Reconsidering the Very, Very Basics of Christian Ethics: Roy Moore, the Media, the Alabama Republican Leadership, and How We View Each Other

 

Once upon a time Jesus summarized the law of the entire Jewish ethical tradition, saying that, first, we are to love God with everything we are, and, second, we are to love our neighbors “as ourselves.”

The whole of Christian ethics can trace its origin to Jesus’ summary. For today, it’s important to note that Jesus taught us to love God with everything we are — heart, soul, strength… and mind. He borrowed most of this language from Deuteronomy, where devout persons were encouraged to teach their children to love God, but Jesus added “mind” to the prescription. (See Deuteronomy 6, and compare that to Luke 10.) It was a reminder that the idea being expressed in Deuteronomy was that devotion to God must include devotion of all the gifts God has given us. As you might recall, Jesus later taught that disciples must be good stewards of those gifts. Jesus wanted us to use our minds, and he taught that, without using our minds, we would not be giving our full devotion to God.

The second part of Jesus’ summary is the one I’d like you to focus on today. A trouble-making lawyer (those lawyers can be trouble-makers sometimes, so I hear) asked Jesus a clarifying question, wanting to know who qualifies as a neighbor. In other words, he wanted to know whom we must love, by which he implied his real question: When is it ok to discount someone, because we don’t have to (want to) consider them our neighbors?

In response, Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan”, but the answer was more confounding than clarifying. I’ll come back to that story in a minute.

Through the ages, Christian theologians and ethicists have wrestled with this idea of “neighbor love,” and what it means to love another person “as oneself.” Some of the best thinking on the matter that I’ve ever found has explained it this way: Because Christians (and Jews) believe that every person is made in the image of God, we also believe that every person has innate worth. Each person is therefore worthy of our respect, not because of who they are FOR US, but simply because they are human beings. We don’t care for others because of what they can do for us, or because they are useful to us. Stated another way, we care for them because they are valuable in God’s eyes, and loving God means loving what God loves.

One modern philosopher said it this way: Christian ethical behavior is behavior which really treats other human beings as human beings, rather than objects that are available to be used for our personal, selfish purposes. When we see others as full human beings, we see person who have joys and pains, fears and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, just like us. But we don’t see objects for manipulation or exploitation.

In the news this week are 3 related stories that provide useful opportunities to talk about these ethical ideas.

First, there is the news story about Roy Moore.  If you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t seen these news stories, here’s a quick recap:  Roy Moore is a former judge in Alabama who is running to fill the Senate seat that was vacated when Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General.  Moore has been in Alabama politics for a long time, and at times he has been controversial for his uncompromising, fundamentalist Christian views.  When he was initially elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, he was later removed for ethics violations, because he refused to comply with a federal court order to remove a prominent Ten Commandments monument that he had installed within the courthouse.  Later, when he was AGAIN elected to the Alabama Supreme Court (this time as Chief Justice), he was AGAIN removed for ethics violations, this time for ordering Alabama court clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell (which declared prohibitions against same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional).  A few days ago, just a few short weeks before the special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat, the Washington Post published an article alleging that Moore once acted in immoral ways toward a 14-year-old girl.  Also alleged was that Moore had dated other minors while he was in his 30’s, although no allegations of sexual misconduct were made in those cases.

The news about Moore has ignited enormous, heated public debates.  For purposes of this discussion, I want to examine the controversy as an opportunity to reflect about ethics.  If we apply the basic explanation of Christian ethics articulated above, we would say that Moore’s alleged behavior was unethical because he saw the girl as less than a full person, and he acted on that view. If the allegations are true, he saw her as an object for his use, as a sexual object available to satisfy his deviant purposes, and he disregarded her interests and her well-being, because, when he saw her, he didn’t see the image of God and a person with inherent value. He saw an object, not a human being. That’s what unethical behavior is, at its core, after all. For the record, I find the Washington Post’s account credible.

