“Hey, Laurie, I was at the casino last week and made $30. Here’s my tithe. $3.00 for the church.” My United Methodist friend Jamie and I have had a running conversation about gambling for the past twenty years. Is it ethical and appropriate for Christians to gamble? I say, “Jamie, gambling addiction causes so much grief and heartache in families, it’s better not to step foot in a casino. Even if you know when to stop, others don’t, and you might cause them to stumble.” Jamie responds, “Gambling is harmless entertainment, plus it benefits Native American tribes. Lighten up, Laurie.” What would you say?
° What should you do if you learn that your neighbor is not living in this country legally?
° If you see a parent hitting a child in public, should you speak up or just ignore it?
° If the parent company of the brand name clothing you love uses illegal hiring practices, employs child labor, and has inhumane working conditions, do you boycott their products? (The death toll in the April 24 Bangladesh garment factory collapse has surpassed 500.)
° Do you take your children or grandchildren to violent movies or allow them to play violent video games?
Last fall I became part of a panel sponsored by MLive called Ethics and Religion Talk. MLive is the website home for Booth Newspapers, which owns eight newspapers in the state of Michigan. Readers submit questions of ethics to a panel of religious leaders, who are each allotted 250 words to offer their viewpoint, which may or may not reflect the stance of their particular religious faith. Our panel is diverse, reflecting Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions.
I have been blessed with great joy as well as holy discomfort by the Ethics and Religion Panel because I am aware that we are faced every day with complex ethical dilemmas related to human conduct. Most of us make decisions based on a worldview that was taught to and modeled for us by our parents and our faith community, if we had one. How I live my life is based on values that were formed in large part by my Mennonite upbringing. Growing up in a sheltered religious environment, I naively assumed that everyone shared those values. Only after leaving home did I discover a world filled with people whose ethical principles reflect other Christian denominations and religious faiths, diverse ethnic and cultural traditions, or no faith practices at all.
Over the past eight months I have contributed brief reflections to Ethics and Religion Talk on a number of questions, including:
° Do women considering an abortion have an obligation to consult with the father?
° Should a cognitively impaired individual be subject to the death penalty?”
° Is it ethical to use drones for targeted killings?
° To what degree do you believe animals have rights?
I’ve discovered a few things about myself and my faith by the discipline of concisely reflecting on ethical questions as opposed to preparing sermons where we preachers are prone to expound, inflate, wander, or get lost in our own verbiage.
The teachings and example of Jesus are our ethical guide.
The Bible can be used to justify just about anything. The right to own slaves, restrictions on the role of women in society, opposition to gay rights, justification for killing another person, corporal punishment of children, abusing creation: it’s all in the Bible. What, then, is our standard for determining appropriate human behavior? I believe with Martin Luther that there is a “canon within the canon” of scripture. That canon – that by which all else is judged – is God’s desire to invite all people into the fullness of abundant life through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Have you ever owned a “red letter” Bible? The words in red are the words of Jesus, and they are highlighted because Jesus is the best and most complete representation of God that we have. Unfortunately, Jesus often offers discomfort more than comfort, challenge rather than complacency, and no easy answers to our ethical dilemmas.
A Christian ethical response involves the use of tradition, reason, and experience as well as scripture.
United Methodists understand that while scripture is our primary resource for Christian living, wise, ethical decision-making also considers the traditions of the church, the use of our God-given capacity to think and reason, and our individual experience. We call it the Wesleyan quadrilateral. In truth, there are many ethical issues today that were not even known at the time the Bible was written. Because good and faithful Christians will never agree on everything, listening and remaining open to the hearts and minds of others broadens our own understanding of whatever issue we are addressing.
Wonder what to think about abortion? Listen to the story of a couple who has made that difficult decision. Wonder why a woman refuses to leave a man who has physically and emotionally abused her for years? Engage her in conversation. Wonder why someone would be opposed to capital punishment? Make a commitment to hear all voices without bias.
Each person brings to the table their unique history, intellect, and experience. When those with opposing views on specific ethical issues embrace the discomfort of listening before speaking, seeking to understand before spouting off, and respecting all positions, we learn from each other and discover that God is with us in our struggle to make faithful decisions.
It’s okay to change our mind and heart.
Like others, I can identify numerous times of spiritual rebirth and renewal in my life. As a young adult I had a specific conversion experience that was particularly transformative. Unfortunately, instead of empowering me to become more grace-filled, this experience turned me into a religious snob who delighted in dispensing “rules.” Convinced that I had all the right answers, I was discomfited by those who disagreed, and I believed most everyone else was not as spiritual as I was.
Several years later, after my first few months of pastoral ministry, I realized that I didn’t know diddly squat about much of anything, and if I wanted to succeed in ministry I’d better start listening, wrestling with difficult issues, and opening my heart to change. My faith matured when I relinquished my own preconceptions, stopped condemning others by category, and began to humbly struggle with scripture rather than use it to justify my own biases.
Wendell Berry wrote recently in The Christian Century, “To have a mind, I think, depends upon one’s willingness to change it.” Spiritual growth is not a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. It’s a desire to keep learning, examining, and changing. If you, too, discover that you are not the same person you were ten years ago, a year ago, or even two months ago, rejoice and be glad, for God is at work in you.
The key that unlocks a Christian ethical response is grace.
Grace is the balance upon which we weigh all of our decisions, for in Jesus Christ God calls us to a love that embraces the entire world and its people and creatures. Jesus does not love us if we change, Jesus loves us so that we can change. The grace of Jesus is fierce yet tender, does not promote fear, and will never give up on us. Jesus’ grace-filled love is only compassionate and non-judgmental toward us and every other human being.
When we disagree on issues of ethics and religion, grace calls us to give others the benefit of the doubt, assume their best intentions, and learn from those who hold a different view. When tempted to insist that there is only one faith view about an ethical question, grace invites us to self-examination and a restless discomfort with our own smugness. When we become stuck in our own experience or mindset, grace nudges us to treasure people with different understandings of the world.
° Is it ethical to use fetal tissue to treat/cure disease?
° Is it ethical to prevent a convicted sex offender from worshipping in your building?
° Is it ethical to differentiate between “makers,” productive members of society, and “takers,” non-productive people who may be dependent on assistance from government at national, state or local levels?
° Is affirmative action ethical if it takes jobs away from more qualified people?
° Is it ethical to complain in the workplace?
We live in a complex world where answers are not always clear. When there is a lot more gray than black and white, learning to accept ambiguity rather than focusing on right belief and moral superiority invites us to ask, “What is it about my life that inspires others to become disciples of Jesus Christ? How can I grow spiritually, emotionally, and relationally to become more like Jesus? How do others experience the grace of Jesus in my words and actions? How can grace be the balance on which I weigh all of my decisions?”
° Is it ethical for Christians to disparage others because they are not willing to settle for quick, convenient solutions to difficult moral dilemmas? Okay, I’ll accept the casino tithe, Jamie.
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart. (Franciscan prayer)