Tag Archives: ethics

A Hard Saying

Yesterday I introduced a bunch of college sophomores to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “Cheap grace” and “Costly grace,” the difference between committing verbally to one’s faith while allowing it to affect one’s life only on the surface level (cheap), and embracing the life-changing and completely disruptive things that will happen if one takes one’s faith seriously (costly). I likened the distinction to the difference between light beer and real beer. Light beer smells like and looks like beer, but upon taking one taste one will say “that isn’t real beer!” Neither is cheap grace the real thing.

In the Gospel of John, a number of Jesus’ followers complain after one of his teachings that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, the writer tells us that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. They are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough.

These frustrated former disciples have a point. I have to honestly admit that I might have gone with them. The sermon that causes them to finally fold up shop and go home is indeed a difficult one, wrapping up with the claim that only those who drink Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. But this is by no means the only “hard saying” that they’ve heard from Jesus. From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him, and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.” Small wonder that Christians generally, lacking the guts to simply walk away, tend to water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well, and conclude that they are just too much.

In October of 2006, the news of a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA burst onto the nightly news. A neighborhood milkman carrying a small arsenal of weapons walked into the school and started shooting, killing five and wounding many more before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In the midst of deep grief, the interconnectedness of the Amish community was demonstrated through comprehensive mutual support and, most shockingly, immediate forgiveness. At a prayer service the night after the shootings, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God said that earlier in the day he was in the kitchen of the shooter’s family home when an Amish neighbor came by. “He wrapped his arms around Charlie’s dad for an hour,” Lefever reported. “He said, ‘We will forgive you.’” The pastor’s conclusion: “God met us in that kitchen.”

For the past several years, I have included this tragic event and its aftermath as the central part of the midterm exam in my General Ethics class. I provide my students with a newspaper account of the Amish community’s reaction to the shootings, and then ask them to try to make sense of what happened, particularly of the immediate forgiveness offered to the shooter’s family, within the structures of the moral frameworks we have studied during the first half of the semester. They can’t do it. Furthermore, many of my mostly parochial-school educated students find something twisted, even offensive, in the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the murderer of their children. Comments range from “this is completely abnormal” to “these people are sick.” Over several semesters of this assignment, no student has yet commented favorably on a quote from a member of the Amish community included in the article: “Our faith tells us to act like Christ did on his way to the cross.”

Once shortly after reading the midterms, I was drinking a beer (not a lite one) with a colleague at the local watering hole on Friday afternoon, unwinding from the week. I described the reactions of my students to the behavior of the Amish, reactions that were still fresh in my mind. In response, he said “I also am shocked by what the Amish did, but I don’t know why. As a Christian, I should be shocked that I’m shocked. They are just trying to do what Jesus said to do.”

Perhaps I can excuse my 19-20 year old students for being unable to find a place for radical forgiveness in their moral worldviews, which have been heavily influenced not only by strong family connections but also by a culture of the self and Christianity on the cheap. But what about me, someone significantly older and more experienced than my students? As someone who has grappled with issues of Christian faith from my youth, my own temptation is to think of the Amish as über-Christians, somehow capable of moral heroics that normal persons such as I can only admire from a distance and not even aspire to. That rationale is particularly tempting because I, as many mainstream Christians, have been encouraged to think that it is the priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and missionaries who are the elite corps of Christians, freeing me to reduce expectations considerably.

But there is nothing in the Gospels to justify that easy out. Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him does not contain a loophole or room for an amendment. Which brings me back to the beginning—“this is a hard saying.” Christ apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”

But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.

A still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.