The latest issue of THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK includes a Religion News Service article that reviews the important religious news events of the past year. The headline reads, "Clinton scandal forced nation to consider moral values during 1998" [January 18, 1999, p. 3]. By the President's own admission, his extramarital relationship with Monica Lewinsky was "wrong" and "sinful." In the minds of many of his opponents, the President's conduct, including his dissembling attempts to keep the knowledge of his actions from the American people, merits his impeachment and removal from office. Even among a group of prominent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders who argued against his impeachment, the view was that President Clinton, "in his personal conduct, . . . has violated the fundamental moral teachings of our religious traditions" [ibid.].
The scandal surrounding the President's conduct was hardly the only moral issue that captured public attention this past year, however. The moral implications of sexual behavior also figured in the continuing controversies within the Church and in the society at large regarding homosexuality. The role and status of gay and lesbian persons, the procedures and standards for ordination, and the validity of same-sex unions, were some of the facets of this debate within the churches. The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming forced the issue of how social and religious attitudes contribute to crimes of prejudice and hate. The homosexual question also came up in December at the 50th anniversary gathering of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, where it exposed some of the persisting theological, denominational, and cultural divisions within the larger Christian world.
Other issues of particular moral significance in 1998 included the continuing controversy over abortion and accompanying anti-abortion violence; the debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide, accentuated by Dr. Jack Kervorkian's videotape showing him helping end the life of a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease; the mounting dilemmas that surround genetic engineering and the newly-claimed possibilities for cloning a human embryo; and the heightened attention upon capital punishment when evangelical Christian and convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker was put to death despite pleas by such prominent religious figures as Pat Robertson and Pope John Paul II.
The Religious News Service article mentioned quite a number of other religiously newsworthy events of 1998, including the assistance provided by churches to the Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch, and the new peace plan approved by voters in Northern Ireland. I was struck, however, that there was no mention of race relations as an issue of moral and religious significance, despite another brutal killing that took place last year, that of a black man named James Byrd, Jr., in Texas; and there was no mention of the economic conditions that continue to afflict the poorest citizens of our nation. Yet in an adjoining column on the same page of the OUTLOOK there was a news brief that began, "REQUESTS FOR EMERGENCY shelter by homeless families increased by an average of 15 percent during the past year in 30 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors" [ibid.]. The brief goes on to cite some statistics regarding the composition of the homeless, and to list the apparently leading causes of their homelessness.
1998 may have been a year for the nation to consider moral values, but it has also been a year that has exposed just how much we differ on so many of the issues of moral significance in our time. Earlier this week a local columnist's headline read, "Wide gulf divides pro- and anti-impeachment advocates" [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, 1-14-99, p. C1]. A similarly wide gulf also exists on such morally charged issues as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, capital punishment, the politics of race relations, and the economics of rich and poor. Even on issues where a majority of citizens are in agreement, as they seem to be regarding the wrongness of the President's actions and the wrongness of congressional impeachment, it is not hard to find others of widely divergent and opposing views.
Tomorrow our nation celebrates the birthday of a man who, a generation or two ago, was able to speak profoundly, and act effectively, to stir the moral conscience of a nation. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a national leader at a time when the nation apparently was ready to admit that legal segregation and public discrimination based on race is unjust and cannot be countenanced in a democratic society. To be sure, not everyone agreed. To be sure, he was a controversial figure in his own time. But most of the controversy centered on his methods, not on the cause of racial equality. The arguments for racial discrimination and inequality were breaking down. Perhaps we are at a similar point today regarding the legal and public treatment of gay and lesbian persons, who for so long have been subject to prejudicial laws and discrimination in our society. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that the moral life of a people is a very complex matter. It is a matter of laws, but it is also a matter of people who interpret and administer those laws; it may be a matter of religious convictions, yet persons of similar religious beliefs may differ greatly on the moral implications of those beliefs; it is a matter of values, but even when primary values are shared there can be wide divergences of opinion in how those values are to be applied. The moral life of a people is too important to be neglected, but too complex to be clearly and finally settled.
In the vocabulary of moral thought, there are two words that express two of the primary ways that we tend to think about important moral issues. One of these is the "right" and the other is the "good." Sometimes we emphasize doing what is right. Other times when emphasize doing what is good. These are not the only ways of thinking about moral issues, and they are not mutually exclusive ways of deciding moral issues, but they are somewhat different in their meaning.
The right tends to be identified with what is just or fair. It has to do with following the rules or obeying the law. In a religious context, to do what is right is to keep the commandments or to perform the will of God. The good, on the other hand, has to do with what is pleasing or desirable. The good aims toward some satisfaction or fulfillment. In a religious context, the good may be identified not simply with the purpose or will of God but with the very person or being of God. In our New Testament text, Jesus says that there is only One--namely God--who is good.
