“Integrity” is one of those qualities and concepts that no one would presume to argue against.
It is what every parent hopes for a child to develop, what every hiring process hopes to find in each applicant, and what every relationship requires to be healthy and wholesome.
We develop codes of ethics to describe it, personnel policies to help members of a group understand it, and laws to enforce it. We “know” what it is, we affirm its value, and we can spot its overt breeches rather quickly.
Yet, in spite of its universal respect and affirmation, it remains an elusive virtue in the give and take of everyday life, where ends and means of various kinds interact in a world of compromise and practical judgments.
An early experience I recall that started my acquaintance with this complex virtue was sometime in childhood, when I employed the “there’s no law against it” defense for some behavior I’ve long since forgotten.
What I do remember is my mother’s distinction between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law,” which put the discussion of the behavior in question on an entirely different level.
What might have been quite “legal” was anything but “right” on the basis of a deeper understanding of the law (I slowly came to understand).
Simple as it is, this common distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law seems to be at work in whatever commitment to integrity there is in our public, especially our political, discourse.
While no one would ever claim to be abandoning integrity to pursue more worthy goals, our public life seems to be living as near the edge of integrity as possible to seek whatever gains can be had by its compromise.
Laws, codes of ethics, personnel policies and other proscriptive efforts to provide concrete guidance for the exercise of integrity are helpful and necessary to frame the boundaries of lives of integrity; violations are dealt with in terms of what they prescribe.
But the call of integrity is to more than simply following the rules and obeying the law, as my mother sought to help me understand.
Still, there is a fine art of appearing to be “integral” while hedging just enough to take advantage of loopholes without actually “breaking” the law.
Living near the edge of integrity may keep one from the harsher penalties of illegal activity, but its lack of being centered in the service of what we tend to call the “good and true” leaves it in an ethically risky place.
We cannot avoid witnessing the public display of living near integrity’s edge with challenges and investigations that are uncovering a wide range of decisions and behaviors that strain our capacity to believe what we are seeing and hearing.
The sophisticated version of my “there’s no law against it” childhood defense is more complex now.
First, there is denial: “That didn’t happen. Reports that it did are ‘fake news.'”
Then, there is the legal reduction: “No law was broken – nothing illegal here.”
Finally, there is the dismissal: “It’s not important anyway.”
And the result is a building block for a culture that is on the verge of abandoning integrity altogether.
The gospels address this reduction of integrity to legality with Jesus’ “fulfillment” of the Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not,’ but I say unto you” (Matthew 5).
And Paul does so in another way with his counsel to temper one’s freedom by the needs of one’s community in 1 Corinthians 8.
No one, I’m sure, can make a claim for absolute integrity, for we all live with choices that must be made among values that are often in conflict.
Competing concerns often leave us with decisions that no matter how carefully weighed can lead to negative outcomes.
Jesus concludes the chapter 5 portion of the Sermon on the Mount with a helpful and instructive word on centered integrity: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The similarity of the adjective “perfect” (Greek: “teleios”) and the noun meaning “purpose” (Greek: “telos”) suggests that the “perfection” he admonishes does not mean without flaw or blemish, but instead means something like “consistently purposeful.”
Choosing to seek a life of centered integrity is quite different from choosing to live at its edge.
With no illusions of “perfection” in the flawless sense of the word, a commitment to both the letter and the spirit of the law increases the likelihood that the common good of community will be served.
Living near the edge increases the risk of falling off where not only the substance, but also even the appearance of integrity is lost.
We are seeing some of the consequences of that, and it is not pretty.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
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).