Ethics

When Vice President Quayle was a rising star in the Republican party, he was asked in an interview about abortion, which he had always adamantly opposed. The question this time was different: if your 13-year-old daughter was raped and got pregnant, would you allow her to have an abortion, to which he responded, “yes”. I don’t think it is coincidental that he disappeared from politics after President Bush lost the election. He made the mistake of telling the truth. His high moral standards, like yours and mine, had a “yes, but”.

There are ethics and then, there are ethics. My Doctor of Ministry project was about teaching the ethics of Jesus to children in a cross-cultural setting, and when I would go around teaching about ethics/morality in churches, I would say that there are no absolutes, to which many people responded with surprise. “What about pedophilia?” I would tell them that this came close, but that most states in the United States still allowed children to marry with their parent’s permission (look it up – it’s true). “What about murder?” It depends on how you define murder – the law has many levels that help us to define killing, from manslaughter to first degree, and while they all involve someone killing someone, there are degrees of severity. We allow the murder of criminals. We allow the murder of the enemy in war. We allow murdering someone who trespasses on your lawn. I’m not debating the legality of these things; I am just saying that they exist.

So, while we might believe ourselves to be ethical/moral people, the truth is that ethics are situational, and we can’t honestly say with certainty how we would react in some situations. I had this argument with my Quaker philosophy professor (Dr. Redding) one time in college, and it was the first time I experienced him unable to answer me. Being an advocate of non-violence, he was teaching about Gandhi and Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their commitment to passive resistance. I asked him a simple question: if you walked into your home and saw someone about to murder a member of your family, would you passively watch, or would you physically engage the person, knowing you might kill them. He had no answer, and I can’t blame him for that. All ethics are situational; all morals have “yes, but” exceptions.

I believe in having high ethical/moral standards, and I find that most people do as well. I also understand all too well that there will always be “yes, but” moments in life, and this realization should lead us to be very careful about how we judge others. When the crowd brought a woman caught in adultery (curiously, without the person she was doing the deed with) to Jesus to be judged, He told them that if they had no sin, they could stone her. After they dropped their weapons and walked away, He told her that while He didn’t judge her, she should also stop committing adultery. Sometimes there are exceptions – sometimes, even Jesus said, “yes, but”.

We should all strive for the higher gifts, as the Apostle Paul put it, but we should also be careful about judging ourselves as being more moral or ethical than others. Someday, the opposite might be true, and we will want mercy and forgiveness from them. To get those things, Jesus said, we have to give them.

Prayer – Save us from our self-righteousness, God, so that our mercy and forgiveness might be given freely. Amen.

Today’s art is “Forgiveness” by Alejandro Giraldo.

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