Gen. David Petraeus is not the first famous David in history to be ensnared in the web of infidelity.
King David was an adulterer and a fellow military hero as well. However, the similarities end there. While the biblical David was able to retain his kingship because he repented and was forgiven, the contemporary David knew he would likely not be forgiven and, consequently, felt he had to resign.
Our apparent inability to forgive, combined with modern media’s insatiable lust for sex scandal stories, is a troubling dilemma that will continue to plague our polity if it is not ameliorated. In a culture where privacy is nearly nonexistent, an inability to forgive creates a toxic brew that results in qualified leaders resigning from office for private indiscretions; it may also discourage such individuals from entering public service altogether.
In Petraeus, we lost one of our most accomplished, capable, and qualified military leaders because of a sexual indiscretion. While the general’s private actions were immoral, they had no bearing on his public duties. If his adultery had no bearing on his public duties, and if he sincerely repents, we should have no qualms about re-embracing him as our CIA director.
King David’s adultery was much more morally egregious than David Petraeus’s infidelity.
King David, according to the story, desired a married woman named Bathsheba. After he ordered her to be brought to his palace, he sent her husband Uriah, a soldier, to the front-lines of a raging battle (and thus to near-certain death).
The Bible does not attempt to conceal any aspects of King David’s grievous sin. But when confronted by the prophet Nathan regarding this heinous adultery and murder, David does not attempt to justify his actions.
“I have sinned against the Lord,” he exclaims, and undertakes an austere regimen of repentance comprised of prayer, fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sleeping on the ground.
God, recognizing David’s contrition and sincere repentance, forgives David. And his subjects re-embraced him.
If King David had instead been forced out of the kingship, the Jewish people would have been gravely impoverished, and perhaps would not have survived without such a capable political and military leader.
Gen. Petraeus is a four-star general, and by all accounts one of the most brilliant military minds of this generation. Forcing him out of this position will deprive the United States of one of its most capable military minds in a time when we still face serious security threats.
If we cannot learn to forgive, we face the prospect of driving out many more Davids from the public sphere.
No aspect of our culture is in more need of learning how to forgive than the media. If American media in the mid-twentieth century functioned then as it does now, two of our most capable (and most potentially scandalous) presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, may not have felt comfortable entering public service in the first place.
Whereas our culture — one which respected privacy — once had the capacity to forgive, our culture today has lost this quality, and consequently risks losing present-day Roosevelts and Kennedys.
Qualified public servants shouldn’t be made to feel as if a sword of Damocles were hanging over their heads whenever a private foible threatens to be made public. If we were able to apply the lessons of forgiveness from the biblical David story to the contemporary David story, we might be able to keep our most able commanders in office.