Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that morality is straightforward?
While on holiday I was reading William Boyd’s excellent book Ordinary Thunderstorms on the beach. I picked it up simply because it was set in London and I had read somewhere that he has a bit of a cult following. You have to suspend your sense of reality a bit – especially at the basic plot of the narrative – but it is a fast-moving and entertaining read.
But, what struck me was the way we so easily adopt hierarchies of morality and don’t seem to spot the inconsistencies. of course, we spot the inconsistencies of everyone else, but not our own. (I seem to remember Jesus saying something about specks and motes somewhere…)
Without spoiling the plot, there is a character – an assassin called Jonjo – who commits all sorts of violence against selected targets and finds imaginative ways to inflict pain. Trying to track down his main target, he has to engage along the way with drug dealers, prostitutes and other casualties of civil society. He treads a path through the hidden underbelly of London life.
But, while on this pursuit of the man he wants to kill, he spits out his contempt for what has happened to his city. He thinks that this ‘low life’ should be eradicated from the face of the earth, bemoaning what has become of London society. He is happy to blackmail, torture and murder human beings for personal monetary gain… but then can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog – the only time he gets remotely sentimental.
Reading this reminded me of a session I did a couple of decades ago in an open prison in England. I had been asked to address a group of around 100 prisoners and then face questions. It all went well until I responded to a question about something or other (I can’t remember what) and in my answer I mentioned the fact that when my first two children were born, we hardly had to buy them any clothes because so many people handed on stuff to us. Given that we were broke anyway, this was both welcome and necessary.
One prisoner got up and berated me. How could I possibly call myself a Christian and not buy the best new clothes for my own babies? Somehow this was offensive to him and I had my priorities all wrong. Later I asked the chaplain who the offended prisoner was and was told he was a double murderer coming to the end of his sentence.
So, murder was OK, but clothing my kids in secondhand clothes wasn’t.
This theme is brilliantly brought out in the excellent American series The Wire. Apart from expanding my vocabulary by multiple forms of the F word, the hierarchies of morality are cleverly explored (or exposed?) in a totally engrossing narrative. We are about to start on Series 4 (of 5) – next year we will re-watch the entire seven series of The West Wing. One character in The Wire is Omar – he seems to specialise in frustrating drug gangs, torturing people and killing those against whom he holds some grudge or other. He resorts to violence like the rest of us drink coffee.
In one episode of Series 3 Omar takes his mum to church. On the way out they get shot at by rival gangsters. Omar is livid and seems genuinely affronted by this. Not, as you might have assumed, by being shot at. No. What really wound him up was that he got shot at on Sunday when there was supposed to be a truce on shooting each other.
This then reminded me of the problems Jesus had with the self-righteous religious legalists. He kept healing the wrong people on the wrong day. Read the Gospels and you’ll see what I mean. When he heals a woman after years of suffering and social ostracism, ‘God’s people’ don’t celebrate; they just moan that he did it on the Sabbath and why couldn’t he have waited a day or two and been less embarrassing? It’s a repeated ability to completely miss the point.
In this sense, we are all the same as human beings. We easily spot the inconsistencies in the moral behaviour of others – especially those with whom we disagree. It is much harder to be honest about our own convenient hierarchies of morality. Only once in my 23 years of ordained ministry have I been asked to withhold Communion from someone who was sexually ‘compromised’; not once did anyone ask me to withhold Communion from someone who fiddled their expenses or used money in morally dubious ways. Yet Jesus said far more about money and greed than he ever did about sex.