Moral Objectivism And The Growing Ethical Divide in America

As a quick note, this article’s intended target audience are the Conservative Christians on RedState (and elsewhere, if the article is well received). While I’m sure the message could be useful to an atheist or agnostic Conservative, the article is not written with apologetics in mind, and approaches this subject from the assumption that the audience are already believers.

This Sunday I had the opportunity to lead a bible study based on Luke 12:49-53 and Matthew 10:34-36. These verses are among the more infamous to appear in red, and have caused much debate throughout history. As we see in the passage in Matthew, Jesus is sending his Disciples out to teach, instructing them in how they are to behave and warning them that persecution will follow them. Before I get into these passages and their lesson, lets first take a detour and establish something that is important for the understanding of Christ’s words here, and that is the concept of moral objectivism, commonly known as “natural law.”

Natural Law – God as the Standard

Since mankind began thinking about morality and its source, there has been a schism between two camps, that of moral relativism and moral objectivism. In the first camp you have those who believe morality exists only in relation to the individual observer like Protagoras or Herodotus, and on the other you have philosopher like Plato and Aristotle who argued that morality stems from a natural law that must be obeyed whether it is written down by human authorities or not. Thomas Aquinas further elaborated on the concept of Natural Law by relating the concepts of “eternal law” and “natural law” to Divine Reason:

“Law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community. It is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason.” […] “And since the Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal [see Prov. 8:23], therefore it is that this kind of law must be called eternal.” […] “But the end of the Divine government is God Himself, and His law is not distinct from Himself.”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, FS, Q91, A1

“A gloss on Rom. 2:14: “When the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law,” comments as follows: “Although they have no written law, yet they have the natural law, whereby each one knows, and is conscious of, what is good and what is evil.” ” […] “Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (A1); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.” […] “It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, FS, Q91, A2

Natural Law thus is established by Christian tradition as an axiomatic fact, observable, as Aquinas notes, simply through self-examination and observation of the behavior of humanity. For example, to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ reasoning in Mere Christianity, the appeals of a child (or adult, in today’s juvenile culture) to the concept of “fairness” are a direct appeal to this natural law, God’s law.

This law is established by our mere relationship to God as His creation. The introduction of Mosaic law did nothing but point out what should have been obvious to the Hebrews, but so fallen were they, that they could no longer recognize this law. They were unable or unwilling to acknowledge the fundamental order of creation that exists in the very fabric of the universe, and thus needed to have it pointed out to them.

The Polarizing Effect of Christ’s Mission

In Luke 12:51-53, Christ says:

51 “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53 (NIV)

This passage is also echoed in Matthew 10:34-36, where Christ makes an explicit reference to prophecy in Micah 7:6. For brevity’s sake I won’t quote the passage here.

The specific math Christ uses here indicates a dichotomic separation, “three against two and two against three,” such that there can be no middle ground between the groups, no mediators stepping in to reconcile things. Why, then, does Christ indicate so clearly that his mission will have the effect of polarizing the world against one another?

In Revelation 3:15-16, John, speaking prophetically (as God, to the church in Laodicea, a name now synonymous with “lukewarm”), says, “15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This scripture indicates what should be obvious, that our zeal for righteousness should admit no impediments, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare. It also implies that the outright rejection of Christ is preferable to being noncommittal to faith. This may stem from the fact that in order to reject Christ, and by extension God the Father, requires the acknowledgment of God’s law, since it would be impossible to reject that to which you do not grant belief.

God’s law (expressed in us as natural law), and more to the point the sacrifice at the cross, then, are immovable, immutable and eternal truths, about which there can be no honest confusion. You either accept God’s law and do your best to live by it, or ignore it entirely. It is, and has to be, an all-or-nothing deal. God says that if we are lukewarm He will spit us from His mouth. This is also the center of the issue whenever you hear or see someone complain about picking and choosing from the Bible what you “want to believe.” Unfortunately for those that like do engage in this behavior, the word of God and the truth to which it gives witness, the undeniable law of God, is not something that can be taken piecemeal.

So has this prophecy about the effects of Christ’s ministry been fulfilled? How?

The polarization of mankind is quite pronounced and easily observable by any who are audience to or participants in the political dialogue in this country. In politics, moderates are generally viewed with thinly disguised contempt by both sides of a debate, and often derided as spineless, ignorant, or simply lazy. Moral issues in America such as abortion, homosexuality and the protection of physician conscience exhibit this polarization most effectively. In a recent Gallup poll, only 7% of respondents indicated that they were “undecided” on the issue of abortion. In fact, this particular issue has caused more open violence, the ultimate expression of opposition, than any other moral issue in America’s history with the noted exception of Slavery.

The source of this conflict can be none other than the divisive effects of Christ’s ministry and the bright, clarifying illumination He and His teachings (which further clarified and fulfilled the Mosaic law) bring to any moral dilemma. Where others may rely on their emotions or their feeble, incomplete understandings of the impact of their actions, Christians have an unchanging, immutable objective standard to which to compare any possible choice. As Christians, we must always arrive at the same conclusion for similar conflicts, whereas those without that rock-steady immovable standard will necessarily be subject to the ebb, flow and whim of their emotions and the dim, limited understanding that we are capable of achieving about the consequences of our actions prior to enacting them.

