what God’s true King should be. Instead he falls away and the man who serves him instead takes the moral lead, making the right choices where David went the other way.
What it means, of course, is that we now know Barnaby is a man who won’t keep his word when it gets hard. To suggest that this has nothing to do with his ability to do his job is to stick our heads right into the sand. Besides, isn’t this exactly what we accuse politicians of all the time? They make promises to us, the electorate, but then when they change their mind they tell us it’s because the situation changed and the circumstances forced their hand. No GST anyone? For David this act of personal immorality is tied tightly to his ability to govern the nation from the very first sentence we read.
Bill Clinton is the most famous example of how this works. Here’s a man who made the following promises, all under public scrutiny:
- “…till death do us part“.
- “I do solemnly swear…“.
- “I did not have sexual relations with that woman“.
One was an outright lie. Another he willingly breached on many occasions. How are we meant to have any confidence that the remaining one, bracketed by the other two, counts for anything?
So where to from here? The only way forward is to stop pretending that this isn’t utterly, utterly wrong in every respect. That’s how David moves forward. When confronted by Nathan the Prophet (2Sam. 11) he finally admits his deep guilt. Nathan is scathing with him. He lays David’s heart wide open, exposing his immorality. But this is the only way that David can move forward and forward he does move. He doesn’t simply admit his sin, he is clearly deeply convicted. His response is famously recorded in the Scriptures:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
It’s profound. There is zero attempt at self-justification. He recognises that his problem is not just what he’s done (which is bad enough) but who he is. From the moment of conception there was something wrong with him. This is, of course, the Biblical view of sin – we have a real issue and we can’t solve it ourselves. We need cleansing.
David’s chosen method is hyssop. It was regularly used in the Temple as part of rites of cleansing. Before that it was a vital part of the Passover ritual (Exod. 12:22). To speak of hyssop is to refer to something that represented God’s miraculous forgiveness. So that’s where David goes. It’s a simple sequence: the prophet speaks the truth about his sin, he repents, he is forgiven.
Will Joyce avail himself of the same? The problem is that so far none of the modern prophets are prepared to speak the truth. They operate under a different framework. We cannot convict Joyce without bringing ourselves before the court and who is willing to do that? Only those who already know what it means to be forgiven. The Christian knows it. They know that Jesus died on the Cross to take the punishment for all our sins. If David is the model of a forgiven man (as he is) then there is much hope for Barnaby. But will Nathan ever speak? And do any of us want to hear him?