Wineskins Archive

February 3, 2014

Ethics: The Church vs. The Larger Culture (May-Jun 1998)

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by Rubel Shelly
May – June, 1998

The church does not define the values of our culture. We are called of God to be an alternative culture to the mainstream – whether first century or twentieth, China or United States. We live under political systems and within economic systems we did not create. We obey laws and pay taxes. We respect the authority of policeman and judge, governor and president. Our ultimate goal is not social change or political impact but spiritual integrity within a community of faith.

Then why worry about the latest mess in Washington or pornography on the Internet or the lingering problem of racism? Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has used the phrase “defining deviancy down” to articulate his fear that contemporary culture is being influenced to accept as part of life things we should find repugnant.

Before Senator Moynihan called it “defining deviancy down,” this was Paul’s warning to believers: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2a). Or, as Eugene Peterson translates the same verse: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking” (The Message). Paul knew the power of a dominant culture to impinge upon the church and to squeeze Christians into its mold.

Across the centuries and in all cultures, there are certain core values and rules of conduct that have been universally praised. Every culture known to us, for example, has rules against murder and stealing and praises promise-keeping and loyalty. Whether religious or nonreligious, Eastern or Western, what I have elsewhere written and spoken about as an “ethic of minimal civility” is discernible. The Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, the moral teachings of Aristotle, Karl Marx’s writings on ethics, John Rawis’ theory of justice – these diverse and sometimes irreconcilable systems of thought are more notable for their similarities than differences on what should be regarded as fundamentally appropriate human behavior in society.

All these systems affirm autonomy and truthfulness, justice and protection of the innocent. All of them forbid murder and lying, stealing and breaking promises. In American culture, these principles have been most widely taught and praised through such means as the Ten Commandments or Jesus’ Golden Rule. The last half century however, has witnessed a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values” (i.e., standing traditional virtues on their head). It has been fashionable to celebrate everything we once despised (e.g., violence, infidelity, drugs) and to denigrate everything we once cherished (e.g., marriage, religion, respect for authority).

Right and wrong still exist. But the notion of objective ethical norms is not popular in our culture. Instead we are all told to find our own way, create our own truth, discover our own values. And the most articulate persons pointing to this travesty against decency have not been those you might have expected. Because the church has been trivialized and discredited by its moral failures of racism, sexism, and greed, it has no credibility. Because its clergy has been trained at the feet of modernist and post-modernist professors, it has no biblical voice of an authoritative word from God.

Thank God, however, that someone occasionally speaks directly to what is happening in our larger culture. Ted Koppel delivered a commencement address at Stanford University on June 14, 1998, in which he told his audience:

We are at least teetering on the brink of tolerating the unacceptable and focusing the fullforce of our moral outrage on the trivial. We live in a society that not only tolerates but rewards Jerry Springer and Larry Flynt, while simultaneously removing Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare from the curricula of some of our schools and universities, lest they offend. We permit the archdeacons of political correctness to twist our language and behavior into parodies of sensitivity, while simultaneously, the language at large, our entertainment and our general behavior have become cruder, coarser and less sensitive than at any time in my memory.

I believe that, ultimately, questions of what is right and wrong require the individual to measure himself against absolute standards of ethics and responsibility. Not that any one of us ever completely measures up to those standards; but you can’t set your compass, moral or otherwise, by a shifting North Star. Our generation has become so comfortable watching itself being defined according to polls and ratings and surveys, in the Dow or on the NASDAQ, in the outcome of elections or in public propositions or referenda, that we have sunk into a sort of general relativism, in which all issues are determined by majority vote or a public display of the lowest common denominator. We learn, according to the syndicated lesson taught by Jerry Springer, that while all of us are flawed, we who are watching are not nearly as flawed as the poor souls he parades in front of us. Which may, f the lesson is repeated often enough, teach us that, rather than struggling toward an ideal of perfect behavior, we can always console ourselves with the examples of those even weaker than we are.

“But isn’t it wrong to judge other people?” someone asks. “Hasn’t that been the great sin of Christians across time – that we have been so judgmental and narrow-minded?”

The answer to the question “May a Christian ever judge another person?” is the somewhat exasperating answer “It depends.” If following Christ means passing no moral or spiritual judgments, we could never judge racism or child molestation evil and do things to oppose and correct them. If following Christ means passing no moral or spiritual judgments, we must condemn our Lord for the judgments he passed against religious hypocrites (Matthew 23:lff) or for telling some people they were liars (John 8:55).

As a matter of fact, Jesus’ fuller statement about judgment is this: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). Yes, he prohibits judging people by their skin color, nationality, or church membership. But he most certainly does not forbid judgments about fundamental matters of truth and error, right and wrong, praiseworthy behavior and blameworthy actions.

This clarification of the matter of Christian “judgments” is not intended to be a defense of self-righteousness or strident shouting into a television camera or unbeliever’s face. It is meant instead to be a call to character based on commitment to Christian truth and discipleship. It is meant as a challenge for people who wear the name of Jesus Christ as our Savior to embrace him as the authentic Lord of our lives.

The conclusion of Ted Koppel’s speech at Stanford was designed to call graduating seniors to pursue the high road for their lives. It might also be heard as a challenge to the church in a time of widespread moral bankruptcy:

We will not change what’s wrong with our culture through legislation, or by choosing up sides on the basis of personal popularity or party affiliation. We will change it by small acts of courage and kindness; by recognizing, each of us, his or her own obligation to set a proper example. Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail – as you surely will – adjust your lives, not the standards. There’s no mystery here. You know what to do. Now go out and do it!

The white church in America had the Word of God in the 1960s and thus could have known the right thing to do about racism. But we chose to live the institutionalized racism of segregated schools, segregated residential areas, segregated churches – until federal law made us change.

Today no one can say he or she doesn’t know the right thing to do about racism. But many are still not doing the right thing. The excuses are gone, and it is time to go out and do what will honor the Lord.Wineskins Magazine

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