The data breach of Ashley Madison, a Toronto-based company billing itself as “the world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters,” has triggered an international scandal, suicides, and more than a few separations. The sordid story of how an agenda-minded group of anonymous computer hackers exposed the most personal information about 39.6 million Ashley Madison members tells us something about technology, humanity, and God.
Paying the Consequences
Let’s start with the least important, most temporary of these three: technology. For now, set aside what Ashley Madison sells, and consider what this episode tells us about our plugged-in, always-online lives.
In their 10-gigabyte data dump, equal to perhaps 7 or 8 million pages of text, the digital vigilantes who outed Ashley Madison’s members, as The Washington Post reports, revealed full names, email addresses, personal profiles, credit-card information, birth dates, marital status, and intimate details about members’ sexual preferences. The Ashley Madison hackers “managed to torch the careers, friendships, and marriages of millions of people,” technology writer Caitlin Dewey observes. “That’s terror. And it should terrify you.”
Indeed, just think about all the stuff trailing behind each of us in our digital wake: health problems and prescriptions, personnel records and personal problems, nasty texts and gossipy emails, regrettable selfies and angry voicemails, purchases made and videos rented and websites visited. And then think about all of that junk being splashed onto a searchable website for anyone and everyone to peruse.
This is a brave new world, yet it calls to mind — in a surprising context — the ancient, timeless words of Jesus: “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Every text. Every voicemail. Every tweet. Every email. Every post. Every mouse-click. Every download.
Think about all the stuff trailing behind each of us in our digital wake: health problems and prescriptions, personnel records and personal problems, nasty texts and gossipy emails, regrettable selfies and angry voicemails, purchases made and videos rented and websites visited. And then think about all of that junk being splashed onto a searchable website for anyone and everyone to peruse.
It may be easy to respond — and indeed many have — “Ashley Madison users deserve what they got. If they didn’t want this information to be made public, they shouldn’t have engaged in such behavior. There should be a cost and a consequence to unfaithfulness.”
Heaven knows there is a cost to unfaithfulness — and we’ll get to that in a moment — but such a response seems to ignore how serious some of the here-and-now consequences are:
- There have been at least two suicides linked to the Ashley Madison data breach.
- The Associated Press reports 1,200 email addresses exposed in the breach have “the .sa suffix, suggesting users were connected to Saudi Arabia, where adultery is punishable by death.”
- There were at least 15,000 .gov or .mil addresses revealed in the hack, which means they are American military personnel or government employees. “Under military rules,” as The Washington Post points out, “philanderers can be punished by a year in confinement and a dishonorable discharge, which means losing their pension.”
- And we’ll never know how many marriages and families were blown apart by this act of techno-terrorism.
Suffice it to say this is a cautionary tale about how much we (and our kids) use, misuse, trust, and rely on digital technology — and how much of our lives might be exposed to the lawless jungle of cyberspace. That doesn’t mean we should try to escape into some pre-Internet cocoon — let alone surrender the new frontiers of technology to an unbelieving world. Technology is amoral. By our choices, our will, we can make technology an instrument of inspiration or a tool of depravity, a way to connect or a way to destroy, an expression of God’s creative gifts or a doorway to sin. But since so many dangers lurk in cyberspace, perhaps we should strive to be as gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents when venturing there.
That brings us to what the Ashley Madison hack tells us about humanity. Unlike other websites that feed the hookup culture, Ashley Madison unabashedly targets married people. The infamous photo that represents the Ashley Madison brand, after all, is a woman making the shush motion with her forefinger pressed against her lips — wearing a wedding band. And the company’s anything-but-subtle slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.”
As Christ followers, we know this is wrong on many levels: God’s plan is for intimacy to be reserved for marriage. God’s plan is for marriage to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman. God’s plan is for marriage to be a covenant — a sacred bond. Those who use Ashley Madison’s services are showing contempt for God and committing a serious sin — and so are those who provide Ashley Madison’s services. Remember what Christ said about causing someone to fall into sin.
However, Ashley Madison’s employees and members aren’t the only ones among us who are sinning. The hackers who exposed Ashley Madison’s secrets have justified their actions by labeling Ashley Madison and its members “cheating dirtbags” who “deserve no … discretion.”
That may be true, but in this self-appointed morality posse we hear an echo of the Pharisees who dragged the woman caught in adultery before Jesus. John tells us they brought the woman to the temple courts “where all the people gathered around,” and then they declared to the world, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery.” Not unlike the plight and position of Ashley Madison’s users, there was nowhere for her to hide; her sin and shame were exposed for all to see.
Jesus’ answer is twofold: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That’s His message to those of us, chests puffed up, who are laughing at Ashley Madison’s outed members. His message for Ashley Madison’s members is equally important: “Leave your life of sin.”
It seems Jesus is reminding us that all people have feet of clay. That doesn’t mean we should revel in the muck of our sinfulness; that doesn’t mean anything goes; that doesn’t mean we have no right to speak the truth in love; that doesn’t mean judging something to be wrong is itself wrong.
We shouldn’t delight in the moral failures of others or make someone else’s sin a public spectacle. Instead, we should share God’s grace and mercy.
It means we shouldn’t delight in the moral failures of others or make someone else’s sin a public spectacle. Instead, we should share God’s grace and mercy. We should search for the sin in our lives and celebrate the good in others, rather than celebrating the good we do and searching for the sin in others. And when we do exercise our godly judgment, Jesus says we should do so caringly and privately: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.”
That brings us to what this story might tell us about God.
Many of us may be able to march to the temple courts, fold our arms, and declare that Ashley Madison’s adulterers are dirtbags who deserve all the shame and blame they’re getting now that their sins are exposed. After all, we would never do what they did, never break our marriage vows, never commit adultery. However, our definition of adultery is much narrower than God’s.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a glimpse of the vast difference between His definition of purity and ours. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’” He observes, referring to how the scribes and scholars — perhaps you and I — interpret the Law. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
If that doesn’t give us pause, nothing will. The enemy tricks us into defining the sin of adultery narrowly. But Jesus sets the standard high by defining this sin broadly. Lust is a form of adultery, He flatly declares. Try as we might to reassure ourselves that the two are vastly different, from His perspective they are not. And He makes the rules.
Whenever we lust or entice others to lust, we are committing adultery. Whenever we fill our hearts and minds with junk that leads away from God’s design for intimacy — trashy TV, trashy novels, trashy magazines, trashy movies — we are committing adultery. Whenever we seek physical or even certain kinds of emotional fulfillment somewhere other than marriage — Facebook flirting, Internet searching, escaping into work or play — we are committing adultery.
Adultery, both the “in the heart” variety Jesus condemns and the “in the flesh” variety Ashley Madison encourages, fractures our relationship with God, with our spouse, with our family. It distorts our vision and leads us to see people as objects instead of what they are — unique masterpieces created in God’s image. And it separates us from the spiritual side of our humanity, elevating the animal and impulsive side — what Paul called our “earthly nature.”
Ashley Madison says, “Do what feels good.” But Jesus says, “Do what is good.” Ashley Madison says, “You’re only human. Nobody’s perfect.” But Jesus says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Ashley Madison says, “Life is short. Have an affair.” But Jesus says, “Your soul is eternal. And love is a priceless, precious reflection of Me. Don’t squander either on the momentary.”
The Ashley Madison scandal calls to mind what Paul wrote about those whose “god is their stomach.” He wasn’t talking only about gluttons; he was talking about all who are governed by the flesh. Who can rescue us — the adulterers and the Pharisees — from this lifelong struggle against the flesh? Only the One who knows us best, who has seen our worst, who loves us anyway.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.