Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 8: Respect for Life: The Foundation of Ethical Behavior

When Jesus said: Love God; and love your neighbour, he was echoing something that had long been true in Israel’s history: God is deeply concerned with how we treat one another. He demands moral and ethical goodness. God goes into detail when regulating how we treat each other. Consider Deuteronomy 25:13-16: Do not have two differing weights in your bag - one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house - one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

Who does God detest? “Anyone who deals dishonestly!” Various versions render this differently, but the point is the same, and it should cause us to stop and think. If you lie, cheat, steal, mislead, or deceive for the sake of personal gain you are stirring up the anger of God because you are dishonouring a human life created with dignity in the Image of God! It’s not only high profile corrupt executives who have a lot to answer for – it’s the manager at the grocery store who charges more than the marked price, it’s the banker who tacks on “hidden fees,” it’s the gas station owner who has rigged his pumps to give you less gas than you’re paying for – “God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

The foundation of all these laws is respect for life. As we consider ethics, and morals, and practical implications, and this situation and that situation, let us never lose sight of the fact that it all depends on respect for life. Three thousand years ago most civilizations accepted human sacrifice as normative. In the context of that world God gave Israel certain laws, based on respect for the sanctity of life, not just human, but animal life as well. For example, God commanded them not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Why? Because it is cruel to cook an animal in the very substance that gives it life. Jews were forbidden to eat the limb of a still living animal. And the Sabbath day commandment includes the remarkable obligation to give your animals a day of rest as well.

In the Jewish Talmud there is an obscure law that is one of the most ethically beautiful laws in Judaism. It simply says: “One is not permitted to ask a storekeeper the price of an item if he knows he will not purchase it.” Now isn’t that incredible? Just think about it. When we go into a store, from a clothing store to a car dealership, and we pretend to be interested in something we honestly have no intention of purchasing simply because we have time to kill, or we just want to test drive the car, we are stealing. Stealing valuable time from someone. Now, by all means, shop around for the best price if you really intend to buy something, but don’t intentionally deceive someone. Don’t falsely raise the hopes of someone who works on commission. This obscure Jewish law can help build an ethical society because it makes us aware that we have certain obligations towards other people. We’ve been told so often that “The customer is always right,” we really believe it! We’ll stand in line and argue with the people at Target until they take back an item we know we bought at Wal-Mart!

You can apply this principle to so many areas of your life, and you will be part of the solution in our society, not part of the problem.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ten Questions You Need to Answer Before Marrying

When I used to counsel with church members before officiating at their wedding ceremonies, I would have them go home and answer these ten questions honestly. Then we would meet and discuss the answers. There are two ways you can take this advice: 1) Charles has no credibility when it comes to marriage advice; or 2) Charles has failed and learned some very valuable lessons, and therefore has credibility to give marriage advice. It's up to you.

1. Is the person your best friend or at least becoming so?
It is easy to get excited about a new person. But if you cannot say that the person you are considering marrying has become or is becoming your best friend, you need to figure out why before you decide to marry. This is probably the single most overlooked question among couples. Many people cannot answer this in the affirmative. But you have to answer it. Over time, friendship is the greatest bond between a couple. If the person you marry does not become your best friend, you will either seek someone who will be or simply drift apart. What is a best friend? Someone you tell just about everything to, someone you want to be with as much as possible, and someone you need. One of the most devastating ideas is that depending on another person is a sign of weakness. The opposite is true. The inability to need is a sign of weakness - you are afraid to relinquish power or afraid to be hurt.

2. Do you enjoy each other?
This sounds trite, but enjoying each other (aside from physical intimacy) may actually be the single most important characteristic of a happy marriage.

3. Is there chemistry between the two of you?
As essential as being best friends and enjoying each other are, there should be a vibrant physical component to your relationship. Dating for marriage is not an interview for a strictly platonic best friend. If there is insufficient physical attraction after all other criteria are met and time has passed, you may be in the tragic position of having to end a relationship with a great man or woman.

