Darkness rules in Gotham City. Although Batman’s vigilante attacks against evil have caused a glimmer of hope to shine in the hearts of the faithful, Gotham continues to be engulfed in corruption and crime. New district attorney, Harvey Dent, enters the story as the city’s great hope for addressing real problems. Touted as the “White Knight” of Gotham, Harvey is determined to deal out justice to the crooks and cartels of the Gotham underworld in spite of a system permeated by vice. In a bold sweeping move, he arrests a large number of the city’s biggest crime ring and keeps them under lock and key. Unfortunately, however, he fails to properly account for the newest criminal in town, the Joker.
Psychotic and unpredictable, the Joker’s one goal is to throw the city into anarchy with his cruel tactic of psychological games coupled with complete disregard for human life. The Joker’s thugs capture Harvey Dent along with Harvey’s one true love, Rachel. In a sadistic move, the Joker forces Harvey’s friends to choose between saving Harvey’s life or that of the girl he loves. In the ensuing terror, Rachel dies and Harvey’s face is deeply burned. Heartbreak torments Harvey’s soul. He refuses treatment for his scars. And then the Joker visits. He convinces Harvey, already half-mad with despair, that his revenge should be against the very city that he has fought to save. His mutilated face an outward image of the horror within, Harvey proceeds to kill a string of people whom he believes responsible for Rachel’s death before putting his own life to an end. His true friends, Batman and Police Commissioner Gordon, both witness Harvey’s killing spree and suicide. Together they decide that the people of Gotham cannot afford to know that their “White Knight” finished up as a bad guy. Batman offers to take the blame for the murders, and Commissioner Gordon makes a public tribute to Harvey’s unblemished image as the one man who courageously fought for truth and right in Gotham City. The people get to keep their symbol of hope albeit at the expense of truth. Kind of ironic that the hero of justice is preserved in a lie.
I’ve seen the Harvey Dent solution at work in Christian organisations too. A well-loved missionary or pastor, a “white knight” of God’s work, is caught in a sin—perhaps financial mismanagement or immorality. In handling this awful situation, the church should face up to the frailty of its hero, deal with the sin appropriately, urge him to confess and repent, and seek to restore the fallen brother to a growing relationship with God though not to his former leadership role. Instead, some churches practice “damage control” by protecting the image of the fallen leader as if his followers cannot bear to see their “white knight” fail. It may involve laying the blame at the feet of someone or something else or moving the hero to another ministry or another creative cop-out. All this is justified under the guise of saving the testimony of the church or organisation ostensibly for the sake of Christ. But how can Jesus Christ, the Truth, be glorified by the manipulations of the spin doctor?
Although saving face at the time may seem to minimise damage, in the long term cover-ups come back like a hidden cancer cell. Instead of going away quietly, churches and organisations have had to deal with accusations from people hurt by cover-up even decades down the track. Instead of applying the gospel of grace to our failures, we magnify men and their work more than the work of Jesus Christ who died to free us from such sinful catastrophes. Offenses will happen. How we respond to those offenses reveals our understanding of gospel truth and mercy. Even the Biblical record truthfully recounts sinful failures of our heroes of the faith: Abraham’s lie, David’s adultery and murder, and Moses’s anger, to name a few. The gospel is not just for saving; it is for keeping too. When we whitewash failure, we deny that gospel truth.
Why do we lift up leaders in our churches as if they have a corner on Christianity that the rest of us can only wish for? What can we do to create a Christian culture where it is safe to fail? How can we nurture transparency in relationships all the way from kids in Sunday school to the pastor in the pulpit? How can our responses to sin flesh-out the truth that God’s grace not only touches our weakness and failures but is purposefully tailored to our humanness?
The Harvey Dent solution merely puts a bandaid and makeup on a tumour that resides deep within–a tumour for which there is an authentic cure. The gospel of grace is the cure, made available through our real hero, the Lord Jesus Christ.