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.

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Biting Your Tongue

You don’t indulge me and for that I should be grateful.

I sometimes feel like an overly eager pet, tending to overwhelm newcomers with nearly violent affection and pleading for love, benefiting greatly from the restraint of its owner. I’m still an angst-filled child at heart, so afflicted with imaginary turmoil…

Afflicted with imaginary turmoil,
Abandoned in an un-mandated exile,
Distracted by the products of the epoch,
Distrusting of the motives ‘neath the get-up.

If only I could obscure it all in figurative expression. I find emotional thought mediated by symbolism much more comfortable than the immediacy that happens when I admit to you what it was I wanted to say, before I remembered to catch myself. Well, ‘remembered’ isn’t the right word, because it’s instinct now, not thought: an ancestral fear that my confessions won’t be well-received. For good reason. Have you ever detoured through the shanty towns on the internet’s outskirts, where the bad confessional poets try to console each other with bad rhymes and bad ideas, like the meth-infested small towns of the Rust Belt?

The darkness is my only friend,
And won’t you call me back again?

Get through there quick, it’s not pretty. The ugly part of the highway between sexier cities. Thus I feel right about biting my tongue, and you’re right in your lack of indulgence.

Biting your tongue, got a mouth full of blood
And they ask you what it is you’re thinking of.
Bad jokes, that’s it, move on, get a grip —
Don’t let them know that you’re fading away.
Chances are they’ll let the moment dissipate (instead).

But these are such tired moments. I know you think so too. I’ve got to either say it or get over it. Blood in the mouth has got to be spit out or swallowed; otherwise it stains your teeth and metallicizes everything. Rambunctious pets have got to be loved on or trained out of it, lest they jump on the folks at the door. Either hear me out sympathetically or call me out for acting pathetically…

While my pathos competes with your logos
and your ego competes with my id,
then my pneuma will duel with your psyche
till you meta find out what I did…

Ah, dear. Once again I longed for originality, only to find I was a product of my age.

Your Love In My Pocket

I’ve got your love in my pocket, ready

for when I get nervous at church,

unsure how to talk to good people.

When I was younger I kept it chained

’round my neck like a locket,

shiny and pretty good-looking.

Ask me, I dared you, sincerely,

bold in an ignorant way;

now I’m more wise and less happy

and I’ve got much less to say.

Pain helped me shut up and listen

and distrust the glistening things

and ignore the rambunctious laughter

and cherish the caged bird who sings.

Then I wore your love like a bracelet,

dangling, obstructing my actions, and

right in the middle of everything.

That made me stop and be patient

enough to be present in more things

but still threatened when in a crowd,

your love vulnerable to their thieving.

At some point my hands quit performing

and found themselves needing a cave,

a warm place to rest and be restless,

a hiding spot, sheltered and safe.

So I’ve got your love in my pocket,

ready to hold my hand tightly.

January Anniversary

For Laine and Walker, eight days till their wedding.

Family members filling up the family room, finally together.

She glances across the group with understanding peaking out,

sneaking out, and showing up in her smile.

She knows him and his habits and his way of wondering why.

She has seen him weak and worried about where he’s walking.

She was there last night.

No one like her man. Many may imagine themselves to be mighty

but he considers not his courage. Silently strong.

Lighthearted talking and loudness of laughing,

but he feels her looking, that lady he’s loving.

He knows her and her habits and that wild wandering in her.

He has seen her breaking, beaten up by bad timing.

He was there this morning.

Others audaciously offer themselves as if it were obvious

but she’s subtle. She takes seeking.

He glances back across the group and understanding glows in his gaze.

Holiday happiness and full hearts around the hearth

and a wedding waiting for one more week only.

That understanding will thrive over time, then in thirty years

–in a family room filled with old friends and new faces–

they will think back on January and be thankful for this.

John M. Perkins

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17

Christian love engages the world around it. It takes up the real causes of real people and does things about them, in the name of Jesus.

