Sometimes my ethical thinking moves along a continuum with the question “How can I help you?” on one end and the pronouncement “Here’s what’s wrong with you” on the other.
The question pulls me toward compassion and understanding by focusing on another’s need and the possibility I might have to be helpful.
The pronouncement pulls me toward a claim of authority for some value or opinion I hold by concentrating on my own need for the validation of my position.
The more central the value or opinion is to me, and the more I feel it challenged by a given issue or circumstance, the more likely is my ethical response to move from the question to the pronouncement.
I might think this sliding scale of ethical thinking is a personal matter about how I respond to various issues and challenges, except that I see it reflected in our collective, public thinking as well.
Consider, for example, our current political discourse in response to policy issues and decisions.
The primary concern appears to have much less to do with helpful resolution than with winning points that translate into votes.
Think about denominational resolutions that identify and respond to what are believed to be central and crucial issues, or the messages from local pulpits and congregations that offer a message of “here’s what’s wrong with you” rather than “come let us join our lives in a pilgrimage of grace.”
Ethics has to do with the discernment of the values that pertain to the issues, big and small, that we encounter in our personal and cultural lives. Sometimes that discernment is relatively easy; often it is not.
Clarity and depth of understanding of both our values and the issues at hand are essential for ethical responsibility.
Also essential are the assumptions about those values and their applications.
Do my assumptions lead to the question end of the spectrum or to the pronouncement end? Do they create an openness to engage the issue with a willingness to seek helpful resolution that promotes a greater common good?
Or do they dig my entrenchment deeper as I seek to impose my value in an effort to create conformity?
Do I assume myself to be, in Martin Luther’s apt image, one beggar telling another where to find bread?
Or do I see myself as the owner of the bakery, claiming a moral high ground from which all else can be measured by saying, “I have the bread; why don’t you come and buy some?”
Years ago, in a sermon whose text and topic I now have forgotten, our pastor made a helpful distinction between evaluating and judging.
Evaluation, in his distinction, is the necessary discernment that clarifies and deepens understanding so that a response can be helpful.
Judging is the presumption that enables one to categorize and dismiss an issue with a moral superiority that settles it without engaging or even considering the possible worth of the other side.
I find that my relationships are healthiest when my ethical thinking pulls toward the question end of the continuum; I can’t help wondering if the health of our society would be enhanced if we could begin to call on our public voices to focus in that direction.
I’m reminded of the old adage about an organizational leader on whose desk a little placard greeted visitors with the question, “Are you here with the solution, or are you part of the problem?”
It’s not hard for me to imagine Jesus asking that question of his disciples. “Do you want to help me, or would you rather point out what’s wrong with everybody else?”
We disciples, then and now, seem to have to struggle with that question.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus 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).