Judges 21:25 (NRSV)
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
Introduction. In 2013, an 84 year-old James “Whitey” Bulger went on trial in Boston for 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and weapons charges, including complicity in 19 murders. This well-known crime boss was convicted on 31 of the counts. Bulger, however, was only defiant about two matters that were raised against him – he was involved in killing two women and he had served as an informant for the FBI. It seemed as those all the other murders and crimes were OK but it was wrong to murder a woman or be a rat.
Joseph Pistone, a retired FBI agent who infiltrated a well-known crime family in New York, has shared that he was schooled in the 4 rules of organized crime: “Don’t talk to police; don’t steal from the family; don’t disrespect a member of the crime family; don’t fool around with a his wife, girlfriend or daughter.” (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/no-honour-among-thieves-anymore-modern-gangsters-break-most-basic-rule-of-organized-crime-dont-be-a-rat) Isn’t it intriguing that even thugs have a “code of ethics?
The question, “What is right and wrong,” has a huge impact on our worldview. Our moral assumptions form a moral compass which guides us our decisions we make and behaviors in which we engage. We live within those assumptions but when we violate one of them, we will feel guilty.
Imagine for a moment three of your foundational values are fairness, equality and that flaunting enormous wealth is wrong. So you have a job where you are working in a house where opulence is evident even in the bathrooms. You see something of value you would like to have. You reason – they do not need this, it’s not fair for them to have so much, they won’t miss it and I have a need. How likely would you be to take it without asking?
During my adult lifetime, one social issue has been prominent – Abortion. The two opposing sides of the issue have been Pro-Life and Pro-Choice whose very names indicate some underlying moral assumptions. Pro-life advocates hold dear to the ideas life is a sacred gift and we protect those who cannot protect themselves. Pro-choice maintains it is a woman’s choice what happens to her body and she has the right to determine her own course in life. When people in each camp look at their moral compasses, they come up with very different perspectives on the issue which influence their decisions and actions.
I venture to say that these examples have caused many of us a measure of discomfort because we sense the compass of the crime families, that of the person who would steal from the house and the group who holds the other position on abortion from yours is faulty. So it brings us to the question of “How do you test you assumptions to see if they are correct?”
It seems Solomon had a sense of this issue when he wrote: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death” (14:12). We desperately need to know how to see if our moral compass is leading us on a path to life rather than death.
Sources of moral authority.
In our culture, it seems there are three major sources of moral authority to which most turn to paint the points on our moral compass.
The first source is one which seems very prominent in our culture. Each person determining what she/he perceived to be right or wrong. The extreme of this would say a particular action I might view as wrong for me would be OK if you viewed it as being right for you to do.
This type of moral relativism is based upon the assumptions of the individual which are often formed through one’s deep feelings about a matter, experiences one has had and understandings that have been formed over time. The assumptions that are formed from this source are often very deep and strongly held.
Toward the end of Judges era in the OT, the morals of the Hebrew people reached an all-time low. The following story from out of the Book of Judges would be rated R if it were a movie. It is quiet shocking.
In a northern remote area of Jewish territory, there was a Levite who had hired himself out as a priest. He brought into his home a woman to be his wife. Things did not go well so she returned to her home in Bethlehem. After a few months, the priest went to see if he could convince her to return with him. When he arrived at her home, he found her father was willing for him to give the daughter back to this priest.
When the two started on their journey, they went into the Benjamite town of Gibeah to spend the night. A resident there invited them into his home for the night. During the evening, some rough characters of the town, demanded the resident give them his guest so they could have intimate relations with him. The man refused and offered instead the guest’s wife and his daughter. The men of the town took the guest’s wife and sexually assaulted her until she died. The next morning, the priest returned home taking the corpse of his bride. Arriving home, he divided her body into twelve parts and sent them to the tribes of Israel. When the heard the story, the tribal leaders decided to destroy the city. This led to a civil war with thousands of casualties and a near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. In their religious and moral practices and civil relationships, they no longer looked to God for direction. This led to the comment in Judges that everyone did right in their own eyes.
If I understand the biblical story correctly, there is a huge warning about the self being the source of our moral authority.
