A profound political and cultural polarization has infected and impacted every part of U.S. society.
This has made moral and ethical decision-making increasingly challenging, as I discussed previously.
In a sinful world, our ethical choices do not ultimately lie within the left-right ideological continuum, and they are not circumscribed by competing partisan political agendas.
That is an arena of contested power where protagonists are expected to compete for dominion.
We allow those binary ideological forces to truncate our understandings of the beautiful complexity of life at our peril because moral choices in the realm of day-to-day existence are never always symmetrical, they are never always ideal.
Rather, our ethical choices present themselves out of the moral crucible of right and wrong.
And in an imperfect world, obedience to God sometimes requires transcending prevailing social, political and ethical norms.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian, who, together with Karl Barth, founded the Confessing Church of Germany, staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship and openly resisted Hitler’s euthanasia program and the genocidal oppression of the Jews.
In the face of such unspeakable horror, he made a momentous existential ethical decision when he participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. When that failed, he was arrested and later executed.
In his watershed essay, “Fear and Trembling,” Kierkegaard again critiques the moral idealism of ethical rationalism, as ignoring the distinctive uniqueness of a person’s finite existence standing before God.
There, he offered an elaborate analysis of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
Abraham is called by God to perform a task that is a clear scandal to ethical rationalism.
In Abraham’s absolute obedience to God, he proceeds to commit an act that contravenes a universal moral imperative in what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”
I cannot help but wonder if, in the depths of his moral agony, Bonhoeffer found solace in Kierkegaard’s meditations.
Neutrality is a myth in the realm where life exists because our existence – our lived reality – is constitutive of the ethical choices we make.
Neutrality is an ethical trap because it only absolves one from the moral imperative of making an ethical choice in the face of concrete existential possibilities.
We exist in a life that does not always offer ideal ethical choices or moral absolutes.
Rather, what we commonly confront daily is moral virulence, and it is in those moments when we are summoned to make ethical choices that bring lesser harm.
Yes, all are guilty before God. Yes, the world is imperfect. But it is in that milieu, and nowhere else, that God summons us to make our ethical and moral choices.
Our sinful, finite and imperfect world is inhabited by moral pathogens. Some are potential – because we all carry the rudiments of being one – and some actual.
And in situations when those pathogens have been actualized, we are made to see which is more virulent than the other.
Then we are faced with a choice. And in a time of profound social and political polarization, obedience to God might require us to make a choice that scandalizes our own notion of moral absolutes.
To guide our choices with the clichéd “lesser of two evils” frame is morally inadequate.
Instead, it needs to be reframed to that which guides our ethical choices by what best serves the greatest good, by what brings the least harm and by what serves our shared humanity.
Our ethical life is not built by what we say, but by everything we do.
In the reality of moral virulence, the cynic cannot be justified in retreating to the sanctuary of dispassionate choice.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here. A longer version of this article first appeared on Familiaran‘s blog. It is used with permission.
Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.