August 4, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT MAKES SOME THINGS WRONG?
It’s been a summer of courtroom drama. First there was the Jodi Arias trial that seemed to last forever. Then the George Zimmerman trial that we’ve been hearing about forever. There’s the Wiki Leaks trial and the Whitey Bolger trial and the Fort Hood shooting trial. In each of these, someone has been accused of doing something that is wrong. We always presume the one accused is innocent. We have a legal process that must be carefully followed before someone can be found guilty. And when this process is followed and they are found guilty it means that, according to the laws of our land, they have been shown to have done something that is wrong.
But who says it’s wrong? Who says the law is right? It used to be illegal for women to vote. It used to be illegal for two people to marry who were not of the same race. It used to be legal to own a slave. It used to be legal to drive without a license and as fast as you want. Times change. We outgrow old, out-dated ideas. We make progress. What was wrong yesterday might not be wrong today. What is wrong today might not be wrong tomorrow. And even if something is clearly illegal according to the law, if you don’t get caught and if you don’t hurt anyone, and if you get something out of it that you really wanted, who’s to say what you did is wrong?
This sermon could not have been preached a hundred years ago. Because a hundred years ago there was a general consensus about right and wrong. That is largely gone today. We live in confusing times when it comes to this once very clear topic .
College seniors were surveyed. Seventy-three percent of them said that when their professors taught about ethical issues, the usual message was that uniform standards of right and wrong do not exist. It all depends. What’s right for me might be wrong for you. What’s taboo in one culture might be perfectly acceptable in another. The article concluded: “We are awash in a sea of moral relativism” (US News & World Report, July 22, 2002, page 14).
Most of you have lived long enough that you have observed what we’re talking about. You have witnessed a gradual shifting and lowering of moral standards. Things that used to bother us don’t anymore. Things that we used to know were wrong, now we’re not so sure. Or maybe we still are sure but no one else seems to be. It’s getting harder and harder for us to be able to clearly and confidently say, “That is wrong!”
In the 1950’s teachers reported that the biggest discipline problems they faced were talking in class, tardiness, and gum chewing. Today the problems are drugs, weapons, pregnancy, and assault.
I think we can agree that drugs, weapons, pregnancy, and assault at school are wrong. We might even still be able to agree that talking out of turn, tardiness, and gum chewing at school are wrong. But what’s new is that there’s this “why?” question we have to answer. We have to have a reason for our morality. “Because I said so,” or even, “Because it’s against the law” are no longer good enough. We have to come up with a good answer to the question, What makes some things wrong?
Harold Kushner directed that question to a group of teenagers studying modern Jewish history. They had spent a lot of time learning about the Holocaust. It had made a profound impact on these young men and women. He could see that this was not just another academic subject for them. It was personal. Even though these things happened long before any of them were born, it was so horrible for them to realize that such things really did happen, that they took this subject personally. It affected them deeply. Harold Kushner asked them a question. “Why was Hitler wrong?” They couldn’t believe he was asking them that question. One of them said, “You mean he might not have been wrong?” The teacher pointed out that the Nazis took great care to pass laws to sanction everything they did. The Holocaust was legal. But was it wrong?
“Of course it was wrong,” one of the students said. “You can’t just pass laws that allow you to gas little children because they are Jewish.”
“Are you telling me that some things are wrong even if a majority of the people think they are right? Are you telling me that there is such a thing as right and wrong built into the human conscience, and it’s not just a matter of how you feel about it?”
The class looked confused. Finally someone spoke up. “Well, yeah, I guess so. I never thought about it that way before” (Who Needs God, pages 69-70.)
We are monotheists. We believe in one God. That means we also believe in one code of morality. God’s code. Moral behavior is not a matter of personal taste. It is a matter of conforming our lives to a set of standards that has been handed down to us.
That’s the way it has to work in a monotheistic religion. There are polytheistic religions. That means you worship more than one God. The question then is not, “What is good?” but, “Which God shall I serve?” The question is, “Which God will best protect me and reward me?” We find this in Homer’s Iliad. The gods take sides in human conflicts. What pleases one god displeases another. The object is to ally with the powerful gods. What is right doesn’t matter. Who has the might does.
But the moment you say you believe in one God, all that changes. You no longer can use the various gods for your benefit. It’s time to start obeying the one God, whether that benefits you or not. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. What makes it right? God does. It’s just that simple.
Our text for today is the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are part of the Bible. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say the Ten Commandments are also a part of us. Whether we believe in the Bible or not. I believe that we are born with a sense of right and wrong. Have you noticed how children who are so small they can barely talk are still able to say, “That’s not fair!”
They get that from their parents, I know, but I really think we get some of that straight from God. Some people have a clearer sense of right and wrong than others, but I would say it’s a rare person who has absolutely no inner sense that some things are right and other things are wrong. And it’s probably someone serving a life term in the penitentiary. Most all of us know that lying, stealing, and killing are wrong. The Ten Commandments are part of the world in which we live. There is a moral landscape to this world, just as surely as there is a physical landscape. The Ten Commandments are like rocks on a trail. We can either see them and avoid them or fail to see them and trip over them. Either way, they are there. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Because God is God.
