“The Good, the Right, and the Fit”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Romans 7: 21-25
May 13, 2018
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” – Romans 7:21i
I am about to help you with your friendships, marriage and citizenship. Tall order, right? But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so here I go!
Charles Barkley is a retired basketball player who is now an analyst on TNT. He had some harsh words for Lebron James – the best basketball player on the planet. James plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers and they had lost a game. During the game James was visibly upset with his teammates. They couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives which meant that James had to carry the team. James was sullen, angry and vocal. He seemed to be scolding his teammates for failing to score. Well, Charles Barkley didn’t like the way James was behaving and then Barkley said something rather profound about James’s teammates. He said, “You know they didn’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to miss as many shots as I can today.” His point was this: We all want to do what is good, right and fitting.
But here’s the kicker. Paul is right, too. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
Am I right? I don’t know about you. Maybe Paul’s problem is exactly that – Paul’s problem. But I can tell you this. Paul speaks for me. So if Paul’s problem is not your problem, it is mine and I invite you nonetheless to listen in as I deal with what is a pressing problem for me.
Part of the urgency stems from the polarization within our world. Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants, we all seem to have lost our ability to talk with each other. Why? Because we have become fanatics. We seem to think that our point of view has a higher moral claim than anyone else’s. But not only that. We go on to think that if we do not defeat those who see the world differently all is lost. So we shout our position hoping to drown out the voices of dissent. Aren’t we supposed to seek common ground? Is not our society better served when our aim is to improve the lot of all the people? George Santyana once said, “To be a fanatic is to redouble your efforts when you’ve forgotten your aim.” My friends, that is exactly what has happened to us. We shout. We do not listen. We have lost our aim.
You might be asking how does this insight from Paul help us overcome our fanaticism? It’s a reminder to us all that what is needed in our moral discourse is some humility. If “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand,” then I better get off my moral high horse and take a reckoning of my own fallibility.
Remember at the outset that I said I was going to help you with your friendships, marriage and citizenship? We have already suggested that humility regarding our ethical positions would help our citizenship. But there is more and this, too, relates to our text. The reason evil is close at hand when we desire to do what is good, is in part because we each have a unique way of seeing the moral universe. Let me share an insight from Max Stackhouse.
Stackhouse saw three major ethical categories. They are set up as polarities. We will take them one at a time. The first is the dichotomy between Good and Bad. This asks what the end result of any action might be. Take lying for example. Lying is bad because if everyone lied their would be no trust. Lying results in a flawed society. Do you agree? Most of think telling the truth is a virtue. It leads to functioning relationships and a society built on trust. So this way of seeing moral issues sees the end result of any action.
The second category for moral discernment is: found in the dichotomy between Right and Wrong. This asks the legal question. It is wrong to take another persons life. It is against the law of every known society. Laws are put in place to help define right and wrong. By following the law, we give up a level of freedom in order to insure an ordered society. As one unpire once told a baseball player, “The ball is either fair or foul and it aint nothin’ till I call it.” It’s either right or worng, the second category of moral discernment.
And the third and final category is the dichodomy between a thing being Fit or Unfit. This mode of moral thinking looks at the context of any moral decision. Let me give an example of how fit and unfit works. We said that it was good to tell the truth. But in extreme circumstances, telling the truth would be immoral. Suppose you lived in Nazi Germany. You were harboring Jews who would surly be killed if found. A S.S. officer comes to your door and ask you point blank, “Are there any Jews in your house?” Of course you would lie and say “No Jews here.” In this scenario, it is fitting to tell a lie. Sometimes the context of a moral decision must be considered.
So we have three different categories by which ethical decisions are made. That is simply the way life is structured. But many of our conflicts concerning what is a proper moral policy for family, friends, and society stem from which one of these three categories we are working out of.
Take immigration – a hot political issue. There are those who take a legalistic position of it being either right or wrong. It is clearly illegal to enter this country without going through the proper channels. The law is clear.
Let’s look at illegal immigration from the standpoint of where we might end up. This is not so clear. Those who would send illegal immigrants back to their respective homelands may have the law on their side, but what kind of society do we become if we show no mercy to those who have come seeking to feed their children or escape the violence in their homeland? There are not easy questions to answer. To ask the end result of our action is more complex than asking if it is legal.
And finally, is it fit or unfit to return illegal immigrants to their homeland? To answer this moral question one would have to look at each individual case. Clearly to send people back who face certain death or torture is unfit. It is morally reprehensible. But sending back a felon who is attempting to escape from justice is fit.
It is my contention that Paul is right. “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” It is the way the world is structured. I’ve tried to help you see that there is no pure place to stand and I used the issue of illegal immigration to illustrate this point. This is at least in part why so many today find themselves in disagreement. It is not that one group wants to do good and the other group wants to do evil. We have different ways of seeing the moral universe.
So I ask us all to remember that moral purity is not as simple as it may appear. There are conflicting demands made upon anyone who seeks to be moral. Enter your friendships, marriages and our shared citizenship with a new found humility. I need to be open to the voice of my dissenters. I need to remember my proper aim – to follow in the way of Christ lest I redouble my efforts while having forgotten my aim. Let us pray…
i Romans 7:21-25
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!