There is another reason for this conflict; one of the effects of a true surrender to Faith is a frank self-awareness and confession of sin. This total self-honesty is very frightening to most unbelievers. How common, as a Christian, to have a nonbeliever snap, without provocation, “stop judging me!” Those who are genuine believers, true disciples of Christ, give off an aura of righteousness (though they themselves may still be in the process of recovering from and, through Christ, rehabilitating the sin in their lives) that causes extreme discomfort to those who have yet to come to grips with their sinful nature. It is as though the believer holds up a mirror to the lost soul’s face and asks, without actually doing so, that soul to evaluate itself the same way the believer has done so. This self-honesty allows the believer to easily and correctly choose the path to follow when faced with a moral dilemma, based on their faith in God’s will as revealed by the Bible, its traditions and by the urgings of the Holy Spirit. The lost, those without any such external moral compass, simply do not have this ability, and if they do then they have placed their faith in something changeable, since the only eternal law is God’s.

Christ’s juxtaposition of combatants in the passage from Luke also alludes to another, related, source of conflict: that of heavenly and earthly authority. Normally a father has authority of his son, a mother over her daughter, etc. Christ turns that on its head by telling us that the ultimate authority in our lives must be God. Dr Miroslav M. Kis, professor of ethics at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI wrote, “The moral message of the Bible is not only “I told you so”( Deuteronomy 30: 8. 10), but also “I showed you so”(Micah 6:8), not simply “go, and do not sin again” ( John 8:11), but also “Follow me”( John 21:19).Because Scripture reveals God as both the loving, and the commanding Sovereign its role as authority in ethics is assured.” This of course does not give us license to ignore our elders or the authorities of man wantonly, as Paul notes in Romans 13:1-5. However, when submission to earthly authority becomes sin, the choice is clear: turn from sin towards righteousness.

This re-prioritization of the authority in a Christian’s life can and does lead to conflict with earthly authority, from the micro, the family unit, to the macro, national and global politics. New believers, on announcing their new-found faith to a family of nonbelievers, are often met with derision or outright hatred. Christians in the workplace are often asked to hide their Faith, and are sometimes threatened with their jobs if they do otherwise. On the national scale, Congress will soon consider the question of the protection of physician conscience, that is, the ability of a physician to elect not to perform a procedure on conscientious grounds. There is a growing segment of the population that would see this protection stripped from the law, to what ends we can easily conjecture.

To bring together these two areas of conflict, stemming from Christian moral objectivity and the ultimate authority of God, I recently read an article by Dr Albert Mohler in which he notes that many people have been writing him and comparing the murderer of Dr George Tiller to the WWII martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“In 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for his opposition to the Nazi regime.  The Lutheran pastor, a prominent leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, had been involved in espionage and an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  This pastor and theologian sought to defy the regime that was murdering the Jewish people and destroying human life with homicide on an unprecedented scale.  Bonhoeffer acted in defense of human life, and for this he was executed in the Flossenburg prison camp in the final days of World War II.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed abortion with full force.  In his Ethics he explained:  “The simple fact is that God had certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deprived of his life.  And that is nothing but murder.”

When it came to defying Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer saw that several excruciating moral questions were on “the borderland” and could not be settled with absolute certainty.  Eventually, he was convinced that the Nazi regime was beyond moral correction and no longer legitimate.  Christians, he then saw, bore a responsibility to oppose the regime at every level and to seek its demise. He acted in defense of life and was finally willing to use violence to that end.

America is not Nazi Germany.  George Tiller, though bearing the blood of thousands of unborn children on his hands, was not Adolf Hitler.  The murderer of Dr. George Tiller is no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “

Dr Mohler, I think correctly, identifies a very important contrast between these two men and their morally incongruous choices. The atmosphere of Nazi Germany was one of rampant moral relativism and rationalization of evil, which Bonhoeffer fought openly and subversively in his sermons and writings before making the decision to fight utilizing violence. We have not yet exhausted the last iota of political and moral dialogue in America, and thus violence cannot be justified to effect the change we believe to be correct. To make the decision for violence lightly invites the persecution of the faithful, but to avoid the decision long past its due can mean complicity in systematic, widespread sin. Only through careful prayer and consideration of the revealed will of God in His word can we divine the answer. Otherwise determining where the line lies is mere guesswork and emotional blubbery.

Luke 12:51-53 In Practice – Love Trumps All

The Greatest Commandment

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matt 22:34-40 (NIV)

Anytime we as Christians must decide how to behave as we go about our lives, those decisions must pass through this lens. Christ has made a powerful statement here about the motivations we must hold nearest to our hearts when we decide how to interact with the world, one that is echoed later by the Apostle Paul as he opens his famous “Love Chapter” in 1st Corinthians 13: “1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Love, therefore, is the central theme of Christ’s message here on Earth. And how could it not be, with the mission He came to perform? Christ’s mission here was one of salvation, a rescue mission for the lost children of God, and expedition whose sole purpose was to illuminate our need for salvation and then to provide it by taking our transgressions against God onto His shoulders and then paying their price. In all of our dealings with the world as Christians, we should first and foremost seek to mirror this willingness to forgive when at all possible.

Of course, love sometimes demands action from us. In the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it demanded he risk, and ultimately pay with, his life in an effort to prevent the unjust war perpetrated by Hitler and the systematic murder of millions of “undesirables” in death camps throughout Germany. He correctly determined that his Christian love for his fellow man required that he act. His support for and participation in the violent opposition of Nazi rule was therefore, in my opinion, not contradictory with Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When we find ourselves in situations where our belief and earnest desire to live according to the objective moral reality that is God puts us in direct conflict with others who do not, we must act with love as the primary motivation. To do otherwise, to become loudly judgmental or silently complicit, is to risk all that we live for. By the mere fact of our faith we make ourselves targets for persecution and ridicule. We are warned of this time and time again in the Bible and the truth of it is lived out daily in America. We cannot lose sight, even in the face of suffering, of the loving, cleansing sacrifice of Christ and its implicit (and explicit) demands that we behave likewise.