The last refuge of moral certainty within a culture of absolute relativism is within communities where clear distinctions between right and wrong make personal accountability possible.
“What would Jesus do” (“WWJD”) is a popular question that’s intended to simplify moral choices, to serve as a guideline in making decisions between right and wrong. And in most cases, WWJD works pretty well. Jesus’ response to contemporary problems of drugs, promiscuity, gambling, or theft should be really, really clear to just about everyone. So, if you want to know what is right for you, just ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?”
In another sense though WWJD reflects the long standing desire of mankind to reduce morality to the mastery of rule-keeping formulas or techniques for right action. One outworking of that reductionist impulse has been to sift through scripture looking for rules for moral behavior– rules that often render the peculiar circumstances of Bible characters meaningless. That creates problems:
- In Gen 12, 20, 26, we find both Abraham and Isaac lying about their marriages with no hint of divine displeasure. So is lying OK under some circumstances? Do we add it to our list of moral behaviors?
- In Gen 22, we find Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice and being commended for it. So is human sacrifice OK? Is it permissible?
- In Josh 2, we find Rahab, traditionally understood as a prostitute, betraying her people in the overthrow of her own home town. Then in Hebrews 11, we see her commended as a hero of faith. So what about treason? Prostitution? Lying? Are they OK?
- In 1 Sam 27, we find David living among the Philistines as one of them, yet all the while being disloyal and deceptive toward them.
- In Acts 1:26, we find Peter and the apostles casting lots to select a replacement for Judas. So what about gambling? Does it have the stamp of divine approval?
- And lastly, we find Jesus talking about restraint in the face of provocation in Mt 5; but in Mt 21, we see him violently driving people out of the Temple. So what does Jesus really mean when he says, “turn the other cheek.”
The point here is that it’s not always so easy to ask yourself what would “so and so” do and get an easy answer. Two people asking that same question about the same situation may not necessarily come up with the same answer, particularly on the major issues of the day.
Ask those who oppose capital punishment, endorse abortion, and accept homosexuality; and at least some will say, they’re doing what Jesus would do.
On the other hand, ask those who take exactly the opposite stance and many of them will also say they are the one who are truly doing what Jesus would do.
Dig deeply and you’ll see the source of these conflicting opinions on what Jesus would do leading back to different conceptions of Jesus and different visions of the community he came to establish. The problem is that morality and the nature of community cannot be easily separated. Community is the arena in which morality takes shape, where character traits become virtues, where emotions are trained, where passions are developed, and where right and wrong are worked out in concrete ways and then passed on to the younger generation. So the pursuit of morality apart from community is doomed to fail because community provides the lens to discern moral behavior.
We describe Judas’ death as a suicide while understanding Jesus’ death as a sacrifice because the community in which we live has shaped our understanding of their deaths differently.
Going back to the example of the story of Rahab, if we view her actions through the lens of the people of Jericho, Rahab was a traitor. But viewed through the lens of the Israelite community, she was a hero.
The same thing is true of David’s behavior with the Philistines. Viewed through the Philistine lens, David was immoral, but through the lens of Israelite community, David was loyal, and moral in the face of great temptations.
Going to American history, we could say the same thing about Benedict Arnold. To Americans, Arnold was a traitor; but to the British, he was a hero.
A big problem comes up, however, when people cross the boundary from one community to another. Peter had that problem in Gal 2:11ff where Paul says,
…when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (NIV)
Peter got caught up in contradiction because he was trying to be loyal– to be moral– within two different communities. And so, he wound up not being truly loyal– not being truly moral– in either community.
The same problem lay behind Abraham and Isaac’s lying about their marriage relationships. No doubt Abraham and Isaac were truth tellers within their own communities; but when they were thrust into a different culture, they became morally confused. Norms about right and wrong, good and evil, tend to break down when people cross the boundaries between different communities.
The same thing can happen to us when we cross the boundaries between different communities. We can wind up not being loyal– not being moral– according to the standards of our usual way of life too. That’s a common problem whenever different communities come together. The secular world praises diversity as if it’s always a good thing without recognizing that diversity typically promotes a great deal of moral confusion.
That should be no surprise to us because we have always been part of multiple communities at the same time, citizens of particular states, counties, cities, and towns on one hand and citizens of the universal kingdom of God and of particular congregations of God’s people on the other. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for us to get caught up in moral contradictions the same way Peter did.
The problem basically boils down to loyalty. Are we going to be loyal to God’s community or to some other community? The issue may be life or death as in the Columbine massacre where the young girl was murdered for confessing to be a Christian. Or it might be much less dramatic where we are faced with the choice on a Wednesday or Sunday evening of fellowshipping with God’s community or some other community.
Now it is true that scripture does not legislate the number of times Christians should meet every week. Nor does it talk about the order of worship, Bible school, and so forth. That doesn’t mean, however, that the details of these things are morally neutral. That’s because, when a particular community decides on how it is going to live its life before God, those kinds of details take on a moral dimension.
Morality and community are so intertwined that the emergence of a new community goes hand in hand with the emergence of a new morality. And so it was with the establishment of the church. In laying the foundations of God’s new creation, Jesus drew a sharp boundary between the new and the old morality. He said, “you have heard…
- do not murder, but I tell you whoever is angry with his brother is in danger of judgment”– Mt 5:21
- do not commit adultery, but tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”– Mt 5:28ff
- anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce, but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife…commits adultery”– Mt 5:31ff
- do not break your oaths, but I tell you, swear at all”– Mt 5:33ff.
So Jesus contrasts the morality of the new community with that of the old. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, bless those who curse you– all of those prescriptions are the new morality required in the new community Jesus came to inaugurate.
Yet they seem so impossible to do. Indeed, scholars and bible students have struggled for centuries to understand how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can be lived. Who can live up to its demands?
The answer is no one, because the Sermon is not designed for individuals, but for a community. It is not a set of rules for being better individuals, but about how the church should live. People cannot turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and return blessings for curses as isolated individuals. But they can do those things in the context of a believing community.
So morality is another one of those invisible boundaries of community that defines those on the outside versus those on the inside, defining what is right versus what is wrong, who is moral versus who is not. In some communities, it’s foolish to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and bless those who curse you– but not so in the kingdom of God.
Rahab had a choice– betray her city or betray the people of God. In making that choice, she severed all ties to her old community for the sake of becoming part of a new community.
The same is still true today. Although the word “betray” seems strong in describing the conversion process, it’s an accurate description of what the believer does in becoming a Christian. In conversion, the believer betrays the secular world’s convictions about how the world really is.
In general, the world doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, the Gospel of Jesus, and the church as the Kingdom of God. Instead, it believes in such things as the inherent goodness of man, the pursuit of the good life, the ability of science to explain all things, man’s ability to remake himself in his own way without reference to God, and on and on.
Becoming a Christian means repudiating all those ideas and more. It means betraying all those notions in the course of severing old allegiances for the sake of new ones. And to remain a Christian, one must continually repudiate, betray, and sever old allegiances by being loyal to God’s community and its morality over against other communities and their moralities.
In Mt 19:16ff, a rich young ruler came to Jesus looking for a formula– a technique– for a moral life. But Jesus gave him a different answer. Instead of rules, Jesus offered him a new community– a new community that was not concerned with conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong as defined within the young ruler’s community.
The main point behind all of this is that Christians cannot make decisions as if their allegiances– their loyalties– to their particular religious communities do not matter. Congregations need not apologize for having firm ideas of right and wrong, of holding members accountable, and of expecting loyalty to the things that bind them together. That is what Jesus has called them to do.