Jesus is the great Rebel, and his revolution revolves around his cross. Cross-like love is always rebellious: selflessly abandoned, extraordinarily costly, loving enemies, turning the world’s tables.

Christian love is deeply involved in the community in which it finds itself. Hedging our bets and staying inside the established circles are not options for people who hold up the cross as their banner. Our churches exist to take the cross, with its million applications, deep into the lives of our communities. Where this is not being done, our churches exist to plant new churches that will do it, whether for Stone Age tribes or for our own suburbs. Complacency kills.

John M. Perkins, a sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who fled poverty and his brother’s murder at age 17, only to return to his home state once Jesus grabbed his heart in 1960, was and is a civil rights activist whose life shows what it means for cross-like love to encounter a world of injustice, oppression, and repetitive, destructive cycles. Imitating Jesus, Perkins loved from the bottom of society up. Currently, his foundation serves and preaches good news to the poor of West Jackson, Mississippi – especially single moms. Check it out.

“The Sound” by Switchfoot is bringing Perkins and his message to worldwide attention.

In a world of chaos and idolatry, the church needs a different set of heroes from the world’s heroes, who are of a different type and caliber, who do not preach themselves, but who preach Jesus as Lord. And him crucified.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

[Jesus said,] “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27

love is:

  • the reason Jesus came into the world
[Jesus said,] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
  • the reason for salvation
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7
  • the great commandment
And one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40
  • the fulfillment of the law
Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

  • a new commandment
[Jesus said,] “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 1 John 2:7-10

  • the character of God
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:7-10
  • the greatest of these
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

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.

bondslaves of Christ Jesus

God’s law for the ancient Israelites contained this clause:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever. Exodus 21:2-6

Voluntary slavery, for love of the master. That is the Christian life.

The New Testament authors frequently called themselves “bondslaves,” a word often translated as “servants.” Many of the epistles start with something like “Paul, a servant (bondslave) of Christ Jesus” or “James, a servant (bondslave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In ancient Roman society, a bondslave was a person subjected in every way to the will of his master, without rights or authority of his own. He spoke what his master wanted him to speak, did what his master wanted him to do.

Paul said, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Like the slave in Exodus 21, he was a voluntary slave, subjected in every way to the will of God, all for love of the Master. Servanthood is a way of life. It is at the core of Jesus’ ethic for all who would be his disciples: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). It means putting the needs and desires of other people ahead of your own, doing what no one else wants to do for the good of loved ones and strangers. It means following God’s agenda in everything.

I learned something about servanthood this past week during a mission trip to Rosarito, Mexico. Our group of forty people did street evangelism and built two houses. I believe there is nothing better or more worthwhile in life than serving God by serving other people, giving everything you have and everything in yourself for the sake of demonstrating Jesus’ love, all done out of gratitude for the marvel of God’s grace. It is a beautiful and holy way of life. It is Christ-likeness defined:

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (bondslave), being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8

It hurts to be a servant of Christ. It is a lifestyle which requires extreme humility and extreme joy in God, daily surrender to his Spirit and daily war waged against the self-exalting desires by which we live and die. We want to be kings. Jesus says, “Yes, I’ll make you kings like you cannot imagine. Be servants first.”

My prayer tonight is: I hear you, Lord. Help me to want what you want, to care about what you care about, to make decisions, big and small, that follow your pattern of love and purity. I know of nothing better than life as your servant, your slave. Take me to the cross, God, set me apart as yours forever: bore me through the ear like the slave, sprinkle me with blood like the priest, anoint me with oil like the king, baptize me with fire like the apostles, do whatever you wish. I am yours. Thank you Jesus for serving me first, unbelievable as it is.

the jealous God

You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” wrote Solomon, speaking of the human sin of covetousness, the “green-eyed monster” (Proverbs 27:4). Such is the jealousy that contributes to such a large percentage of murders each year – literally as well as in the sense of heart-level murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Jealousy-fueled hatred is ugly, obsessive, and alienating. And it is absurdly proud.

