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Who Is Right?

Was that wrong?  Was that right? Was that moral or immoral?

Moral values are a major concern for the majority of the American population.  The 2004 Presidential election has been identified as pivoting on the issue of family or moral values.  What does that exactly mean?

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “The Christian Right is Neither.”

Many would identify “moral values” as the identification of a particular moral position or behavior which is then declared to be out of step with the moral value system of the populace.  This however would mean that the popular opinion is the right opinion and the minority opinion the wrong position.  If history has taught us anything it is to be aware that popular opinion is often devastatingly wrong, that the minority voice is the clearer, sounder, and more healthy position.  Just because I agree with the popular opinion does not make it right, and just because I disagree with it does not make me wrong.  If “values” are associated with behavior and popular opinion about that behavior rather than some other basis for opinion, then the judgment on any particular behavior is always skewed by my particular opinion about that behavior.  Of course, I am right.

In the 2004 elections, the following is arguably clear.  The notion that in every state in which a referendum was held regarding the issue of gay marriages the clear message, if not mandate, was homosexual marriages of any kind threaten the “moral family value system of America” and are therefore morally wrong.  If you happen to agree with that position you feel validated and valued and proud to be an American.  If on the other hand, you disagree with that position you are branded un-American or unpatriotic.

What if we consider another way to evaluate a “value system” that assumes an amoral base concerning any particular behavior but a moral base regarding attitude or orientation?

When Patrick Henry shouted “Give me liberty or give me death” he was talking about the spirit of America.  Freedom does cost something, namely my ability to not impose my right to freedom in any way that restricts your right to freedom unless it keeps me from exercising my freedom or keeps you from yours.

So who values whose “freedom.”  Is “freedom” a moral value?

Rather than looking to social mores, what would happen if we looked at the model of God found in the Christian scriptures and in many other religious writings.  God creates a world with the freedom to chose good and bad.  If you obey and do not eat this, then you are good, and if you disobey and eat the forbidden, you are bad.  A simple moral value system.  There is one right position and one wrong position.  What could be more simple?

However to identify “values” with the choice of behavior creates multiple problems.  First, it infers that when you do something you should not do, you are bad and when you do not do something you should, you are bad. Interestingly as an aside, we hopefully do not do that to our children!  Do we?  No, we value them as a person who has the right and freedom to make mistakes, to do wrong, to think wrong, to be wrong and still be loved and cared for.  We have an understanding that to nurture a child’s development is to balance the right of the child to make his or her choices and the responsibility of the adult parent to approve that process without necessarily approving the conclusion or decision.  What then is the value?  It is not the moral behavior that is the central issue or concern.  The central issue of concern is to nurture the “spirit” of the child by affirming the child’s right and need to be who he is, to make and learn by their choices be they right or wrong.  To assert that the child is right or wrong based upon their behavioral choices is to confuse the “moral value of behavior” with the “moral value of mutual respect.”  The former provides for condemnation and regression, the latter provides for compassionate understanding and redemptive change or progression.  It is the God-ordained value of the right or freedom of choice of every person, in every culture, in every moment.  The respect of that person’s freedom to do “whatever” and the refusal to become the moral agent for that person’s living is the critical issue.  To do the latter would rob that person of their freedom and responsibility to grow.  To do the former confers responsibility for the decision and accountability in the decision to the person involved.  In this way character eclipses behavior rather than allowing behavior to eclipse character.  It is God’s character not his behavior that separates God the creator from the creation and yet it is also that same difference that invites the created beings into a healthy relationship with the creator.  That relationship is based on character distinction and character infusion.  God is the “I am who I am” and infuses the created being with the need and desire to be the “I am that I am” with the capacity to accept and be in relationship with other “I ams,” all in mutual respectful relationships just as the character of the creator provides and promotes. 

This is present in the Garden of Eden both proscriptively and prescriptively.  When God came into the garden the day after Adam and Eve “sinned,” what was the attitude or orientation?  Was it as a moral agent to punish or control them and their freedom to choose or to challenge them to grow through the experience?  Was it to declare that they were wrong in their opinion and that they must agree with his?  Or was it to treasure the greatest of all human values given and exercised by God.  Namely, to respect another person’s choice as his or her right to “self-determination” and to empower that person’s right to do so. 

God choose to act in compassion, tolerance, and acceptance as an expression of the person of God.  This in no way is “situational ethics,” or not taking a stand on “moral behavior,” but it is a declaration that the person of God is moral but defines moral as valuing not a particular behavior but a “respectfulness of the value of freedom.”

Looked at from another side, God was not wrong to create a world prone to sin, nor would it be right to create a world without the capacity to sin.  It was "self-defining” for God to create both such worlds and restrict himself from being the moral agent telling us what is right and wrong but modeling for us as a moral agent the attitude that is “right,” and even in the angel world to allow for rebellion. 

The value system that threatens the “moral family value system of America” is not anyone’s behavior but an attitude that would assume the right to restrict, control, direct, or confine a person just because he does wrong. 

Not even God does that.  But alas that is because He (or perhaps She) is God not made according to human ways and ideals (our graven image) but Self-defined, unthreatened, and un-controlling.

Mutual respect for the choices that people make is the deepest and richest value that represents the stamp of the image of God in humanity.  The propensity to judge people based upon their behavioral choices and make that the primary moral value issue is the shallowest and poorest representation of the stamp of the image of God in humanity.  I would argue that it actually is the image of Evil not the image of God.  The image of Evil is to see good moral values in the name of God only to have that good moral value be the essence of evil.  It is about right character or attitude more than about right choice or behavior!

Oh to God that we could be as God to man and not as man to God!

The new bumper sticker might read “The Christian Right is Both”!

By Donald L Paine
January 17, 2005



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