To Catch a Sinner -- Chris Hansen and the Spectacle of Moral Transgression

I was never too interested in watching Chris Hansen's program, To Catch a Predator. If you aren't familiar with it, premiering in 2004 and running until 2007, Hansen and his team would lure child-molesters prowling the internet to a house where Hansen would be waiting with a camera crew.

My disinterest certainly wasn't because he was getting these men off the internet and into the hands of the law, and, hopefully, to counselors to help them deal with their obsession. Everyone should be happy to have such individuals away from our children.

It was rather the way Hansen and his team decided to capture the predator. It was staged theater, on prime-time television, where the man conspiring to commit a sexual crime, instead of meeting his desired victim, would meet Hansen and his camera crew. Immediately confronting the man, Hansen would invite him to sit down to discuss his attempted felony, all before the police, waiting close by, would make the arrest.

The reaction by the captured men was, admittedly, fascinating. Reaction would range from an embarrassment beyond words to a timid, talkative humiliation. Amazingly, upon Hansen's appearance, very few of the men would turn and run out the door.

It was a capture like other types of nonhuman predators where the animal knows it's caught and that there isn't any use trying to escape. In the case of Hansen's prey, it was especially gruesome when the man showing up was no ordinary Joe, but rather married with his own teenage daughters, pastor, rabbi, and even a predator bringing his child in tow because it was his day to look after sonny.

It's not something that is pleasant to watch, being akin to approaching what appears to be a blood-soaked accident on the road: we don't want to look at it while we pass by, but something deep inside can't resist gawking.

Exactly because the capture of a predator is so primordial, its seriousness shouldn't be celebrated as social spectacle. To do so creates a surreal disjointedness that stands in contrast to the very complex problem that the behavior represents: human sexuality and notions of addiction, deviance, and obsession, all combined into the expansion of technology to feed those vices.

For me, there was another component to Hansen's reality show that disturbed me. And it was theological in nature.

For years I've been fascinated by the story in the Gospel about the woman caught in adultery. I've loved it because, having grown up in conservative Christianity, I thought that it captured perfectly the power of human hypocrisy, my own included.

As the story goes, Pharisees, the religious rulers of Jesus's day, were, as usual, incessantly trying to trap Jesus in a contradiction that would have him lose face with his admirers. On one particular day, while talking to people at temple, the Pharisees approached Jesus with a woman who, they say, was caught in adultery. What was Jesus's judgement?

The intent of the Pharisees was to present him with a moral dilemma: As a rabbi, Jesus was required to instruct correctly on Mosaic law which prescribes that she should be put to death. To not do so, the Pharisees conspired, would be to violate the precepts of the Law. But to instruct the people to kill the woman would apparently also disturb the sentiments of the people, thus affecting his popularity. For the Pharisees, it was a win-win situation.

After hearing the question, stooping down to write something in the sand, Jesus stands up and tells the men, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." He stoops down and continues to write in the sand. Slowly everyone walks away with only the accused woman left:

Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

I had a professor back at Bible college tell us, while he had no textual basis for believing so, he imagined that what Jesus was writing in the sand were all the names of the men in the crowd who had committed adultery, maybe with her. It's an interesting thought, especially since the Levitical passage also instructs that the man also committing adultery should be put to death.

Whether this story actually happened is beside the point. Like other stories in the Bible, the real importance is what it tells us about the human condition. In this passage, I think the lessons are abundantly clear.

We should note, firstly, that Jesus doesn't say to the crowd: "Those of you who haven't committed adultery can throw the first stone." There's likely to be a few who haven't imbibed in that particular sin. More importantly, because all of us have moral failure, he instead says that those who are sinless can be the judge of the caught woman. From this it follows, secondly, that we need to be very conscious of our moral judgements. We can make them, as we must. But how we make them, and then prosecute them, makes a world of difference.

Back to Chris Hansen and what was really my primary difficulty with his program. My sentiment at the time was that before we publicly display the sins of others, we had better be certain of our own moral comportment.

It turns out, moral failure is part of Hansen's character too, as described by the recent story of alleged adultery he has committed with a woman twenty years his junior. To be sure, despite Levitical law to the contrary, the sexual activity between two consenting adults (albeit married to different people) is of a very different moral transgression than a sexual predator targeting girls.

But it's a moral failure nonetheless. And it seems that those who like to make a living out of displaying the failure of others might be tempting the gods.

Call it God's judgment, karma, coming back in another life reincarnated as a rat, or "what goes around, comes around," I didn't want to take any fascination with the failure of others when some moral compromise might just be waiting for me around the corner.

If it happens, I just hope judgment isn't carrying a camera.