Yet, God tells Moses in Exodus 34 that his very name is “Jealous.” Throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible, God says the reason he hates idolatry is because he is a jealous God (e.g. Deut 4:23-24, Ezek 8:3-5, 1 Cor 10:21-22). God’s jealousy is worlds different from our self-obsessed covetousness. The jealousy of God is a holy zeal to establish and protect the love-relationship between himself and his people. It is analogous to the jealousy of a wife for the husband she loves, which adultery so deeply and penetratingly wounds. A marriage which adultery does not affect is a sham, and loveless.

The companion of God’s jealousy is not hatred, but love, a love that is righteous and relentless. If you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice that the biblical God is intensely concerned, and intimately involved, with the lives of the humans he has made. He cares; about our lives, our suffering, our actions (whether good or evil), and most fundamentally, how our hearts are related to himself. He sends plagues, he parts seas, he creates nations, he destroys nations, he decrees laws about what animals to eat and what clothes to wear, he rains down fire, he rescues the poor from their oppressors, he whispers in the storm, because he is a jealous God.

The fact that he knows, and passionately cares about, the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts is, on the one hand, terrifying. He knows as no one else does the darkest corners of my depravity. He sees how much I love to hate, how little I love to trust him, how little I thank him. He sees my excuses. He sees the ridiculous struggle I go through to carry out even the most insignificant acts of selflessness, the struggle to which all others are blind. He knows, and he cares, and he hates my sin with ferocity. The hatred I am learning to feel toward my sin pales in comparison to the reaction of his holy nature against it. He is a jealous God, jealous for his own glory, jealous for my worship. My spiritual adultery against my Creator is uglier than the wickedest affair, the most flagrant betrayal. (If you want to know what it’s like, see, for example, Ezekiel 16.)

God’s jealousy scares me, because I know how far short I fall. It also makes me cry, and sing, and hardly know what to do with myself, when I think of how he loves me. God is jealous for me. God is the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15, running out to me, embracing me, kissing me, hardly able to express his joy at having me home. He is the prostitute’s husband in Hosea 2, romancing me all over again, betrothing me to himself in tenderness, in love determined to win me back. He is, most of all, the man on the cross, dying in torment, declaring in paradoxical victory, “It is finished.” My sin, atoned; my debt, paid in full; my inheritance, secured forever.

He is a jealous God. He is jealous for his glory, tolerating no rivals, going to every length imaginable to protect the relationship between himself and his creation, avenging himself in justice when that relationship is violated. He is jealous for you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, for “he yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5 ESV). He wants you to be close to him, to experience his mercy, to be who you are and who you are meant to be by living in a right relationship to him by faith.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

The counterpart of God’s jealousy in us is zeal: zeal for God’s glory, passion to show his love to other people. Paul had it – see above. Jesus never lived a moment without it – his disciples recognized the scripture “zeal for your house will consume me” as describing him perfectly (John 2:17). He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). If any of us understands God’s jealousy in any sense whatever, zeal for him simply becomes the appropriate response. Lukewarm people, lukewarm churches, respectable though they may be, are inadequate for a God like this one. He is too amazing, his gospel too good, to be an afterthought, or anything other than the goal and glory of our lives.

I Wish I Had The Metaphors

I wish I had the metaphors to
lend description to the love of God.
“A father throws his own son in front of a train…”
What an inadequate thought. You threw
him from heaven to earth – no.
More, he jumped.

I wish I could create a painting
that could capture the nature of his rescue mission.
It would need much red, white, and gold,
for the blood, the purity, and glory.
What pale colors they are, compared to his story.
Just flat colors.

I do not understand your choice of
loving us, Father. Why send him in the likeness
of our wicked brutal flesh? My God! What a wretch
I am, my heart and flesh at war within me.
In awe I am quiet, like a weaned child
in your arms.

I give up on trying to explain
your love. Surely it is surprising
when I feel the murder in my mind, the sloth in my soul.
Oh my God, had the contract not been signed in blood,
I could not believe it. But there it is, and now,
there I rest.