The second source prominent in our American culture could be labeled the morality of the majority. If you can find the pulse of what the majority of the people think or the consensus of those who are part of your group, then you know whether it is right or wrong.
Our legislative branch of government depends heavily on this to write the laws of our cities, counties, states and nation. When a bill comes before legislators about whether it is legal to use marijuana recreationally, the majority of legislators will have their way in determining whether the bill passes. If the governor vetoes it and enough legislators disagree, they can override the veto and it becomes law. Basically the majority says it is OK for people use pot.
In 2001, the Pew Research Center found Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57-35%. I imagine if that were trace back a 100 years to 1901, the figure would have been some 90% to less than 10%. Yet in 2016, Pew found the majority of Americans (55%) favored same-sex marriage. I wonder if the rightness or the wrongness of this issue changed in 15 years. The majority opinion certainly changed and we have seen part of the consequences with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
While I suspect majority opinion can be helpful at times in shaping our moral understanding, it also seems to be unreliable because majority opinion changes.
The third source of moral authority comes to us through revelation from a higher source – God. God is the One who determines what is right and wrong. The One who made people and this universe, gave us purpose decides what is moral. This perspective takes us out of the driver’s seat. It is the position advocated in the Bible. Listen to these words from Deuteronomy: Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God (12:28). Right and wrong is what is seen through God’s eyes.
The Process of Discovery
While I suspect the majority of us would claim God as the source of moral authority, we face a huge issue in terms of knowing and claiming what God maintains to be right and wrong.
We can’t text God on our smart phone and get an instant response or does God put out flashing signs for us as to what is right and wrong. With that being said, God does provide us with some very important tools in discerning what is right and wrong.
One of the great gifts God has given to us in which His revelation is found is the Bible. While it is not a “legal” or “moral” library, it does provide us with understanding of what God considers right and wrong. For us the Bible is a map of our moral authority. One of the issues, most of us find with the Bible is it is not always easy to understand. Most of us know some can read the same Bible and do so faithfully but come up with very different understanding about what is right and wrong. For example in 19th century America, many who read the Bible came up with very different understandings about the morality of slavery.
There is one point of the Biblical map on which all of us agree – It is wrong to kill. The sixth commandment says: Thou shalt not …. (kill). That seems straight forward, doesn’t it? But think of this, what does this mean for the soldier in the midst of firefight against an enemy determined to kill him? Or what of military drone operator who has been ordered to destroy the vehicle containing a high value military combatant?
God has given us another great gift – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s very presence living in those of us who trust Jesus. So the Spirit is with us in every situation we face to make real the divine moral compass. His role to make clear God’s desires for us in the given situations we face. Jesus said the Spirit would bring to our memory what Jesus had taught us (John 14:26). Jesus said he would show us what is right and wrong (John 16:8ff).
We might think of these two gifts in this way – The Bible is like a moral map or atlas which provides the direction to travel. We can use it to plan our journey. But when traveling, we often need to know exactly where we are. You need to know the next turn and what lies ahead. If there is a detour, the map may be of little help. It is wonderful then to have a GPS which can identify where you are and what is course of action is needed. This is the role of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, not all followers of Jesus always have their divine GPS turned on or pay attention to it. In order to appropriate this great gift of the Spirit when it comes to shaping our moral assumptions and directions, we must open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We can and should invite the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us with the particular moral dilemmas we face. As we begin this process we can learn to listen to the Spirit’s guidance.
We have a third gift vital gift in this moral journey – the community of Jesus people. There are times I misread my map, I program the GPS wrongly. So it is nice to consult with others on a trip who have taken it before. In the community of believers, there are some who have ventured ahead of where we are and can help us understand the map and understand the GPS. There are those who are better trained at reading the map. There are those who are more sensitive to the Spirit. If we really want to get right what is right and wrong and live rightly, we need to be part of this community.
We participate in small groups where we can discuss what really going on. We listen for those who study the Word to share in preaching. As a church we stay connected to the broader church so we do not become an island unto ourselves.
My hope is you will appropriate these three gifts and allow them to shape your understanding of what is right and what is wrong.