I once read The Brothers Karamazov. If you’re looking for a light, easy, fun book to read, this one is not it. But it is one of the most significant books ever written. And it has in it one of the more significant sentences ever written: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
If there is no God, it’s really just up to us to create our own values. If you’re values clash with mine, we can fight it out to see who wins. Might makes right. That’s the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest. The more cruel you are, the greater your chances of survival. The kinder you are, the greater the chances that you will be run over by someone else who isn’t so kind. The weaker you are, the more you are a fly in the ointment. You’re just getting in the way. You really ought to die and not use up valuable resources needed by the strong.
That’s what the world would look like without God — without any source of meaning or value beyond ourselves. No law but the law of the jungle. It’s not a pretty picture.
That’s why we have governments. Our government enters into a “social contract” with us, promising order in exchange for obedience. We agree to obey the law of the land. The government agrees to protect us and make sure our rights are not trampled. And part of being protected by government is having our laws enforced and justice delivered in some of the trials we’ve been following this summer.
The law of the land, let’s hope, reflects in some way God’s standards of right and wrong. Then to obey the state is to obey God. There’s no conflict. Paul talks about this in Romans. He says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (13:1-2). But in case you’re beginning to think that sounds pretty good, remember Hitler’s Germany. I’m quite sure that very verse was used to tell Christians to give Hitler their unquestioning loyalty, because after all God gave him his authority. To resist Hitler is to resist God. And I hope you can begin to see how dangerous it is to take isolated verses of scripture out of context. There are times when we can obey God and obey the government without conflict. But there are other times when to obey God requires us to oppose our government.
Many felt that was the situation when we fought the Vietnam War. More feel that way today about that war. One of the low points of that awful war was President Nixon’s decision to send our troops into Cambodia. That was way back in 1970. The decision was protested across our nation, especially on college campuses. The students killed at KentState were killed at one of those protests.
At the University of Pennsylvania a meeting was scheduled. The idea was to give everyone a chance to express themselves, hoping to diffuse some of the anger. One of the students startled the crowd by asking a question that seemed to be way off topic. “How many of you believe in God?” Someone yelled back, “What does God have to do with it?” “Everything,” the speaker said. And then he continued.
If there is no God, then the only concept of right and wrong is that which is established by society. This society has decided that it is right to kill people in the villages of Cambodia and Vietnam. If you do not agree with society’s morality, then you should work to change it, or you should go to live in another society that has principles more to your liking. Personally, I do believe in God, therefore the state does not provide my highest law. The laws of God are above the laws of the state. Insofar as I can figure out, what Nixon says is right, God says is wrong. I have a higher authority than society and it is my loyalty to that higher authority that makes me an opponent of my government. If there is no God, then you have no right to say that Nixon is wrong. (Anthony Campolo, A Reasonable Faith, pages 137-8)
And so what happens when a nation such as ours becomes more and more secular, less and less rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition on which we were founded? How long will we agree on right and wrong sufficiently even to hold our society together? These are troubling questions. We live in troubling times. In times like these we need to acknowledge a source of meaning and value beyond ourselves. If we insist on freedom to choose our own morality, it will be the freedom of a sailor lost at sea without a compass.
Here then are my thoughts on the subject:
(1) There are absolute standards of right and wrong built into the human soul. They come from God, not from ourselves.
(2) We do not have absolute knowledge about these absolute standards. Our knowledge is incomplete, but it is growing. For example, it is much clearer to us what is right and what is wrong regarding slavery and the dignity of women and children than it was when our nation was founded.
(3) That we have not found all the answers does not mean that the answers are not there to be found. We trust that God who has revealed will continue to reveal such truth as we are ready to receive. And we pray that we will be ready.
To be a Christian means that our standards for living will be different and we hope higher than those of other people. We’ve been given a special mission. We are to reflect the goodness of Jesus in all that we do. We can succeed in many ways, but if we fail in that, we will have failed.
I think of my Grandma Watts. She was one who lived her Christian faith. She had her public identity. She was CountyClerk for a number of years. But she also had her private identity, though she was not one to keep it very private. She was one of God’s agents on this earth, maintaining kindness in a world of cruelty. Every moment of her life took on added meaning because she knew it mattered to God how she spent her time, how she spent her money, how she loved her family and her friends. That sense of having to live up to God’s standards filled my grandmother’s life with meaning and purpose. It can do the same for you and for me.
I have a Bible in my office. Grandma Watts bought it in the Holy Land for me. She wrote a little note in the front. It’s dated September 1, 1973. That’s 40 years ago. She wrote, “You’ve made a good beginning in service to others. Keep true with God’s help.”
That’s what I want to leave with you. “Keep true.” True to God’s standards of right and wrong. True to yourself and your best understanding of what these standards are. “With God’s help.” On our own we’re not going to make it. But we’re not on our own. We can keep true, with God as our helper.
Dear God, we do need your help. Your ways are not our ways. Our ways are not your ways. Sometimes we need the wisdom to know your ways. More often we need the courage to do what we already know your way to be. So help us, as individuals and as a church, to be a light in our society. Not in judgment and self-righteousness, but as a beacon that cannot be missed, revealing a more excellent way. In Jesus’ name, Amen.