the new morality: perspectives (pt. 2)

In the last post, I defined the terms “social virtues” and “personal virtues.”

While guarding against a reactionary response that would disregard social virtues altogether, I hope to show why personal virtues deserve renewed attention.

The key insight of the new morality is a crucial one: that in order to treat all people justly, it is imperative to see them, and ourselves, within a vast context of social factors that have been unjustly contrived by history. Without that context in mind, our biases inevitably influence our judgments in ways we’re blind to.

While social virtues can be highly useful in redressing culturally entrenched injustices and creating a welcoming social environment for diverse people, they fail to compose a complete ethical system. We must be careful not to overemphasize them at the expense of personal virtues, for at least three reasons:

  1. Viewing people primarily through the lenses of systems and categories of identity can rob people of their individuality and neglect other aspects of their humanity and personality.
  2. In “real life,” in the constant and mundane interactions between persons, it’s personal virtues that actually improve relationships and promote well-being.
  3. The new morality of social virtue is subject to all the same flaws of any moral system that is imposed on people, including Pharisaicalism and harsh distinctions between law-keepers and law-breakers.

For points 1 and 2, consider the case of my friend, Raven. Among other things, she is a black transgender woman recovering from drug addiction and experiencing chronic homelessness. In terms of systems of oppression, she is socially disadvantaged in nearly every possible way. She is also a Christian believer who loves to sing and make other people smile with funny stories and kindness. According to her, these latter characteristics are at least as important to her sense of self as the former ones, and probably more important. An awareness of social virtues is necessary for me as a white cisgender woman to engage her with utmost respect, informed by the recognition that she has lived her whole life in a social world with little room for her in it. However, this awareness alone is not enough. In fact, it would be an unfair underappreciation of her humanity to view her exclusively through the lens of oppression; in this way I would rob her of her personhood despite my good intentions. To treat her with true justice, my interactions with her must also be characterized by the personal virtues of humility, “brotherly kindness,” good listening, and, ultimately, “agape” love. Love in this sense requires a comprehensive attempt to truly know and understand her, rather than seeing her merely as a matrix point of social injustice.

Consider another case: my friend, Brett. He is a white, straight, middle class male with a college degree. In terms of systems of oppression, in stark contrast to Raven, he is socially advantaged in nearly every possible way. In our cultural context, social virtue almost obligates me to “open his eyes” to the myriad ways the world has positioned him for success. Yet, it is still important for me to approach him with the personal virtues of respect, good listening, and, ultimately, the same “agape” love I have for Raven, because otherwise I rob him of his individuality in the same way I was tempted to rob Raven of hers. Things like his complicated relationship with his father and his aspirations to enter the ministry have to do with who he really is, more so than his lucky social positioning. Again, as with Raven, love here is the personal virtue that requires a comprehensive view of his personhood, beyond his categories of identity, even if I’m opposed to the systems and patterns from which he disproportionately benefits.

Balancing social and personal virtues in this way is admittedly difficult. Focusing exclusively on personal virtues would fail to account for the immense discrepancies between people like Raven and Brett. Personal virtues alone would leave Brett unchallenged in his position of relative ease, and they would leave Raven unaided with the heavy burden of finding a place for herself in a society not built for her. This would be a grave injustice. Yet, social virtues alone eventually rob both individuals of their full humanity by neglecting their personalities, their beliefs, their character, and their choices from discussions of their “identity.” Most real people, especially those untrained by the new morality, view these dimensions of themselves as more central and more inalienable to their personhood than the categories of identity typically highlighted by social virtues. Thus, both types of virtues are necessary for a more well-rounded ethical system.

Perhaps the biggest danger of elevating social virtues at the expense of personal ones is that it lends itself to Pharisaicalism and overly hard lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” We saw this in the aftermath of the last election, for example. Using social virtues as an absolute standard, progressives drew hard lines between “bad” Trump supporters and “good” Trump critics, ultimately exhibiting the same prejudice and class-based discrimination that they claimed to condemn. This is the downfall inherent in any strict moral system. It creates Pharisees who define the rules of the moral game so that only they and their imitators can win it, and then they punish those who break the rules. In the old morality, the sexually promiscuous were the “bad guys” while those with good families were the “good guys,” even if the prostitutes were generous and the family men were racists. In the new morality, the patriotic conservatives are the “bad guys” while the social activists are the “good guys,” even if the conservatives are kind and the activists are selfish in their private lives. Both the old and new systems focus on a narrow set of moral values that only their architects can police, ultimately to the neglect of other equally important values. Such Pharisaicalism leaves out many well-intentioned people and embitters many others.