In quite a number of places in the Bible there is reference to doing what is right. In quite a number of other places there is reference to doing what is good. But there are also some places where the right and the good are mentioned together. One of these, and perhaps the most important, is in our Old Testament text from Deuteronomy. Here we find what is, according to Jesus, the first and the greatest of the commandments--the command to love God with all our being. We also find in this passage, however, instruction to keep all of the other commandments and decrees and statutes that God has commanded. And we find the charge to "do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD." I can think of nowhere in the Bible that the love of God and the keeping of the commandments are more intrinsically connected than here. Keeping the commandments, obeying the laws of God, is not simply a matter of obedience. It is not sheer legalism or conformity to prescribed standards of behavior. A foundational relationship must exist for the life of the people of God.
First of all, they are to love God with heart and soul and might. Their actions are to be animated and motivated, not by some external and extrinsic promise or threat, but by an internal and intrinsic relationship of loyalty and devotion. Therefore, they must have no competing loyalties, no other gods. And they must adhere to God's commandments. The promise of God is that things will go well for them if they do. The promise may sound like a kind of bargain: If the people do what God says, then God will treat them right. But the context suggests a somewhat different understanding: God has chosen them as a people, and desires to give them good things. The commandments are for their own good. In the biblical view, the quality of the life of God's people is inherently related to the quality of their moral existence. The moral dimension of life, as elaborated in God's commandments and statutes and decrees, is central and intrinsic to their continuing vitality, strength, and well-being. To summarize the character of that moral existence, to capture the substance of what is required by God's commands, our text speaks of doing what is right and good in the sight of the LORD.
If we consider our text from Matthew in light of this understanding, we can better see the problem that beset the rich man who came to Jesus wanting to know, "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" The man is evidently concerned, above all, about himself. His interest in keeping the commandments is tied to his own future existence. Jesus simply reminds him of the commandments, reciting those from the Ten Commandments that have to do with others, then summarizing them in terms of love of neighbor. The man has been there, done all that! So what does he still lack? Aparently the law has functioned for this man as a kind of entrance requirement, and not as a way of life that bears intrinsic value and meaning. He has been enthralled by a certain kind of legalism: "Do this and this and this and you will have passed all the qualifying exams." But now, as his very question implies, he finds in himself a lack of satisfaction. The commandments cannot be all that there is! He is hardly prepared, however, for Jesus' instruction to sell all his possessions, give away the proceeds, and become a disciple. The man has attachments, loyalties, devotions, that must be prior to his love of God. His obedience to the commandments has not been purely out of love of God, but out of some need to measure up, or some desire to secure his own existence before God.
A moral existence that is based only upon the keeping of the commandments, or the following of rules, or the doing of God's will, is clearly lacking. It tends toward legalism or some form of "works-righteousness," and thus to self-righteousness. When we think about our moral existence in terms of doing "what is right," usually we think in terms of actions that follow from rules or laws or principles that are just or fair. In religious terms, we think about keeping the commandments that come from God. In philosophical or ethical terms, we think about those injunctions that are incumbent upon every human being to follow in their actions. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most important moral philosopher of the modern period, wrote of the "categorical imperative," and meant by it those actions that we must rationally conclude to be universally required of every moral agent. His famous example was that of telling the truth. In Kant's view, honesty was always right, lying was always wrong.
The difficulty of thinking in this way about the moral life becomes evident when we consider particular possible situations. If you are hiding Anne Frank and her family in your attic when the S.S. come calling, what do you say when they ask if there are any Jews in the house? If you tell the truth, you sign the death warrant for several human beings.
An exclusive emphasis upon doing what is right, upon following the rule or the principle or the law, often fails to take into account the consequences of our actions. It overlooks the question of doing what is good. The good aims toward some perfection or excellence or satisfaction that usually takes into consideration the needs and interests of others. If someone says to you, "Do the right thing," you usually do not have to think too much about the consequences for others. But if someone says to you, "Do what is good," you will probably have to consider how your actions will affect the well-being of those most likely to be affected.
Does this mean that doing what is good can take the place of doing what is right? A familiar dilemma in the literature of moral thinking tells of a man named Heinz whose wife is dying. The only pharmacist in town has a costly drug that will help her, but Heinz cannot afford the druggist's price, and the druggist refuses to lower the price or donate the drug. Should Heinz steal the drug? Simply put, should he do what is wrong for the good of his wife? But suppose he gets caught. Suppose he is arrested and put in jail, and is no longer able to look after his wife at all. Suppose what little livelihood they have is thus taken away. Or suppose that he gets away with the theft, but the pharmacist installs a new security system, so that the next time Heinz needs the drug, he is thwarted in his efforts and his wife dies after all. The story is hypothetical, and not very realistic. In the real world, surely Heinz would have other alternatives. Mature moral thinking requires us to think about those other alternatives, and not reduce the choice to one that pits what is right (not stealing) against what is good (meeting the needs of his wife). The point is simply that one cannot do the good while ignoring what is right. And one cannot do the good without risking certain consequences, foreseen or unforeseen, that may not be good at all.
