Way back in 1988, of course, we thought we, with his wife and members of his church, were in the seats of judgement—our favorite part of the theater. “I have sinned! he sobbed.
Watching the legendary confession of Jimmy Swaggart now, it’s inescapable?
It was all phony—down to his wife’s massive ball of hair that clearly took many loving hours to form into that particular shape.
She nods, accepting his tears—and I realize: this is all a script.
I returned to the scene of Jimmy Swaggart’s ‘crimes’ when sitting down to research, and re-think, the Bible’s teachings on sex.
What did he do that could possibly be wrong? He’d sat in a hotel room with a woman, Debra Murphree. I wasn’t sure they’d even ever touched.
In Jewish law, if that is a guide, to sit in a room with a woman would be problematic only if she was menstruating (cf. Leviticus 15:19–20). One presumes Ms. Murphree was not.
Otherwise? In the Bible’s “law,” prostitution is never other than legal. Even married men can see single women at will. It’s not a violation.
Were Swaggart a Jewish king in ancient Israel his harem would be objectionable only in being so small.
“Prostitution in the narratives and in the corpora is neither a criminal act nor an illegal activity,” notes the Bible scholar Irene E. Riegner, in The Vanishing Hebrew Harlot.
They could’ve had sex all day and it’s fine—according to Jewish law. He’d want to be sure to pay her? Not paying hired workers is a deep offense.
Of course Christians aren’t to follow Jewish law, though we often like to think we do—just because God likes it, or something.
In reality, we’d weaponized Jewish law, as if it was a took bludgeon everyone else in the world for their imagined ‘sins’ . . . without having any idea, all along, of what it involved.
In New Testament teachings, it would be Ms. Murphree who was the minister, it seemed to me, if that means ‘shepherd’—a job done frequently, in the Bible, by women (cf. Gen 29:9; Exo 2:16–21; Song of Songs 1:5–8).
She’d created a space in which they could assemble, where Swaggart could be himself.
“He’s a totally different person than when he came in to see me,” she recalls of her famous visitor. “That’s the real person, I think, he was.”
In a later T.V. interview, she sits opposite a blonde reporter who comes off highly-coiffed, armored and artificial. Ms. Murphree, by contrast, is charming, Southern, warm — the very vision of what Paul is suggesting for female attire in 1 Timothy 2:9–10.
She is natural. She is herself.
She was nice to him. She recognized him but didn’t attempt to expose him, for all his fakery. His betrayal was at the hands of fellow Christian leaders, surveilling each other as they jousted for media prominence.
But wasn’t Swaggart doing something useful, blubbering on T.V.? At least a man was allowed to cry.
He made a big show of ‘repentance’—for what?—but in 1991 was back in the headlines for having been pulled over with one Rosemary Garcia in the car with him.
He was doing this purposefully?—if uncontrollably. He was compelled to destroy the system of public accusation. “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business,” he announced.
Which made me think . . . he might really be a man of God.
Was he, all along, trying to destroy this theater of accusation and judgement that had come to be called ‘Christianity’?—as if any scripture supports that grotesque agenda.
He could hardly have undermined it more completely—and I realized, yes, he was my hero.
He was a change agent, a chaos agent—or angel?
He was an evangelist, bearing the message: Humans are sexual, and it’s none of your business.
David’s harem, in the Bible, is not even noted until his son Absolom raids it, in 2 Samuel 16:22. Until then it was a private matter?
Swaggart’s ministry, though, was to change the system from within—by tearing it apart. The fakery and inner malevolence of the Christian world was suddenly on display, and its great actor became, briefly, human.
Though it was possible only because of Ms. Murphree’s unique qualities of restraint, beauty and manners, and I realized I liked her even better?
Were a real Christianity of engagement and love to begin, I’d nominate them both as saints.