Last Saturday, sitting at my dining room table, eating breakfast, I skimmed the Daily Progress. I do that every morning, so nothing new here. One of the articles I skimmed though, was by the Christian writer Tom Allen. It was titled, “Why do we know right from wrong?” It’s a good question. “Why do we know right from wrong?”
Mr. Allen tells of an e-mail he received from someone in another country. The e-mailer says she is living in a refugee camp. Her father, who evidently did not live in the camp, has died. Her father left her money, but because she cannot leave the camp, she needs help retrieving it. He, Tom Allen, is just the person to provide her with financial help! If he will loan her money this one time, she will repay his kindness many times over with the inheritance money she receives. Right.
Mr. Allen identifies the e-mailer as a scammer. He does what any of us would have done. He deletes the e-mail. But in the article he has written, Tom Allen ponders, “Why does he know that he is in the right and the scammer is wrong?” His answer appears midway through the article. It is this, (quote), “My heart and mind tell me that we’re divinely wired with some sense of right and wrong, and good and evil.”
Yes, God is at the base of our knowledge of what is good and decent, and right.
Tom Allen’s article did for me what I presume Tom Allen meant it to do—it made me feel good. Yep, I am justified in the decisions I make. I know right from wrong. I have been hardwired by God!
That article stayed at a low boil on the back burner of my brain for many hours, as I went about my Saturday chores—vacuuming, mowing the grass, that sort of thing. Eventually, though, my thinking did a 180. What I concluded is this: “Distinguishing what is right from what is wrong is not that easy. Tom Allen’s answer was way too simple—Dangerous even.”
I mean, really. Not everyone who presumes to know right from wrong, actually does. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as controversy, arguments, or war. In fact, last Saturday, as I continued to brood on Tom’s question—and his answer, it occurred to me. The Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville was in full swing. Even as I gathered up grass clippings, the KKK and that group’s many opponents were downtown, shouting at each other. Both groups claimed to be in the right, even to the point of being annoyingly, self-righteously so. Where was God’s hardwiring in this? Huh, huh? What do you say to that Tom Allen?
Remember the movie, Annie Hall—it’s from 1977—my am I getting old! Woody Allen, a comedian, actor, playwright, movie producer and a lot else played himself in that movie. In the scene I’m thinking of, Woody Allen is standing in line waiting to buy a movie ticket. A man behind him is talking loudly. Woody Allen can’t help but overhear him. The man says some things with which Woody Allen vehemently disagrees. You can see the agitation on Woody Allen’s face.
Probably something similar has happened to you as it’s happened to me. When it happens to us, we don’t respond, because well, it’s just not done. Woody Allen, though? In this for-sure fantasy, Woody Allen turns to the person making the misguided statements. He tells the offender exactly why he is wrong. Then, he produces an expert, who just happens to be right there in the movie theater. And of course, again, because this is a fantasy, the expert validates Woody Allen’s position. That’s what I wanted to do, I decided, last Saturday as I continued with my yard work. I wanted to engage Tom Allen in a face-to-face conversation, maybe pulling into our conversation a Christian ethicist. But of course, Christian ethicists are never around when you need them—and Reinhold Niebuhr that Christian ethicist above all others, has passed on.
Then, as I sat at my writing table this past Monday morning, it occurred to me. I have a pulpit! If I can’t engage Tom directly, at least I can engage you! And I can pull in ethicists –right off my bookshelves! Then, maybe if I post my sermon on our web page, Tom Allen will read it, and he will give me a phone call, and he will thank me for my deep and astounding insights. You see, I can fantasize almost as well as Woody!
Anyway, at the very least what I want to do today, is offer a counter argument to Tom Allen’s article. So here we go.