This assessment of Moore sounds harsh, I realize. Let me hasten to add that, when I see Roy Moore, in him I also see the image of God and a person of innate worth. Human beings are flawed, and they do bad things. Roy Moore did something very wrong. I don’t know Moore personally, and I’ll wager he has likable personal qualities in the eyes of his friends and family, and one must simultaneously acknowledge that he has spent his adult life in public service, even if you disagree with his politics. I’m not “out to get him,” and no one should be, but if we’re being good stewards of the minds God gave us, and if we’re loving what God loves (like Moore’s alleged victim), it would be irresponsible (and unethical!) for us to turn a blind eye. Fortunately part of the Christian worldview is also the notion that all people are redeemable. Even when they are broken, they are still worthy of our regard for their well-being. I do not wish Moore ill, but that doesn’t mean I would vote for him.

The second story this week is the story of how the Washington Post went about researching and developing the Roy Moore story. A friend posted to Facebook last evening her concern that the news media should never push victims of sexual abuse to come forward with their stories, and her assessment of the story was that the Post had indeed pushed the alleged victim to come forward. I agree wholeheartedly with the principle she is expressing (although I read the circumstances on this occasion a little differently than she does). In a nutshell, if a news organization sees the potential source (the alleged victim, in this case) only as an object for the organization’s own purposes (e.g., to sell more papers, or to derail a candidate for political reasons), that news organization would be guilty of ethical shortcomings, too. It would be failing to see the victim as a human being who suffered from the alleged events, and who might suffer further if they publish her story. Sometimes the news media is certainly capable of considering its own interests without considering the interests of vulnerable people that the media reporting impacts.

Some folks will object that the interests of the public-at-large outweigh the interests of the individual, so those folks will conclude that a media organization should, when deciding whether to publish, consider both the alleged victim’s interests in privacy AND the public’s interests in knowing about a candidate’s alleged immorality.  Generally, I disagree with that idea. Like my concerned friend, I don’t think the public has a right to inflict more harm on a victim, even if the public’s purposes are served in the moment. Just like the ethical considerations for individuals, the public-at-large shouldn’t view any individual as simply an object for society’s use.  If we start thinking like that, all kinds of civil rights and human rights would cease to have meaning, because we could disregard the individual’s rights whenever the “greater good” was being served.

So I agree with my friend’s principle. I share that principle. In this instance, however, I don’t read the Post’s behavior as having crossed an ethical line. As I understand the reporting, the Post was performing background research on Roy Moore, which is a legitimate function of journalism. Yes, you can characterize that activity as “looking for dirt,” but I do expect the press to make reasonable efforts to assist the electorate in vetting all candidates. I generally think the Post will do that kind of vetting on all candidates in the public spotlight, regardless of party, but if the Post fails to investigate some particular candidates (some people think the Post is harder on conservative candidates than progressive ones), I expect other media organizations to step in and investigate those. In the course of their research, the Post heard that it was common knowledge that Moore had previously dated young women, so they went to some of the women and asked “Is that right?” As the Post’s story makes clear, 3 of the 4 women who were willing to go “on the record” were making no complaint or allegation at all. They only confirmed that they had dated Moore. Since they saw nothing wrong with that fact, it was no secret. They did not feel victimized, nor did they have need to fear backlash for reporting publicly something they felt was normal. A fourth women, however, surprised the Post by alleging unlawful misbehavior by Moore. They asked permission to share her account on the record, and she gave that consent.

What my friend has pointed out to me is that some people read the Post’s account as suggesting that they badgered Ms. Corfman (the accuser) until she gave her consent to publication. Because I always try to start from an assumption that my friends are reasonable people, I looked again at the Post’s report, and I can see how my friend reached her conclusion. But unlike her, that’s not my read of the story, especially because we’ve learned that other women refused to share their stories with the Post, and those women are never mentioned in the Post’s article (i.e., at least in their cases, the Post respected their wishes and did not push them into the spotlight). But I believe that reasonable people like my friend and I can disagree, and I still think my friend is a thoughtful, good-hearted person. And that’s the next point to make today: Even when people entirely agree about a principle (e.g., that the press shouldn’t exploit victims of sexual misconduct), they can act reasonably and in good faith and still reach different conclusions about particular issues.  I still think my friend is reasonable and good. I love my friend, in fact. Reaching different conclusions about some particular thing just isn’t a reason to change that opinion or surrender relationships with friends. And that leads us to our third story…

