If I told you something was an “unforgivable moral fault,” what would come to mind? Murder? Rape? Child molestation? Genocide? Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Whatever comes to mind, I’m willing to bet it has the capacity to shock. And yes, Jesus did say the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12), but that’s somewhat off point at the moment, since the quote in question escaped the lips of someone dramatically less famous and less holy than Jesus. It escaped, for the record, from the lips of the President of France, Francois Hollande.
And now that you know the unforgivable moral fault took place in France, how much more scandalous do you imagine it? Want to change your guess as to what it is?
Politicians love to exaggerate, because exaggerations make for great soundbites. With that said, you don’t often hear them bandy about phrases as absolute as ‘unforgivable.’ For one thing, the crafty politician needs wiggle room in case future election results hinge upon escaping from such absolutism. For example, the most beloved leader of the United States in my lifetime was either the guy who conveniently couldn’t remember anything about Oliver North or the guy who wanted to argue over the definition of ‘is.’ Political success requires elasticity, and the word ‘unforgivable’ is anything but elastic.
For another thing, of course, success in politics requires strength, and acts of forgiveness always create an opportunity for someone somewhere to label them acts of weakness. So in lieu of forgiveness, we hear about lessons learned, regretful mistakes that can never repeat, and justice. Wow do we hear about justice. But not so much with forgiveness.
Similarly, we don’t often witness politicians denouncing forgiveness, either. They may not be permitted to forgive, but they can’t very well deny it, either, because that just looks indelicate at best and cruel at worst. And cruelty doesn’t fit with the desired emphasis on justice. So language about forgiveness is saved for extremely rare occasions, and usually only broken out after massive national tragedies.
Except in France, where one specific incident of tax evasion (and lying) is what President Hollande denounced as the “unforgivable moral fault.”
Admit it: France being France, you thought the unforgivable would be dirtier. Kinky, violent, unprecedented, or some horrifying combination thereof. Instead, it turns out that the French budget minister had secret international bank accounts. It stinks of corruption, and he was part of a government trying to implement a top tax rate of 75% for the rich in France, so his hypocrisy impresses. Moreover, I should add that he’s been lying about the existence of such accounts for 20ish years, including to the French parliament. With all of that said, however, I want to assert that nothing could be less shocking than the news that a European bureaucrat had a secret Swiss bank account. It’s akin to learning that your next-door neighbor has indoor plumbing.
Of all the conceivable moral faults, greed may be the easiest to undo. Zaccheus, you will recall, made four-fold restitutions and gave ½ his wealth to the poor, which so satisfied Jesus himself that he declared salvation had come to Zaccheus (Luke 19). It’s possible from the passage, understand, that Zaccheus could have remained a very wealthy man; he didn’t have to suffer, he just had to exhibit generosity and humility. With that in mind, the idea that French Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac’s greed and lies were unforgivable doesn’t pass muster. If he gave ½ of his Swiss francs to the poor, he’d be celebrated as a philanthropist, and could probably coast on that reputation with parting with any of his Euros (which I assume to be considerable in number). But then, that’s not the point, is it? That’s not why President Hollande is so outraged; in this case, the crime is less important than the victim.
Western democracies all self-identify as secular. That means different things in different countries, but in France, it means political discourse must exclude religion. Even in trying to decide matters of right and wrong; even when a politician wants to explain a personal conviction. Whereas an American politician might articulate a position on an issue – immigration, for example – by citing their religious convictions, this is unthinkable to the Frenchman. In French politics, there is one consideration and one consideration only: France.
You might think that’s true in the United States, but let me explain. In the US, the debate over immigration is over what’s right and what’s wrong; one side values the law, the other focuses on valuing people, but each focus on what seems morally correct to them. In France, immigration is an issue too, but the concern is much narrower: immigrants to France are supposed to become French, and to the extent this does not happen to the satisfaction of the French, immigration is problematic. France is no melting pot, understand. France is French and it is for the French, and the highest value – the ruler against which all policy questions are measured – is Frenchness. France is god to the French.
So who is the victim of Cahuzac’s crime? France, of course. Hence the outrage. For a French budget minister (who I believe oversees the French version of the IRS) to defraud the almighty state of France is analogous to a different Bible passage altogether: Acts 5, in which Ananias and Sapphira lie to Peter (and the Holy Spirit) and die for it. Remember that story? They didn’t steal, they didn’t hurt anyone, they didn’t do anything wrong except lie about how generous they were being to the church. But that was enough for them to be struck dead, because – as Peter explains – they each lied to God.
Which is, in a sense, what Cahuzac did. He didn’t lie to God, necessarily, but he did lie to Frenchgod. And apparently that is as unforgivable as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.