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.