Events over the past few months in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and New Zealand have aroused corporate and individual outpourings of moral angst from Christians concerned at the policies either of presidents and prime ministers or federal, state and national senates and houses of representatives. One of the issues in all four countries that has catalysed this moralistic bleating has been the proposal to make marriage a legal right for monogamous couples other than those in a traditional heterosexual male-female union.
Most of the rhetoric opposed to marriage equality legislation seems to revolve around a perceived affront to the personal and religious morality of the complainant as though the right to marry for couples of alternate sexual expression is in some way an attack on the private and corporate morality of those who believe that a heterosexual monogamous union is the only acceptable form of marriage. However, the right of an individual or religious body to impose that moral belief on others in society needs to be considered on a theological level, especially when that moral belief denies full participation in society for those of an opposing moral belief.
SELF-RIGHTEOUS, CONDEMNING, PERSONAL MORALITY
It seems that, in the Christian world, personal morality has become self-righteous condemnation of anyone who holds a different moral belief on a particular issue. It is a basic tenet of human existence that there should be no restriction on the right for someone to hold an opposing belief that does not threaten the belief of another person. Moreover, there is no denying that, where an expression of a belief does not hinder the expression of someone else of an opposing belief, individuals have the freedom to practice that personal moral belief in their personal life. In the specific issue of marriage equality, this seems to have been lost sight of, especially by those of the conservative Christian right who seem hell-bent on denying the right to express their moral belief to those of an opposing personal moral viewpoint on the sexuality of two people entering into marriage that allows for non-heterosexual unions. It appears that these Christians believe it is “my right” to determine the personal morality of all people and to condemn those who do not agree with them.
SELF-SERVING, JUDGING, CORPORATE MORALITY
Moreover, these well-meaning moralists on the heterosexual-monogamous-marriage-only side can claim the support of corporate Christianity in the form of many church and para-church hierarchies who tend to express a somewhat selective and conservative approach to morality that both mirrors the perceived and expressed morality of their adherents and drives their constituents to accept unquestionably that their strictly defined, traditional moral viewpoint is the only one that is good for society. These expressions from Christian religious bodies are often couched in terms of an imagined threat to society as a whole but, with more careful reading, can be seen to be more about a perceived threat to their own particular corporate expression of Christianity. Thus, the morality expressed by these groups is revealed to be a self-serving attempt to protect “our rights” to exist as a religious body and to preach “our” particular morality in an attempt to convince others that “we” have the truth. The end result is that this corporate morality is judgmental on anyone who will not agree with their publicly espoused decrees on moral issues.
This raises some problematic issues theologically. The Judeo-Christian moral code as prescribed in the old and new testaments is just that – a moral code for Jews and Christians. Christians (and followers of other religious and philosophical traditions) quite rightly protest at the attempts in some countries to impose a Muslim Sharia moral code on all citizens, whether they are Muslim or not. There is no question that much of the moral codes of all religions shares common themes and principles that are good for society. But, this happy coincidence (or, from a religious perspective, potential evidence that God’s ways are best) should not confer the right on adherents of a particular religious moral code to expect that their version of right and wrong can be imposed on society at large.
This moral crusading mentality, it seems to me, is the result of a deliberate and spiritually impoverished missing of the point when it comes to a morality that claims to be derived from a particular philosophical or religious belief. Such an approach to morality has elevated the seven deadly sins to an infamy beyond their significance. I am not arguing that lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride are now okay. Far from it. They are tragic in their effect on the perpetrator and in their consequences for the recipient. But, it seems to me that the approach taken by organized religion over the years has devoted considerable resources to attacking these sins in the lives of their followers and in society at the expense of a more spiritual, Jesus-focused approach to morality. Moreover, this corporate approach to morality by organized religion and its followers has countenanced far too many instances of moral lapses in the lives of Christian leaders, private and public, individual and corporate.
I have seen recently the movie Les Miserables and I could not help thinking about the contrasting moralities demonstrated in Inspector Javert, Jean Valjean and the Bishop of Digne who has given the released criminal, Valjean, lodgings. In a pivotal, early scene, Valjean is caught by his former jailor, Javert, with stolen silver from the Bishop and taken back to the Bishop. We see Javert attempting to apply the strict moral code of the state supported by religion; we see Valjean expecting to suffer for breaking the moral code; and we see the Bishop with the power to condemn Valjean according to that moral code. The moral code deems stealing to be a personal sin that corporate religious and judicial systems must punish.
I am reminded of the situation in the Christian scriptures of the adulterous Jewish woman caught in bed with another man in which we see the her personal morality being judged and condemned because of her indulgence in lust and because the corporate morality of Judaism demanded that anyone caught in the act of fornication should be stoned. Around her, individuals were yelling condemnation at her because, self-righteously, they could claim not to have been caught in the act of fornication. The religious leaders were threatening judgement on her because their self-serving view of morality declared that the tolerance of sin in one person in their religious system might infect the whole structure.
