W. C. Fields once quipped that he spent a lot of time studying the Bible — to find the loopholes! Surveys indicate that fully 65-70 % of Americans believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth.
Perhaps the only difference between the loophole seekers of Field’s time and the relativists of today is that today almost nobody reads the Bible, churched and unchurched alike.
Loopholes aren’t necessary when you don’t think there is a source of absolute truth in the first place. When everything is relative; when you are your own judge of what is right and what is wrong; you don’t need loopholes; and you don’t need the Bible.
One of the results of this view has been a general relaxing of ethical standards to the point where many things which were seen as moral issues are seen now as simply being individual choices that are neither moral nor immoral.
Some of this is good, particularly when morality has been used to mask prejudice by those who insist that their morality must be our morality.
But I also believe that this relaxation of ethical standards leads to a general reluctance, even to an unwillingness, to distinguish between right and wrong. And, ultimately, that reluctance becomes the new standard of the American way of life.
Today we know that literally thousands of eye witnesses attest to the brutal ethnic cleansing in Darfur. We hear of women being raped, entire villages being burned, men, women and children slaughtered. Women, children and old people who are not killed are driven to the border by the tens of thousands.
And we ask: Should we become more directly involved? Should we commit ground troops? Aren't problems in Africa really none of our business? Hasn’t it always been a mess? Aren’t we making it worse if we intervene? Do you know what we should do?
I don’t know exactly what we should do in Darfur except that talk, some humanitarian assistance and whatever other small things we are doing is not enough.
Let me tell you what else I know. I know that abuse of power is wrong; I know that murdering people is wrong; I know that raping women is wrong; I know that starving people, including children, is wrong; I know that driving people from their homes, and burning their villages is wrong.
And I think that knowing that I could begin to develop a response to the evil being done there that was appropriate to the severity of the problem, which the United States has chosen not to do.
I also know that it is wrong to sell dope to kids; to cheat on your spouse; to treat other people like trash; to pay sweat shop wages; to embezzle funds; to love money more than you love anything else; to lie on your income tax and to cheat, steal, burn, rape, pillage, or lord your power over another. And my list goes on and on and on. So does yours.
You see, while we may not agree on how to solve what is wrong in the world, and while we may not agree on what caused that wrong, we do know that some things are right and some things are absolutely wrong. And we know that everything is not relative.
How do we know? I am not sure about anybody else, but in my case I know because the Bible tells me so. And if you are not Christian, but have taken another path of faith, then the sacred writings of that faith, its books and teachings, likely also tell you that the kinds of things I recite are wrong.
If you are an ethical humanist likely you know right from wrong because you learned the morality taught by your parents and/or in the public schools, the standards outlined within the community in which you lived, and the standards of conduct supported by our national ethic.
All of those sources of ethical teaching are now often ignored. New meanings of "tolerance" and "live and let live" are the mantras most taught today.
Whether this is "good" or "bad" is left to each individual to decide for herself. Is something crude or demeaning? Who knows? Is something insulting and disgusting? Who knows? Is there a standard against which we can judge civil behavior, respect for others, respect for privacy, self, relationships, ideals, manners, or conduct of behavior? Who knows?
Interestingly, in this country people used to turn to the Church as the place where values, standards, morals and absolutes drawn from the teachings of Jesus and the teachings in the Bible were taught as correct beliefs that grounded ethical deportment. Unfortunately, the American Church is badly split into different subsets, with wildly differing ideas about ethics.
The Christian right has always been a place where a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible was the distinguishing mark of those churches.
That is still true, but the Christian right has also moved far, far beyond limiting the force of its opinion to the members of its churches. Rather the right has decided that the morality that they profess is to be compelled upon all of society, forced, if necessary, by secular laws.
The irony of this is that the very churches that used to say that the Christian's duty was to live according to Biblical mandates and to shun involvement in the secular world are precisely the same churches that now have decided that everyone else's morality must be their own.
Call them what you will: the Moral Majority, the Christian Right, the Conservative Church, but they have turned the intent of the founders of those denominations on its head and have created an image of "Christian" which is not only narrow, prejudiced and based on lousy scholarship, but which hurts liberal mainline Christians like me because all Christians are then assumed to believe what they believe.
Still, there should be places where Christians like me can feel comfortable, and to a certain extent there are. There are several denominations and many individual churches that still offer a plainly spoken understanding of the message of Christ and of the ethical teachings of the Bible. But they are an ever shrinking minority of Christian churches in America today.
Some of that erosion of mainline Churches can be blamed on trying to counteract the image of the church upheld by the loud and insistent churches on the Christian Right.
But some of the shrinking of the size of mainline churches has to be laid at the feet of the mainline churches themselves. Unfortunately, too many of the mainline churches have decided that to be attractive to people they have to be sloppy in their teachings.
I have attended many of those churches where the fundamental leadership idea is to never, never offend anyone. So, whatever you do, do not preach about values, ethics, or morality and certainly never say that there is such a thing as ethical truth. Better we should feel good about our church experience than actually be good in our lives.
In other words, too many mainline churches would rather provide a feel good experience than focus on the requirements of discipleship. After all, which would you rather attend: a barbeque followed by singing about feeling good about yourself, or a talk about how a Christian should behave?
There was a Yale law professor, an eminent ethicist by the name of Arthur Leff, who struggled mightily with the issue of the relativizing of ethics in America. His was a secular, agnostic, view and I bring it forward here to make the point that this issue transcends all facets of American life, and supersedes all ideologies.