4. Does the person have at least one very close friend of the same sex?
It is a bad sign if the person you are thinking of marrying does not have good friends of the same sex. Something is very wrong. A woman who cannot hold female friends and a man who cannot hold male friends have issues that will probably sink your marriage.

5. How does the person treat others?
It should go without saying that if the person is not kind to you, quit while you can. But it is far from sufficient that the person you are considering marrying treats you kindly. Watch how they treat waiters, employees, family members, and anyone else they come into contact with. How the person treats others now is how this person will treat you later.

6. What problems do the two of you have now?
Whatever problems you have before the wedding day, you will have during your marriage. Do not think that marrying will solve any problem you have with the person. You have three choices: Make peace with the problem, see if it can be solved before deciding to marry, or don't marry the person. It is imperative that you be ruthlessly honest with yourself. And that is very hard. Nothing is easier than denying problems when you are in love.

7. How often do you fight?
It is normal for couples to fight, but it is a bad sign if you are doing so frequently while dating. That should be the easiest time to get along - no children together, no joint financial problems, and the excitement of a new person. If you fight, do you quickly make up? Does he/she hear your side? Do you apologize after a fight? And most important, do you fight over the same issues with no resolution? Also, Do you miss the person when you are not together?

8. Do you share values?
Opposites attract in the very beginning. Likes stay together for the long term.  The more you share, especially values, the better your chances of a good marriage. For example, if you think television watching is a form of self abuse and your prospective spouse loves watching for hours a day, you may have a big problem. Likewise if you have opposing political and social views to which you are passionately committed.

9. Is the person unhappy?
The importance of marrying an essentially happy person cannot be exaggerated. If you are basically happy, do not think for a moment that you can make an unhappy person happy by marrying him or her. On the contrary, the ability of the unhappy to make the happy unhappy is far greater than the ability of the happy to make the unhappy happy.

10. What do people you respect think of the person you're considering marrying?
Young people are certain they know better than anyone else in the world what is good for them. So a lack of enthusiasm for the person you are considering for marriage on the part of family or friends may mean little or nothing. But if objections come, let’s say, from a parent you respect for reasons that are not easily dismissed, and if others you respect are unenthusiastic as well, you should take their objections seriously.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 7: In Defense of Situational Ethics

Christians believe that God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion or mores. Without God, each individual makes up his or her own moral standards. This is known as moral relativism. Moral relativism is scary and dangerous because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most secular people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that “I think murder is wrong,” is as meaningless as “I think purple is ugly.” Relativism is the idea that there is no definite right and wrong. There is no truth, and even if there were, we couldn’t recognize it. Right and wrong, and truth are manifestations of traditions and norms within various cultures. Right and wrong and truth are individual matters, determined by individuals. We cannot impose our values on other people.

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many Christians who believe in moral absolutes. They assume that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism and therefore regard situational ethics as incompatible with Christian morality. I think it is a mistake to argue that just as individuals determining what is right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine what is right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is good or bad, it is good or bad for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “everyone” is not the same as “every situation.” An act that is wrong is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if, during World War II, Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral and unlawful killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists say that it is wrong to take a life in every situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in Christian morality remains simply this: There is good and there is evil, independent of personal or societal opinion; and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action?” My point is simple – because universal morality says that an action is wrong for all PEOPLE, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong in all SITUATIONS.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 6: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

In part one of this series I pointed out that there are really two modes of moral reasoning. The first is consequentialist moral reasoning. Here morality is located in the consequences of an act. Right or wrong depends on the outcome. The second is categorical moral reasoning. Here morality is located in certain categorical duties and rights, regardless of the consequences or outcome. A little more on these systems, because everybody, whether they recognize it or not, uses one of these ways of making ethical decisions – and its good to know this, because if you live and breathe, you have to decide between right and wrong; good and evil every day.

