The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
October 16, 2022
“The Heart of the Matter”
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
In Harvey Cox’s little book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox tells about a course he taught for undergraduate students at the university. The course was entitled, “Jesus and the Moral Life.” Cox didn’t expect much of a response. After all, it was Harvard, not exactly a bastion of Christian Evangelicalism. What happened shocked him. The course became so popular that it had to be taught in a theater often used for rock concerts. What Cox found is that the young people who attended the class were looking for a moral rudder for the modern world. After having been exposed to Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative of never do anything that you would not wish to become a universal law, after they had been exposed to utilitarianism’s admonition to do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number, after they had learned about situational ethics, they had come to find themselves as confused as ever. They were seeking an anchor that could withstand the waves of moral relativity. What Cox found is that by exploring the life of Jesus, the students found what they needed. Ethics, Cox would contend, is more about following the example of Jesus than practicing lofty principles.
In Jerimiah’s day, the nation faced a crises point. The Babylonians had wreaked havoc . Conquered cities. People imprisoned. The best and the brightest taken into captivity. The fields desolate. Jeremiah believed the tragedy was a result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness to God, that God had brought the destruction, had unleased the Babylonians to punish the nation for its sin. In Jeremiah’s mind, what had been practiced by the people had not worked. Obedience to an external law code had not prevented the calamity of captivity. Something else was needed.
In our own day, something like the same crisis is upon us. We live in a world awash in moral relativity when one’s person’s conception of right and wrong, differs sharply from another’s. We seem to exist in an age where ideology rather than principal reigns. Truth seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and we find ourselves echoing the words of the poet:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Could it be that we suffer from the same malady as those young people at Harvard? We look for a moral rudder and cannot find one the guides us through the confusion of our age. Let me suggest why this may be so.
To gain some understanding our plight, I want to use a typology suggested by Max Stackhouse, a professor of ethics at the seminary I attended. In his thinking, there are three primary ways to think of ethics — Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, Fit and Unfit. I am going to try and unpack them and then point to the problem they fail to resolve. To illustrate my point, I am going to make use of very contentious moral issue —abortion. People have strong and visceral feelings about this issue and while my purpose is not to suggest a moral solution to this dilemma, the issue of abortion is a helpful way to understand the differences between these three ways of thinking ethically suggested by Stackhouse.
First, those who think ethically about things being either good or bad. This ethical approach takes the long view. It asks what type of society does one untimely want. I am going to assume that we all want a good society. Some see a good society defined by banning abortion. The protection of the unborn is seen as a noble end. It points to a society that values human life. It is, therefore, good. Others, however, believe that government is intruding on what ought to be a personal choice. They ask, “Who has the right to demand a woman carry a pregnancy to term? What kind of society do we create when we cede the right to choose our own destiny to the dictates of the state? Preserving the right to choose makes for a freer and, thus, better society.
Anyone who is paying attention can clearly see that the dichotomy of Good and Bad as a form of ethical decision making does not necessarily resolve the moral ambiguity between two divergent views. So, let’s take up the next way of determining an ethical position — seeing things from a legal point of view of right and wrong.
This point of view has much to commend it. It has the ring of moral clarity and reduces ambiguity. If something is illegal, it is, by definition, wrong. I suppose one could argue that the Jewish law codes were driven by this typology. What was decreed as unclean was seen as illegal to eat. Most of us live within this way of thinking and want people held accountable for breaking the law. When the issue of abortion is brought to bear, however, things become immediately murky. For fifty years in this nation, a woman had to right to seek an abortion up to 21 weeks of first becoming pregnant. Suddenly, that legally protected right has been overturned. Now individual states get to decide the issue. The result? If you have money, you will have access to an abortion. A woman living in Texas can, if she has the financial means, travel to Vermont and get an abortion. But poor woman have no such option, In addition, the poor are at a higher risk of having a problem during pregnancy due to a lack of access to health care. Does this seem right? Does it seem equitable? Sometimes the law gets in the way of justice. One must always remember that there was a time when people of color could not drink from the same water fountain as folks deemed “white.” Segregation may have been legal. It was never good. Like the first typology of Good and Bad, Right and Wrong does not remove all ethical tensions.
Which bring us to our third approach to ethical decision making — namely, Fit and Unfit. This is often referred to as situational ethics. It seeks to make ethical decisions based on the immediate context of the problem. When the issue is abortion, it asks some very important question. Is it fitting to require a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest to carry a pregnancy to term? Almost all Americans would say “no.” Given the context of the pregnancy in question, it seems highly unfit for a number or reasons. But the issue of context is not always seen as relevant. When a woman is making a choice and there are not extenuating circumstances, to many it seems fitting to place restrictions on that choice because there are other moral factors involved or they see the issue defined by one of the other two typologies of Right or Wrong, Good or Bad. Seeing things as Fit or Unfit, like all the others we have examined, does not result in universal moral clarity.
So, where does that leave us? We have to live in the world we have been given. How are to do so ethically, and more than that, how are we to do so with a degree of civility that allows for differences of opinion?
Short of a faith filled answer, I have no idea. To think that one way of making ethical decisions is pure is to ignore the moral ambiguity contained within them all. But my faith informs me first and foremost that I am not God. Simply put, I get things wrong and while I may want to believe that I have the correct moral answer, I am forced to admit that not only may I have it wrong, but my brothers and sisters who see it differently think just as strongly they have it right. If I can retain this perspective, I am called into humility and a more compassionate approach to those who think differently. But my faith also informs me that there is no pure place to stand, that when it comes to difficult moral choices, I must choose between competing principles and like the students in Harvey Cox’s class at Harvard, learn from Jesus. When I do that, I come to see the wisdom of the cross, that to engage the world is one of the causes of necessary suffering. In the end, I seek what Jeremiah offered — that the law of God be written upon my heart for if it is, then I will come to love my neighbor as I love myself. Let us pray….
[i] Jeremiah 31:27-34
27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.