Tom, Tom, Tom. Answer this classic ethical question if you will: A man’s wife is going to die unless she gets a special medicine-which is way more than he can afford. Since he can’t buy it, the man breaks into a pharmacy and steals the medicine. Was he wrong to do that? Aren’t there shades of rightness and wrongness that are beyond our God-given hardwiring capabilities to easily discern? In fact, you assume that your spammer is a low-life—that she or he knows better, and you are probably right. There’s a slim chance, though, that like the man in our story, that spammer was trying to buy life-saving drugs for an ailing relative. I understand why you hit delete, but you assume you know the e-mailer’s circumstances—either that, or you don’t care to know them. I guess what I’m asking is, Tom, did you pause before you punched delete, or was it automatic with you? Was there some thinking involved?
You may be a great writer, Tom, and you may be a fervent Christian, too, but any trained Christian ethicist would tell you that determining right from wrong—attempting to decide and then act according to God’s will, passing judgment on others, is not as easy as checking in with your head or your heart. Martin Luther King, Jr. has written, “There is almost a universal quest for easy answers…nothing pains some people more, then having to think.” Does that describe you?
That’s at least some of what I would say to Tom.
So, now I want to share with you WHY we who are Christians know right from wrong—this according to what I know to be true as a pastor with at least some training in Christian ethics; and, what I have learned from some of those books on my bookshelf.
There are four reasons why we who are Christians know right from wrong.
You may have already guessed one of them. It’s Scripture. We know to love our neighbors as ourselves. We know to forgive others. We know to demonstrate compassion. Why? because that is what we learn from Biblical narratives, and from Jesus’ many moral teachings.
But—there’s always a but isn’t there? You know as I know that we have to pick and choose which scripture readings we will embrace and which we will write off as well, as weird, or even contrary to the word of God. For instance, scripture advises us to kill magicians and stone prostitutes. What’s that about?
So besides depending on scriptural truths in our moral decision-making, why else do we know right from wrong? We know right from wrong from experience. The longer we live, the more experiences we have, the more information we accumulate, the better decisions we make. We learn what to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, because we have grieved the loss of a loved one. With experience, we know better how to judge a lie from the truth. And of course, we learn vicariously from the experiences of our friends and family members—from the books we read, from the lectures we listen to. But—there’s that word again—but living a long life, listening to the advice of others, and reading books and listening to lectures don’t necessarily make us moral geniuses. Sometimes experience can even prejudice us. Just because you know some short energetic people, doesn’t mean that all short people are energetic!
Why else do we know right from wrong? Ethicists point to tradition. The Bible has a premier place in our church traditions, thank goodness! When we come together on Sunday, we don’t say, “Ok, what book are we going to study today?” Church tradition dictates that we care for others. We take meals to the sick, and visit with the lonely. But. But traditions can become outmoded. When was the last time you sacrificed a goat?
So, we have scripture, experience, and tradition, as ways to know right from wrong. There is one more way, say ethicists. Revelation. Sometimes God speaks directly to us—in prayer, or even while we are going about our everyday lives. It’s good to keep our ears open and our minds alert. When I was in school, a fellow seminary student shared with me why he was there. He was driving home from work one afternoon when he heard God’s voice—telling him to be a pastor. At just that moment he happened to be driving past our school. He pulled into the seminary parking lot, found the administration building and that was that. Revelation. He was an excellent student and a thoughtful man. I have every reason to believe what he said. BUT I read this week about a 66 year old Brazilian man, Inri Cristo who believes he is Jesus Christ reincarnated. God told him so. His story sounds sketchy to me. Not all revelations are heaven sent.
So, to return to Tom Allen. Tom, my seminary-educated answer to your question, Why do we know right and wrong, Tom, is this: It’s not one thing that guides us, sadly. Yes, we may be hardwired by God, but we who are responsible Christians know that there’s more to it than that. We are duty-bound to weigh what we learn from scripture, with our experiences and the experiences of others, with the traditions of our families, communities and churches, and with God’s occasional revelations received in prayer or in our day to day living.
In other words, Tom, God scatters the seeds-my how he scatters them—all different varieties—even to the ends of the earth. It is up to us to prepare the soil—that is, to prepare our hearts and minds so that we may receive the seed—then our decisions will yield the proper fruit. Like it or not, Tom, THAT is Christian living. Amen