To move forward, we must first recognize what social virtues are and what makes them distinctive from competing moral frameworks. This new morality has provided us with vital insights into the patterns of injustice in our society, and many of those insights should be preserved. But, we must also guard against the inherent dangers of any moral system that becomes increasingly condemning and myopic over time. And, we must recover personal virtues as fundamental for individual character development, healthy human relationships, and the ultimate well-being of communities.

go it alone

Could you?

When he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. -Paul, Galatians 1:15-17

There is a duality in Jesus’ calling. It is to us as a body, as a group, to follow him together as partners and “members” of one another. We remember what Paul said:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many… God arranged the members in the body, each of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 1 Corinthians 12:14, 18-20

Every Christian, therefore, must think of him- or herself as one small part of a larger collective; one citizen in God’s nation, one child in God’s family, one part of Christ’s body. We must pray to our Father in heaven, sharing him between us. No Christian is an island, and God forbids that we attempt it.

Jesus calls to us as a group, but as individuals as well. Paul said that when God first called him, he “did not immediately consult with anyone”–he heard the Lord’s voice speaking to him alone, finding himself terrifyingly alone with the Lord. When Jesus appeared to him in the vision that would define his life, although several friends accompanied him, only Paul could see Jesus clearly (Acts 9:7) and understand the words he spoke (Acts 22:9). He was alone.

“Are we alone with Him now, or are we taken up with little fussy notions, fussy comradeships in God’s service, fussy ideas about our bodies? Jesus can expound nothing until we get through all the noisy questions of the head and are alone with Him.” -Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost For His Highest”

Right now, I am in a stage of life in which many of my peers and closest friends are moving away from the apparently endless possibilities of affluent youth and into commitments which are marking out the territories of their futures. For me, it’s bittersweet. They are not following divinely inspired plans or timelines that God dropped out of heaven, but they are bravely following God’s leading as well as they can. That’s the sweet part. As I try to do the same thing, listening to Jesus calling me in my aloneness with him, I see him leading me away from them and the lives they are beginning to build. He forces me to ask myself if I am willing to go it alone with no one from my past, with only his voice calling out from a few paces ahead.

A romanticized sense of adventure is well and good for those few who can afford to pursue it. But it is not good enough to sustainably change the course of a life or separate an individual from the tribe. Only the all-constraining voice of Christ is good enough for that, when he speaks to you alone and you can’t mistake his intended audience as anyone but yourself.

When that happens, no one can help you. Don’t bother consulting with anyone else, at first, or going to those who heard that same voice before you. First you must go to Christ–not to the capital but to the desert, not to the congregation but to the prayer closet. Can you be alone with him? Find that out before you find out anything else. If you can, nothing can touch you. No change will destroy you and no loss will remove anything from you. You are invincible in Christ.

I think that’s at least part of what Jesus was getting at when he said:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26-27

From that utter solitude with himself, the Lord leads us back to the crowd, back to the interdependent Church as it should be. Now we are fully his; now we are fully open to his sending; now we are fully free from fear, because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

pride and humility

In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself… For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. -Benjamin Franklin

Pride. It’s what we notice first and hate most in other people, but notice last and defend most fiercely in ourselves. Pride is the chief spiritual sin from which all the others come because it dethrones God in our hearts, replacing love of God with love of self, glorification of God with glorification of self. Pride insists on its own way, listens only to voices that affirm what it wants to hear, feels entitled to things from others and God, baulks at submission, gets bored with compassion, loves only when its easy.

Want to get a grip on the nature of pride? Read Matthew chapter 23. In the margins of my Bible I have privately titled this chapter the “anti-pride chapter.” In it, Jesus blasts the pride of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the ultra religious people of his day). On the one hand it is a fun chapter to read because Jesus comes across as being so obviously superior to his petty adversaries. On the other hand, reading it is almost painful because of the intensity with which it exposes and condemns my false humility and religiosity, both of which are manifestations of the pride in my heart. There is no escaping it, if you’re honest with yourself. As Mr. Franklin noted, apart from Jesus and submission to him, pride rules our hearts exclusively.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7

The opposite of pride is humility. People often misunderstand humility, confusing it with distortions of the real thing. Humility is not self-deprecation, false modesty, an inferiority-complex, or being a doormat to whoever wants to take advantage. “It is not pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools,” as C. S. Lewis said. Stirring up false humility in this way simply serves to turn a person’s attention back to himself or herself, just in a more subtle way. On the contrary – real humility means, simply, self-forgetfulness.