The most prevalent form of consequentialist moral reasoning is Utilitarianism. This is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure. Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” and is also known as “the greatest happiness principle.” Utility (the good to be maximized) has been defined as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain). It is not inaccurate to describe utilitarianism as the ethics of majority rule. This is the most pragmatic way of deciding between right and wrong, and the allocation of resources, and therefore it is the most pervasive in our society. Our government uses a utilitarian ethic in making decisions – what will be most beneficial for the most number of people? It’s very democratic. Majority rules. Let’s look at an example: A doctor has five patients. Four are dying and need organ transplants NOW (one has a bad heart, one has a failing kidney, one only has a quarter of a lung, and one’s liver has been pickled). Only one “patient” is perfectly healthy. What would a utilitarian ethic demand? The doctor should kill the healthy one, take their organs and give it to the other four, right? That way one will die and four will live. Isn’t that better than four dying and only one living? It’s simple math. But what’s the problem? What if the one person would rather live? The problem with an ethical system that tries to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number is that it tramples on the rights and ignores the value of individual people.

Categorical moral reasoning, often called deontology, or moral absolutism, sees certain principles (often revealed in religious codes) as far greater than the circumstances of life, and the need for utility. There is definite truth, and we can come to know it. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and we can know the difference.

So, what do you think? Which is preferable? More importantly, which do you employ in your personal life, family life, and professional life?

Thursday, June 10, 2010


One of my favorite movies is "Doubt." It is based on the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley. In his introduction to the play, Shanley has the following commentary about the virtue of doubt:

"There's a symptom apparent in America right now. It's evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion.

We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it's because, deep down under the chatter, we have come to a place where we know that we don't know ... anything. But nobody's willing to say that.

What is doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There's the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who's your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is doubt, so often experienced initially as weakness, that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he's on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake. Like you've gone the wrong way and you're lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the present.

There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

N.T. Wright on the Relationship Between Genesis and American Politics

Many of you have heard me preach and teach on the book of Genesis. My own theological interpretation certainly runs counter to the literal view taken by most evangelical Christians who "flatten the story," and then infuse it with unique (and modern) American cultural norms. In this clip N.T. Wright (widely regarded as one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world) says in under 5 minutes what I have struggled to say for the past 10 years! It's hard to find brilliance like this - enjoy!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 5: Can One Sin on a Deserted Island? The Communal Aspect of Ethics and Justice.

Can you sin on a deserted island? Most people I’ve spoken to say yes. Examples I've heard are: You can kill yourself. You can harm the environment. You can lust. You can blaspheme God. But these examples are a little forced. I suppose you can run around cutting down trees and killing monkeys, or commit suicide, or fantasize about someone not on the island, or even scream things at God. But these things don't seem to be typical “sins,” and the ethical meaning of “sinning in your heart” is open for interpretation. At what point do thoughts become sins, and what gradation of sin? Further, if you saw this behavior on the island, I doubt your first thought would be, “That is a sin.” You'd probably think that the person went crazy, and thus it weakens any categorization of “sin.”

But now, let's imagine that there are two people on the island. Can you sin with another person? Now we can imagine all kinds of sin: Lies, stealing, violence. The whole point of the question is to make this principle painfully obvious: Sin is a social phenomenon. I think one of the worst mistakes in theology is to consider sin to be only, or even primarily, a God/human issue. The island question is trying to point out that if it is just you and God, your sin repertoire is pretty anemic. But sin categories abound when we find ourselves in human community, when we see sin as a human/human issue. In other words, God's judgment against sin is judgment against human-to-human infractions.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. Before you offer your sacrifice to God, first be reconciled to your brother, then come offer your sacrifice to God. It's also the theme in 1st John - you can't say you love God when you hate your brother. Love your brother first and then you can say you love God with authenticity. If you wander through life thinking there's a rift between you and God, that focus leads to guilt, shame, and religious paranoia. But if we also see sin as a human/human rift, then we can focus on reconciliation that we can actually do something about.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 4: Why do "Good" People do "Bad" Things?

