Ethics and the Other

Ethics and the Other


When I was first in seminary, I had to take an ethics class. The professor of that class seemed to positively enjoy giving us difficult ethics problems to solve. He had been a young man during World War II, and he seemed to take a particular joy in giving us examples from World War II. Was Corrie ten Boom right to deliberately lie to German authorities when she was hiding Jews in her house? Could you serve in the American OSS in World War II? That is, could you commit yourself to lie, cheat, and kill without mercy if that were what was required of you as an American spy supporting the Allied war effort? Let me make it clear that his patriotism was not in question. He was simply trying to teach us a lesson.

It was only later that I understood that he was not trying to bedevil us or to simply play mind games with us. He was trying to show us that not all ethical decisions are clear issues of right and wrong. We had students in the class who argued that Corrie ten Boom was wrong for having lied to the authorities, citing Romans 13. We had others who argued that she should not have lied, but instead simply argued that it is always wrong for Christians to lie, even if it leads to their deaths and the deaths of all whom they were protecting. Needless to say, there were those who argued for the lie, citing the Israeli spies at Jericho. They had to admit that there are not many Scriptures that can be cited. Yet, the feeling in the class was that, somehow, spying, lying, and even assassination in time of war were permitted. But, everyone felt slightly dirty after saying that. And, so, we learned that not all ethical decisions are clear issues of right and wrong.

That class has left a mark in my thinking and my evaluations. Years later, my wife and I were missionaries. I am thankful that during our last term, I was able to regularly travel out by bus and mule to a Quechua village nearly 12 hours away. There I faced many ethical questions without easy resolution.

I was working in a group culture. Should my approach to missions be individual or group? That is, should I go for individual converts or should I wait for the entire village to be ready to follow Our Lord? If I chose the one route, then I could very well end up being excluded by the village as one who brings dissension. If I followed the other route, it might take several years, during which time some might die without ever formally declaring for Christ? Would I, then, be responsible for their souls?

I chose for the village, for the group. As a result, I never got to see the village decide to follow Our Lord. It was only 6 months after I left that the village elders sent a message to the bishop that with my leaving, they had realized how much my ministry had meant to them. They asked for another priest. The bishop immediately asked them what they believed. They confessed Jesus Christ. The next priest was sent, and he received the harvest. In this case, my decision appears to have been the right one.

Actually, what I have found out is that almost on a daily basis, I am faced with decisions that are not clearly right or wrong. Should I ignore the violation of a rule because I know that enforcing every rule as written will lead to frustrated angry employees? Does being an obedient Christian require me to be a merciless boss as regards the rules set by my employer? But, if I am willing to tolerate rule violation, do I then encourage employees to think that rules only exist insofar as the current manager decides to enforce them?

As I am walking on the street, do I give to each and every panhandler? Do the requirements of love/charity trump the requirements that I take care of my family? If I am to give to all who ask of me, who shall give to me when I can no longer buy food for my family? If I do not give freely, shaken down, and poured over, then how can I expect such mercy on me when I am in need?

No, if anything, as I get older, my grey areas increase, my doubts increase. No, they are not doubts about God, not in the least. As I grow older, I have an increasing appreciation of God’s call upon us. Rather, as I grow older, I have an increasing awareness of my inability to correctly decide what is right and what is wrong in many doubtful situations.

More and more, I am aware of why Saint Seraphim of Sarov insisted that we are about acquiring the Holy Spirit. Only by acquiring the Holy Spirit can we have any hope of making somewhat correct decisions. But, even so, more and more I understand why that old professor challenged us as younglings. He knew that we would not understand back then. But, he knew that if we lived, we would someday realize that we had received from him an understanding that we needed. There are grey areas, and they are grey because we do not know how to see as God sees or how to behave as God desires of us.

Yes, Saint Seraphim is right. Come Holy Spirit, imbue us with your presence.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.