If you want to see what humility looks like, read Philippians 2:1-11 and John 13:1-20. Note Paul’s wording in Philippians 2:3. He does not say “in humility count yourselves as less significant than others,” but rather, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The focus is outward. Note also the reason for Jesus’ breathtaking humility in John 13:3 – “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…” Jesus acted in humility and love in that instance and in every other because he knew his identity. He knew his relationship with the Father was certain and immovable; therefore he did not need to assert or exalt himself with other people. God was enough for him.

The same is true of us when we as Christians recognize who we are. We know, first, that we did not create ourselves; all our talents and abilities are gifts from God. Second, we know we are sinners who do not go a day without needing forgiveness. We know, third, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are completely sufficient for saving us and there is nothing we can add or take away. When this head-knowledge begins to creep into our hearts, lives change. Real, healthy humility begins to take root.

Even in secular estimation, Jesus was a man of amazing humility. It did not make him passive or fearful – he spoke the truth boldly. He also served, boldly and constantly, outcasts and lawbreakers. His humility expressed itself in tangible acts of love and generosity. He did not live for the attention and praise of other people, but only for the pleasure and glory of God and for the joy of serving his Father.

It sounds backward, but God is good to let us fail or suffer if genuine humility results. It is so beautiful, and so free, to live humbly. In a life of humility there is freedom from those gnawing desires for attention, success, admiration, or whatever else, that make our lives so unnecessarily miserable and so perpetually sinful. There is frank and honest joy in the good things in life, whether or not we get the credit, and sadness in the sad things in life, whether or not they directly affect us. There is unobstructed worship of the King and love for people – and people always notice when they are being loved without an agenda, served without needing to be thanked. Humble love is so distinctively beautiful, and so incredibly rare, that it is impossible to fake.

boasting

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

A tough guy pushing his chest out and strutting around like he owns the place – that’s my mental image of “boasting.” As usual, the Word of God tears me apart (in the best way).

You may be wise, mighty, or rich. You may be pretty or well-liked. You may have worked hard for years, with a moral lifestyle and the respect of your peers. Yet – boast in none of these things; in fact, count them as loss (Philippians 3:8). Not one of these things is worth boasting about, finding your identity in, living for. There is one reality in whom you are to invest your zeal, commitment, and life, and he alone will prove trust-worthy in the end.

In Philippians 3, right before Paul makes the famous statement that everything he once counted as gain he now counts as loss for the sake of Christ, he gives a list of convincing reasons to show why he has good cause to do just the opposite – to, as he says, “put confidence in the flesh” rather than in Jesus. Paul had a lot of reasons to boast. He had a lot of reasons to feel confident in himself, before both God and people. And yet…

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

“Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” Where is it, Christian, that the relentless love of God, the unstoppable justice of God, and the blazing righteousness of God, converge? Where is it that his love is poured out, his justice satisfied, and his righteousness demonstrated? Where else but at the cross? In the cross, in the gruesomely disfigured face of a man being tortured – boast in nothing else but this. The cross of Jesus alone is our boast, our identity, worthiness, confidence, and calling.

In losing your claims to false identities, find your true individuality. The aimless pursuit of self-gain or glory, which is what life is like apart from “boasting in the cross,” promises to let you be who you really are. In reality, it deadens who you really are. It sucks up every limited resource of self until it finally runs out. The cross, meanwhile, of the crucified and risen Jesus, is limitless in its scope and power. Lose yourself in God and in him find your true personality; lose yourself in you and get nothing but emptiness and limitation.

Because he boasted only in the cross – because Paul’s whole claim on life was wrapped up in how Jesus had sacrificed himself for Paul – Paul boasted also in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), suffering (Romans 5:3), and the people he evangelized (1 Thessalonians 2:19), among others. Yes, seriously: weakness, suffering, and churchy people. Thus there is no room left for boasting about anything at all which does not flow from a boast in the cross. The Lord of the galaxies, the Lord beyond the galaxies, has died for us. Therefore we are strong when we are weak, rejoicing when we are suffering, joyful when we are poured out and used up for the sake of other people’s faith. Incredibly, that is what the Bible says, unapologetically.

The call of the cross to you and me, then, is the same: come and be crucified to the world. Give up your claims of self, of wisdom, strength, money, morality, plans, likability, because the Son of God gave himself up for you. Let the almighty God who delights in steadfast love, and justice, and righteousness, have his way with you. Boast only in the Lord and in so doing find life so amazing, so worth living, you will never want to go back.

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:28-31