I am less fascinated with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” than with the question, “Why do good people do bad things?” Bad things happen to good people because we live in a fallen, sinful world in which evil (or stupid) people can ruin your day or your life at will! But to say that only bad people do bad things is to have a simplistic, childlike view of the world. It is usually “good” or “normal” people who do bad things. Augustine said that the line separating good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.

We tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people – “good people,” “bad people,” “strong people,” “weak people,” etc. But all these labels are erroneous. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. Remember the Milgram “Nazi guard syndrome” experiments? This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior, but we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that!” This is precisely what sets us up for wrongdoing. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a very costly one.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your own virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Trust me on this! The world is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done that” (fill in the blank). “I’m not like that!” I am one of those fallen people who thought the strength of his own character could save him from falling over the precipice!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 3: What is Evil?

The trial of the century happened in the late 1960’s. It started with a daring kidnapping when Israeli agents went to South America and caught the most notorious Nazi not yet convicted of war crimes – Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the architect of the Holocaust – he came up with the idea of gassing Jews because even if one bullet could kill three people, that was still too expensive! They took him to Jerusalem for trial. David Ben-Gurion wanted this to be a show trial – to put all the horrors of Nazism on display for the entire world to see. Watching that trial was an Israeli journalist – Hannah Arendt – who then wrote a book called: Eichmann in Jerusalem. But the subtitle of the book is what caught everyone’s attention: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt says that the trial would have been easy had Eichmann been a monster. But he’s not. He’s just a petty bureaucrat. He’s not very smart. He’s ambitious in the way small men are. He doesn’t have much of a philosophy of life. He’s only anti-Semitic out of convenience. He’s petty. But that’s more troubling – that small, petty, insignificant, ordinary people can do such atrocious evil! But that’s Eichmann. That’s not us. We would never do that. We know better.

Also in the 1960’s, psychologist, Stanley Milgram, came up with a fascinating psychological experiment. Milgram told his subjects that he was studying the effects of negative reinforcement on learning – does punishment make us learn better? So he had two people – a teacher and a learner – and the teacher sat at a control panel where a button produced electric shocks. The learner was sitting behind a glass partition, and every time they got an answer wrong, the teacher had to press the button, and give them a shock – and with every subsequent shock, the voltage was increased. But here’s what you need to know – the real test subject was the teacher – the learner only acted like he was being shocked. There was no electricity connection. Milgram was wondering if the teacher would keep giving the learner electric shocks just because someone in a lab coat told them to. Finally, the learner started yelling in pain. They would say, “Stop. I have heart trouble.” Finally the learner would quit making sounds altogether – which meant they were passed out or dead! How far would ordinary people go? 60 percent of people never stopped hitting that button! They did outrageous, immoral, murderous things because someone with authority in a lab coat told them to! Milgram labeled his results the “Nazi guard syndrome.”

Here’s the point. Evil is not deep. It’s shallow. It’s superficial. Evil is the failure to see clearly. The shallowness of evil is the inability to see below the skin. It is to see the world in terms of “us vs. them.” How is it that Eichmann, who had Jewish friends, could be the architect of the Holocaust, and ship off millions of Jews to be killed? Because they didn’t have a name! They were a problem to be solved! If we can boil life down to “us vs. them” we can demonize anybody. It’s easy to hate people if all they are is “The Russians” or The Chinese” or The French” or “Terrorists” or “Catholics” or “Baptists” or “New Yorkers” or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” You can hate anybody who has no face and no name. Evil is the failure to see that all people were created in the Image of God, and that God created them all for Himself, and He will not be satisfied until all people and all things are redeemed for Him! Evil does not recognize human connectedness.

I try to be optimistic and positive, but evil is winning. We have allowed ourselves to be broken up a thousand different ways into a thousand different groups – and Christians are not helping – because we are real good at seeing the world as “us vs. them.” God’s desire is that walls get torn down, and in a world of shallow tribalism, that is a powerful message!