Whoever first said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions probably had in mind the evil things that we often delude ourselves into doing for supposedly good reasons, but he might have also realized that the good things we intend often turn out bad. A couple years ago it was reported that, in order to reduce the number of disease-carrying insects, officials in Manila had offered a bounty of 1.5 pesos for every 10 cockroaches turned in. Good intentions, and a desirable goal, but the end result was the rise of a booming new industry in the Philippines: roach farming! [BLOOMINGTON VOICE, April 17-24, 1997, p. 3]. More ambiguous in its consequences is the case of the Cincinnati grandmother, Sylvia Stayton, reported in the Associated Press last year. Stayton got in trouble for putting coins in other people's parking meters in an attempt to prevent a police officer from writing out parking tickets. Despite overwhelming support from people she talked to about her action, she was convicted and fined $500 for obstructing official business [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, 2-8-98]. Was she doing a good thing or not? Was she undermining the enforcement of parking regulations or not? The case can be debated, but the questions that must be asked have to do with what is right as well as what is good.
At the end of last summer I preached a sermon series on that familiar passage from the prophet Micah that begins, "With what shall I come before the LORD . . ?" Recall how that passage ends: God "has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [Micah 6:6, 8]. "What is good" includes "doing justice"--that is, "doing what is right"--as well as loving kindness and walking humbly with God. In their most profound and eloquent expressions, the scriptures hold together the notions of what is good and what is right. To love God is to seek the good of the neighbor and to do what is right and just.
Doing what is right is important for the moral life of the individual and the community because the laws and rules and principles by which we govern our actions derive from the common wisdom and experience of those who have gone before us. To this extent they are means by which our good may be pursued and maintained. Doing what is right, in our culture, is usually also understood to be doing what is just. Notions of equality and fairness and justice are embedded in almost all serious thinking about what is right. Doing what is right is also important because often we do not know, and often we cannot know, what the consequences of our individual actions will be. It is impossible in such circumstances to know what really is the good. The best we can often do is to go by what we understand to be the right.
But doing what is right without regard for what is good can lead to rigid and stultifying legalisms and even terrible injustices. Forty-four years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, it was considered right that there were separate drinking fountains for white people and blacks, and it was considered right that Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus. It would not have been right to treat black folks the same as whites. The laws, the rules, and the customs all said that certain people were inferior to others, and that is was OK to treat them in discriminatory ways. One day Rosa Parks decided otherwise. Whether she decided that it was not right for her to have to sit at the back of the bus, or that it was not good for her to conform to this rule of her public life, she decided that she would not sit in the back of the bus. In fact, it was neither right nor good for her to have to sit at the back of the bus.
The tradition of civil disobedience that was revitalized in the civil rights movement reminds us that the rule of law is not sufficient to judge the moral life of the nation, or of any community of people. One must also consider the kinds of questions that arise regarding what is good--questions like, What does it mean to love the neighbor? What are the consequences when some people have the power to discriminate against and deprive other people of the social, material, or political benefits that they enjoy? What are the possibilities for improving this situation? What is the nature or character of the good society? Or, What is the common good?
Doing what is good is important for the moral life of the individual and the community because the measure of our actions can hardly be taken without some knowledge of their effects upon the persons who make up our world. To do what is good is to have some appreciation and regard for the other as unique and distinctive human being, as person of moral worth, as someone whose interests and needs must figure in any determination of moral action. Doing what is good means aiming for some greater satisfaction of human needs, or some greater fulfillment of human aspirations and desires.
But trying to do what is good without regard for what is right can become romantic sentimentality, wishful thinking, a failure to take into account the actual conditions under which our actions will be played out. To do the good is not to set aside the requisites of what is right. It is always to honor justice. It is to respect the integrity of the other as other. Doing good may go beyond what justice seems to require, and it may accomplish a transformation of our understanding of justice, but it will never stop short of doing what is right.
As we struggle with the moral issues of our day, we need to ask ourselves both sorts of questions: What is right? and What is good? Our Deuteronomy text suggest that loving God and keeping God's commandments amounts to doing both what is right and what is good in the sight of God. Our Matthew text suggests, however, that the good ultimately belongs only to God. The best we can hope for is some approximation. To love God is to aspire to the good, for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for all of God's world. AMEN.