Willful Moral Ignorance


Biblical Text: Mark 9:30-37
Full Sermon Text

This text is the second passion prediction and a unique to Mark saying of Jesus. The saying is mirrored a couple of other places in very similar sounding ways, but the setting and the vocabulary of this text are unique. Unique enough to support this sermon. The central theme or problem is what do you call it or what happens when you know the moral path but are afraid. And this is tied to a very specific living example.

Father’s Day, Baseball, Status and Religion

worker-vineyard_bas_reliefThis is Fay Vincent, former Commissioner of Baseball, reflecting on some of his Father’s advice. Most of it is fine stuff. Advice to live a quiet honorable life. That and one line of his advice is what crosses into another column.

Here my father reflected the Great Depression and his experience of graduating from Yale with every athletic honor—only to discover the sole job available was digging post holes for the local electric utility

Reflect for a second on a generation and culture where digging post holes is where you started, even with a Yale degree. Also reflect for a second on that Yale sheepskin holder gladly doing that work. What does it suggest both about work and the cultural view of it?

This is David Brooks reflecting on a very similar move by another father.

About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, though the family had happily paid for Judd’s two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.

His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.

As Brooks goes on “Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963.”

That advice and actions of both of those Fathers would leave many aghast today is my bet. Brooks captures something true I think.

More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.

These mores, among other things, had biblical roots. In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band…In the New Testament, Jesus blesses the poor, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” But “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

Work in and of itself was ennobling and worthwhile. Even the rich and powerful had a moral check on them, and like the unjust judge (Luke 18:2-8), even if they thought it was bunk, they’d have to give justice to stop the outcry. With the rolling outright rejection of Christianity and more important Christendom (simply the understanding that the state is taught its ethics by the church), that check is gone. Like Paul says in Romans, if you won’t be instructed by the Word, God says fine and hands you over to your desires. And so we have naked lawless state that feels no shame in lying to us or listening in on whatever they want to. In fact they feel justified and get angry when countered because after all they are at the top of the only status hierarchy left. Who are you to complain? On what legitimate basis?

[Insert “repent, return to the Word, and God may yet be merciful” sermon.]

The New Moral Majority

That is a loaded caption, but give me a couple of paragraphs. The 10 commandments are a shorthand for the law and have long served as the basic bedrock of morality. At the American founding and at most times until the middle of the 20th century, both tables of the 10 commandments were accepted by a majority of Americans. By both tables I mean table 1 which includes the “God” commandments like “You shall have no other gods before me” and table 2 which includes the behavioral commandments like “don’t steal”. The moral majority accepted both tables hence Thomas Paine who was the only out and out atheist of the founders eventually went to France and never held elective office. We can argue about Deists and Jefferson, but the fact stands that for most of American history, rejecting the first table of the 10 commandments brought questions of one’s fitness for public life.

Starting in the 20th century but reaching acceptance in the post war years was a new moral majority grounded in ecumenicism. The phrase Judeo-Christian (per the OED first seen in 1899, but the first reference to a Judeo-Christian deity was in 1957) highlights that ecumenicism that the new moral majority was founded upon. The first table of the 10 commandments which ultimately says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and in a small hubristic addition “know who that Lord is” was pushed out in favor of a majority rooted in the 2nd table and an agreement to all be nice. My hypothesis would be that the people of the age, who grew up under and were used to the old moral majority, couldn’t abide tolerance and pluralism but they also couldn’t continue to ignore the plural reality of America, so they constructed a new ecumenical whole that doesn’t really exist. And in a phrase of the age, “deeds not creeds” were where the majority was at anyway.

That 2nd table moral majority, which was an uneasy truce, has cracked. There is a new morality that questions significant planks of the 2nd table. The 4th commandment to honor your father and mother which has long been a from-the-roots justification for the family as a special legal unit, and the ultimate ground of the state, is being abolished in favor of the individual under the state and contract law. We would not have the divorce rates that we do if we took the family as something more than a contract between individuals. The Christian understanding of marriage is a one flesh union made real in children. The new majority understanding is two individuals who have contracted with each other for mutual benefit and pleasure. The 6th commandment on adultery which moralized sexual behavior is viewed as pure prudery by the new morality. The 7th commandment on stealing used to be read as limiting certain business forms and transactions by social opprobrium. The new morality says as long as its legal it is fine. Hence we have “too big to fail”, payday lenders and unbankruptable student loans given out like water.

There is a new moral majority coming into existence and it will not look like anything anyone used to either of the older majorities would recognize. This is Rod Dreher looking at roughly the same thing focusing on the new morality or a-morality around sexual behavior.

The bottom line is that we are fast reaching a place in which before the law, churches that adhere to traditional religious teaching on homosexuality in practice will have the same status under federal civil rights laws as racist churches. Religious conservatives may argue that discrimination against homosexuals is not the same thing as racial discrimination, because there is, in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teaching, a moral aspect to sexual behavior that is not present in race — they can argue this, and they would be correct, but nobody cares, because the culture in general is coming to accept that there is no particular moral status inherent in homosexual behavior. Nor, for that matter, in most heterosexual behavior.

This is what it means to live in a post-Christian culture. We may wail and moan and gnash our teeth, but we had better get used to it.

As Mr. Dreher would council, the real question in this new moral majority is if there will be a healthy tolerance or if it will be totalitarian. Can the new morality and the Christian moralist find a way to abide each other in deep disagreement, or is this a to the death struggle?