SELF-LESS, REDEEMING, COMMUNAL MORALITY
Into this situation above steps one who follows a redeeming morality – a self-less moral perspective and redemptive ethical application that considers not what is “my right” or “our rights” but what is the sinner’s right. In this way, this morality considers what is right for all involved – the woman, her accusers, the onlookers and those who will hear and read about this incident – all of us sinners. Instead of basing his moral judgment on the seven deadly sins, Jesus approaches the woman from a more communal perspective of justice, mercy and compassion that will create an environment in the community that encourages a morality that values and redeems people.
In a similar way, the Bishop in Les Miserables sees the opportunity to apply a different morality. He lies and expresses in practice a radical extension of the teaching of Jesus that if a person asks something from you, give her or him more than what they asked for. Javert is only concerned with punishing the personal sin of Valjean according to the corporate morality whereas the Bishop sees an opportunity to start Valjean on the road to redemption and do what is best for the community of which Valjean will become part.
Both Jesus and the Bishop are applying a redemptive morality – a morality that promotes the paramountcy of the sinner’s rights and the benefit for persons who make up her/his community; a morality that prizes justice, mercy, freedom, restoration and redemption more than judgement, condemnation and punishment.
In the last few decades, a growing number of evangelical leaders have begun to realize what those in the Society of Friends have recognized for many centuries. That, in the words of the prophets and Jesus in the scriptures, the communal moral issues of social justice appear to have primacy over personal moral belief and corporate religious morality where the social morality does not prevent the practice of a personally held moral standard and where the personally held moral standard does not deny justice to others with different personal moral beliefs.
As a counterpoint to the seven deadly sins, a Catholic father in the fifth century CE proposed the seven virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. But, as good as these virtues are, the consistent achievement of them eludes even the most religious of people if they are honest. However, if we take the communal, redemptive moral approach of Jesus and focus more on the issues of justice, mercy and compassion, it seems to me that we will concurrently be motivated to embrace the seven virtues because it is hard to show justice, mercy and compassion without being motivated to be chaste, temperate, charitable, diligent, patient, kind and humble. Furthermore, in the pursuit of justice, mercy and compassion, the vices of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride are hard to pursue when our focus is on what is right for the community in which we are seeking to bring the morality of Jesus.
An experience in an evangelical setting recently brought home to me the inadequacy of a self-righteous personal morality. I was visiting one of my old churches a few months ago and one of the pastors preaching that day told the story of how a girl in the church had given him the web address for a site from which he could download current movies for free. He took advantage of this opportunity and was perturbed to discover that the movies were uncensored compared to the cinema release version and, in the end, he stopped downloading these movies and deleted all those on his hard drive because they were arousing lust in his life. My wife and I were sitting there wanting to scream out, “But what about the injustice of downloading a movie from a website that denies those who produced the movie their rightful income?” It seems that, yet again, one of the seven deadly sins that corporate Christianity makes so much noise over, personal lust, is more important than justice.
RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW
Further on in the story of Les Miserables, Valjean, having broken the terms of his release from detention many years ago, is now mayor of his town and a successful and benevolent factory owner. He is discovered there by Javert who is provoked to continue his pursuit of Valjean for crimes of the past. While Javert continues to be motivated by personal self-righteousness and corporate self-serving, Valjean shows compassion for his former employee, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, as he tries to evade Javert. In a memorable scene near the end of the movie, Valjean comes face to face with Javert behind the barricades and has the opportunity to get revenge and be rid of his long standing avenger. Instead, following the example of the Bishop, Valjean practices a self-less, redemptive morality that recognizes the rights of the sinner and allows Javert to escape.
So, where is this self-less, redemptive morality in my life each day? How do I respond to personal and corporate moral issues in a way that considers what is right for the people involved more than “my right” and my self-righteousness or what will serve “our rights” for any corporate Christian body to which I belong? How can we demonstrate this communally focused morality offering redemption to those involved in issues that confront us personally and corporately today such as marriage equality? For me, it is found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 which motivate me to seek out those who are thirsty, hungry, sick, lonely, marginalised, abandoned, imprisoned, destitute and naked – those who, like me, are struggling every day with the seven deadly sins in their lives – and be dikaios (equitable, appropriate, just, righteous) according to Jesus’ moral standards with justice, mercy and compassion that offers redemption right here, right now.
Mal Green is a member of Incedo, a mission order in New Zealand exploring what it means to follow Jesus with young people 24/7 outside of the structures of Christianity so that we can invite them to join us in our faith adventure. He has been hanging out with young people since 1969 while studying, lecturing, mentoring, pastoring.