Jimmy Savile – TV star, charity fundraiser, lovable eccentric – reputation shattered. Lance Armstrong – multiple Tour de France winner, elite athlete, victor over cancer – reputation shattered. Two very different cases, yet profoundly similar. Two contemporary icons, in the space of a few days reduced to reviled outcasts. Savile exposed as a serial abuser of young girls over decades, trading on his celebrity status, able to act (apparently) with impunity, safe in the knowledge that any whistle-blower would be dismissed as malicious or a fantasist in an era where abuse was hidden, ignored or denied. Armstrong exposed as a cheat, a leading player in a complex doping system that put winning above every other consideration, a manipulator and corrupter of younger competitors who quickly realised that dishonesty was the only way to success. It is sickening to read of Savile’s activities. To read of the lengths to which top class cyclists would go in abusing their bodies and circumventing the drug testing system almost beggars belief. Savile is dead and answerable to a higher authority. Armstrong is alive and in denial.
Of course, the inevitable question arises – ‘Who knew what when, and what did they do about it?’ In Armstrong’s case it appears that the entire sport was riddled with cheating. It will not be easy to find ‘clean’ competitors to inherit his Tour titles. The sources of evidence against him were all thoroughly compromised themselves. How any credibility can be restored to such a tainted sport remains to be seen. It’s perhaps not too encouraging when we hear an English member of one of the leading teams comment that ‘It doesn’t really matter’. Apparently Armstrong’s overcoming cancer excuses everything.
How the aftermath of Savile’s exposure will play out is anybody’s guess. The BBC, the NHS, hospital administrators, showbusiness colleagues – the list of those being sucked into the controversy seems endless. The Press, perhaps unsurprisingly, is reacting with a high degree of self-righteous finger-pointing. This from publications which have often shown an amazing lack of scruples in ‘digging up the dirt’ on public figures. How did they miss this one? Or did they know and, for once, keep their mouths shut? We shall see.
Now we live in a society which all too often delights in bringing down prominent personalities – the higher the better. It seems that if a public figure can be exposed as a liar, a cheat, a criminal, an all-round bad lot, people can somehow feel better about themselves. ‘He’s no better than us’, appears to be a consoling thought. If he is much worse than us – even better. Self-righteousness seldom lurks too far beneath the surface of the sinful heart of man. It’s woven into the fabric of fallen human nature.
When every allowance is made for such a cultural pattern, the destruction of the iconic status of Savile and Armstrong does seem to be thoroughly justified. They damaged the lives of others – albeit in different ways – and their public profiles enabled them to behave as they did. In their respective domains they provide clear illustrations of the warning of Psalm 146:3 ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save’. The psalmist goes on to speak of how even the greatest must die: in some cases the death of reputation is just as devastating. People can ‘trust in’ public figures in numerous ways – not least as examples of courage, sporting prowess or charitable effort. Absolute trust is absolutely foolish, and often brings great pain.
Such folly would never be found in the church – now would it? And yet the exalting of some Christian leaders into ‘stars’, men whose actions and motivations are almost beyond question, is not all that rare. Even the best are fallible, sinners saved by grace. None should be accorded absolute trust free of all accountability. We must remember our leaders, consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7), but to make a man an icon (even a Reformed one) is very dangerous – not least for the icon himself.