Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article previously appeared at EthicsDaily.com on Jan. 3, 2018. At the time of publication, Harris was professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Ethics has to do with choosing – what we choose, how we choose, why we choose.
From the simplest of decisions about daily behaviors to the most comprehensive choices of ideologies that frame our understanding of the world, those choices set the trajectory of what much of life is and will be.
The beginning of a new year naturally prompts us to consider choices that will make a good difference in the coming year.
Surveys show that most are doing that in light of the choices that have dominated our collective life during the past year. An increasing percentage of respondents seem to be “getting it” that choices matter.
An interesting theme weaves its way through the biblical testimony that may offer helpful guidance to the what, the how and the why of our choosing as we step across this arbitrary threshold into the new year.
In Deuteronomy’s summation of the Torah through the words of Moses’ final address to the covenant community (Deuteronomy 30), the choice is laid before them: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15). … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
The implication is that some choices are life-giving and sustaining, and others are life-draining and deteriorating. Therefore, “choose life.”
Much earlier in the testimony, in the ancient narrative of beginnings (Genesis 3), the delicate covenantal balance of creator, creature and creation presents a choice for humanity.
We must decide whether to “live in relationship” with creator, fellow humans and the rest of creation or to usurp the perspective and prerogative of the creator by presuming to “know as God knows” and claim the power to act with impunity toward fellow creatures and the created order.
Part of the ethical genius of this ancient story lies in its portrayal of the tempter’s assurance that the life-defeating choice will not have negative consequences: “You will not die. In fact, you will gain great advantage over all by knowing as God knows.”
Here, even earlier than the theological and ethical reflection of Deuteronomy, a choice exists between what is conducive to life and what is detrimental to it.
In their own ways, the prophets also point to this crucial choice – some ways of living and thinking are supportive of healthy community within the human family (justice and compassion), and some are not (greed and self-centeredness). Therefore, “choose life.”
In the New Testament, Paul, the gospels and the other writings reflect this same distinction between life choices that lead to the health and well-being of the human family and those choices that might serve short-term benefit but ultimately are detrimental.
The temptation narratives of Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 present the same choice: Choose the pleasure of a full belly, fame and power or choose faithfulness to one’s life mission of partnership with what is truly real.
Paul’s lines in Philippians 2:6-8 reflect on this choice clearly. “He did not consider his relationship with God a thing to be grasped as a privilege, but emptied himself, embracing the life of a servant.”
All three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28) report Jesus’ response to the question of the most important commandment as saying that agape toward God and neighbor is the key to covenant faithfulness.
The fourth Gospel reports his saying, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).
The letter of First John offers the bold theological affirmation that love is the essential core of not only the human community but also of the universe itself. “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
From the earliest parts of the biblical testimony to the latest, the affirmation is clear that life offers a choice between a perspective that leads to a wholesome fulfillment of our inherent destiny and one that is counterproductive to that fulfillment.
Life and love are tied together as context and substance of a faithful human journey, while a lust for power and privilege is portrayed as the decay that destroys community and its people from the inside.
A successful use of power can yield impressive gains, and the desire to have “more” is effective fuel for its effort.
But the results of such gains have a short shelf-life in the longer-range museum of history, where the sustaining voices of faith’s curators continue to point to the reality that endures.
Perhaps as we face the realities and challenges of the coming year, with its menu of choices of perspective and ideology, a little less Bible thumping and a little more Bible listening seems to offer sound ethical guidance for personal relationships and for public policy: choose life; choose love.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).