The Legal, the Ethical and the Moral
The culture wars currently going on in America are a symptom of a serious weakening of standards at the level of ethics. For ethical standards to be real there has to be deep and widespread agreement within the community that certain things are good and other things are bad. These standards are enforced not by police armed with handcuffs but by raised eyebrows and disapproving stares. The consensus necessary to maintain such standards is in serious disarray. Cheating has become pervasive from Enron to the many plagiarism mills available on line. And when cheaters are caught they are frequently unrepentant and dare the rest of us to say anything that would express our disapproval. An ethical vacuum has opened up.
The response of the religious right has been to turn to the power of the state to enforce ethics. This attempt to replace failing ethical standards with harsh legal ones is in one sense understandable but ultimately a tragic mistake. The law cannot be used to heal the damage that has been done to community and trying to fix it that way just causes more damage. Our shared understandings of what is good are unstable at this period of history in part because they are in flux. I do think that the vacuum will not last forever and that a new ethical consensus will gradually emerge which will be different from the old and not necessarily lower or weaker in the long run. In the short run the attempt to use the law to buttress the old standards is doing more harm than good.
Friends, I would venture to suggest, tend to respond to the vacuum in the middle by making the opposite mistake. We hear the call of standards higher and more stringent than those of the community. While the usual ethical standards are content with self-defense and just war theory we are called to pacifism. While ethics enjoins us not to cheat our neighbor, Christ calls us to give him our cloak and walk an extra mile bearing his burden. We hear this higher call and mistake it for ethics. We think that we have the right and obligation to make our neighbors feel guilty about not being pacifists, about not actively working for social justice, about not being vegetarians, etc. I think that we should hold ourselves to the highest moral standards but not confuse these with ethical standards. Holding other people to our moral standards is not what we are called to do. We need to hold firmly to those standards, be the best example that we can be and let God do the rest.