- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Some 37 million Americans have learned how quickly life can change with the click of a mouse, as notorious affair website ashleymadison.com fell victim to hackers who released a list of user names and information. The list, broken down by state and city, quickly hit social media.

Amid the tears and the sneers, the Rev. Landon Dowden, pastor of the Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, reached out.

“If you’re in Tupelo and in the Ashley Madison mess, before (you) run to a judge I’d count it a privilege to run with you to Jesus. Call our office,” he tweeted.

“If God posted a list, who wouldn’t be on it? After all, Jesus said that adultery is committed in the mind,” Dowden said. “I was trying to let people know that there was a place in the city people could run to. The church is a place for junked-up people. This situation is shocking, yet not.”

For the spiritual community, the task of navigating the digital world, as well as a society in which boundaries are becoming less and less substantial, is new territory. The Rev. Gloria McKinney said the insidious thing about the Internet is how little effort it takes to stray, whether in the form of infidelity or gossip.

“Social media makes this so much more hurtful,” said McKinney, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tupelo. “Whatever people might do to heal their relationship takes a back seat to what they have to do to save face because this is so public. Outsiders are always going to be outsiders, but such publicity impedes the decisions that need to be made within those people’s homes.”

The Rev. Jason Webb, pastor of Ingram Baptist Church in Baldwyn, recalled Jesus’s words about throwing the first stone, and said this is an occasion for everyone to take moral inventory.

“The Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun. The Internet just drags the same old sin out. Ashley Madison doesn’t make a person an adulterer, or make a person a gossip. Those are things that were already there in us,” he said. “But we’re all great lawyers and present half-truths about ourselves well. These people just happen to be the ones who got put on blast about it.”

For those seeking to help or offer comfort to those on or affected by the list, Webb said, it can be delicate. Even well-intended probing can be read as high-hatted cavaliering.

“As a minister, I feel like pastors are obligated to pursue and look after their flocks, but in general I would advise people to consider leaving them alone. Pray for open doors to offer help, and take everything on a case-by-case basis,” Webb said. “If anything, simply let them know you are praying for them.”

Tony Caldwell, a counselor in Tupelo who is also working toward his Masters of Divinity degree through Sewannee University, said ultimately, the Ashley Madison list is evident of an identity problem.

“So you are who you are to your family and friends, but all of a sudden, you’re doing this thing no one knows about. There’s a loneliness in that, because they feel like even the people who know them best don’t know them anymore,” Caldwell said. “You go from a high identity to a low identity when you’re found out - ‘Once a cheater, always a cheater.’”

From the spectator end, Caldwell said, it’s easy to afford the names on the list compassion, to jeer or belittle.

“But that’s a faith issue, too,” he said. “We don’t trust God’s justice to fit our own expectations of justice. Heavenly justice is not about morality, it’s about wholeness. We are all in a state of having failed to be whole.”

If spouses and spectators move in grace, Dowden said this exposure could end up being a blessing.

“Ministry is messy. When people come alongside each other and bear our burdens together, that’s when the church becomes the church,” Dowden said. “All sin is a satisfaction problem. Jesus didn’t die to condemn us; he died to release us from what ruins us.”


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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