Leff gave a wonderful lecture way back in 1979 that is all too relevant today, poignantly so. He titled his lecture, which has become a classic in the field of legal ethics, "Unspeakable Ethics - Unnatural Law."
Leff said, "I want to believe, and so do you, in a complete transcendent, set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe, and so do you, in no such thing; but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to do."
In other words, we want it both ways. We want an external set of universally valid ethical rules and we want to be free to do what we want to do, and to be free to create ourselves in our own image using whatever ethical rules we wish to use at any given time.
In his lecture, Leff struggled with the dilemma he posed, largely, I think, because in his universe there was no one "out there" who could lay down the standards, no God to stand behind the authority of what is right or wrong.
With "no God" we invite the "chip on the shoulder" response which Leff calls the "Sez who?" argument. "Who are you who says that I should not beat my wife to a pulp?" If there is no God, who is to judge whether that is right or wrong?
If God is dead, or irrelevant, then we lose the battle to a nihilism which rejects any outside "evaluator" who makes judgments about how we ought, or ought not, live.
Professor Leff, good soul that he was, came to an interesting conclusion, both depressing in that it has no foundation that he would admit guided him, but admirable in that he comes to a personal decision in spite of feeling that he cannot model any reason for anyone to agree with him.
"All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why any thing should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, ...have earned salvation....
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil."
Then Leff said to his audience: "All together now: Sez who?"
He ended by saying "God help us."
An amazing final statement by a brilliant agnostic, isn't it? I say "Amen" to his "God help us" because we have not come very far since 1979, and, in fact, I think that we are worse off.
The Scriptural text (Jeremiah 31: 27 -33; see addendum) that prompted this essay comes from a time in the history of Israel when relativists held sway. Israel had been devastated and many of its leaders were hauled away in chains into exile. Its cities were destroyed and made virtually unfit for habitation.
There was no leadership remaining worthy of the name: government officials, judges, lawyers, priests and prophets could be bought. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer and ultimately got squashed.
The "leaders" argued constantly over how to run the land, who was to get rich and who was to be killed, who was to lead and who was to follow, who to tax and who went to jail or was executed. Does that sound at all familiar?
Into this mess came Jeremiah, promising a day when cities would be rebuilt and reinhabited, farms replanted, cattle reintroduced; a time of prosperity and peace.
But how could that possibly happen? Who would make it happen? Would there be a new David? Perhaps a new messiah, a powerful military leader that would rise out of the dust of defeat and lead Israel to glory days once more?
No. Jeremiah promised nothing like that. Instead Jeremiah said that God was sick of the old ways of the people and of their abuse of the old Covenant. So God said he would make a new Covenant with the people.
Now, this "new" Covenant wasn't really new. The rules would be the same, but this time the responsibility to uphold the Covenant would be placed not on the leaders and prophets, but on each individual, personally, by God.
God said, once again, "I will be your God, and you will be my people." And they asked, "But, how, Lord, can this be when we broke the last Covenant with you?" And he said, freely paraphrasing here: "You broke my heart. You took my Commandments and stepped all over them; you failed to listen to my prophets. I had written down on tablets I gave to Moses what you should do, and you refused to read or to listen."
But this time, Jeremiah says, God will do something remarkable. God will make it impossible for you to ignore his Commandments, because this time, God will "write them on your hearts."
God said that no longer will you have to squabble over what is right or what is wrong; you won't have to parse every phrase, argue every passage. You will know in your own heart what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do.
What God was saying was really rather simple. This new Covenant was to become a part of us, part of our character. When confronted with a moral problem we won't have to say, "Excuse me a minute, I have to look up whether or not it is right to steal."
Under the new Covenant we'll just know it is wrong because it will be "written on our hearts."
The knowledge of the Law of God, the Torah, the instruction of God as to how to live a godly life, will become a matter of our very being, of our character. Torah will simply be part of us.
When Professor Leff stood before a packed house of lawyers and said that, in spite of every relativist, elusive moral position, he knew that "napalming babies" was wrong, he showed personal courage. But when asked "Why is it wrong?" he could only lead the audience in saying "Sez who?"
His last sentence in that seminal lecture left open a tiny shaft of light to shine on the enigma. "God help us," he said. "God help us" works for me because when I am asked that question my answer is "Says God. That's who!"
And I believe that whenever we go through a litany of things we know are either right or wrong, you, I, and any who know right from wrong are seeing this new Covenant taking hold in our hearts. This Covenant with the Holy One is being "written on our hearts" all these centuries later.
I believe that it is the only means we have, that anyone has, of rising above the slashing, beating, shooting, "solutions" to which modern society has sunk. We who take a stand, even if we do not acknowledge it, have the Torah, the instruction of God, written on our hearts. That's how I see it anyway.
Name it what you will. Credit whatever source you wish to credit, or none at all. But just think about this: What do you call that sense of outrage when you learn about women being beaten, raped and killed?
What do you call it when that small voice inside of you tells you to give back to the cashier the $30 extra change she mistakenly gave you for a $50 when you know you gave her a $20?
What do you call that strength that comes to you when you remain faithful to your beliefs in the face of enormous temptation to let them slide?
From where comes that resolve to not use corporal punishment on your child? That anger when you learn that torture has been covered over by our government? That decision to try to seek reconciliation with someone who has hurt you badly? That hollow pain you feel when you see an animal mistreated, or watch someone abuse a pet?
In things small and large there are some things that are just not right.
And, whatever you call it when you know that is true, I call it a covenant with God that is being written on your heart.
Jeremiah 31: 27-33
27 The 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. 28 And 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. 29 In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." 30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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. 33 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.