This week the leaders of Alabama’s Republican party made clear that they would support Moore’s candidacy, even if Moore were proven to be a child molester, because, as they put it, they could never support a Democrat. The last few days have witnessed tweets and interviews in which some Alabama Republicans have stated unequivocally that, while they view child molestation as evil, they think Democrats are more evil. This saddens me and infuriates me and makes my blood boil, because they are calling me and many like me “evil,” but… if I am to be true to the ethical worldview I described above, I am compelled to do my best to set those feelings aside. Instead of responding with fury, here’s the best response I can give you: Can’t you see how their worldview, expressed by their assumption that all Democrats are evil, is inconsistent with the notion of Christian ethics I’ve described above? They do not see Democrats as full human beings, as children of God built in God’s image, people having innate value, brothers and sisters worthy of respect. They see something less than fully human, so for those Alabama Republican leaders, it’s easy to distrust Democrats and to dismiss their interests.

Shame on them. The Alabama Republican Party likes to think of itself as a moral party, as an organization that endeavors to act in ways that reflect their most deeply held ethical commitments, and most of them claim that they are drawing those ethical commitments from their Christian heritage. But when they view roughly half of their fellow citizens as evil sub-humans, they are not living out their values. And when they give Roy Moore a pass for his abusive sexual misconduct (and for all of his other ethical misconduct, for which he was twice removed from the bench), they show their true colors — they are more interested in power, even at the expense of their ethics.

They are also failing to acknowledge the reality I described above regarding my friend: They don’t seem to realize that good people can disagree. Instead, they think people on the “other team” can’t possibly be good at all, merely because the other team has reached some different conclusions about public policy. That’s a childish view of their neighbors (and public policy). They should act more like the ethical adults I know they’re capable of being.

There is still time for the Alabama Republican leadership to get this right. They can ask Moore to step aside. If they replace him, no doubt the candidate they substitute will win the Alabama Senate race. Knowing all that I know about Moore’s Democrat opponent, personally I’d prefer that the opponent be elected, but for the good of the future, I’d be happy just to see the state’s Republican leadership find its moral compass again. If they do that, there will be less hateful division in Alabama’s politics, and everyone will benefit.

***

Back to Jesus’ story for a moment. When the lawyer asked for clarification (“Who is my neighbor?”), Jesus didn’t tell a story that explained how some people are worthy of caring about, while some people are not worthy. Most people read that story wrongly. You remember it, right? A guy gets mugged and left along a roadside. Some people pass by, but they don’t stop to help. That’s a real shame, because they are supposedly upstanding, religious types, but they don’t think they have to care for someone like the victim. Finally a guy stops to help, and he goes out of his way to ensure that the victim gets care. The helper was an unlikely guy to help, because he was a Samaritan, and most Samaritans didn’t get along with most Jews, like the roadside mugging victim. Here’s the twist: Jesus wasn’t saying simply that the victim should be treated as a neighbor, or that the first passers-by were simply wrong for considering the victim a non-neighbor, nor was Jesus simply saying that the third passer-by got it right. That’s how most people read the story, but that’s not the point. At the end of the story, Jesus asks “which of the passers-by was a neighbor TO the victim?” Jesus wasn’t defining “neighbor” as the person who should be the OBJECT or RECIPIENT of one’s care. Instead, he defined the neighbor as the care-GIVER. The man who gave care was the neighbor, right? The neighbor-man didn’t look at the mugging victim and ask “what can this guy do for me?” The victim wasn’t worthy of care because of his usefulness. And, to be clear, the caregiver was a Samaritan, so the mugging victim wasn’t on the Samaritan’s “team.” But that didn’t matter to the “Good” Samaritan.  To him, the victim was worthy of care just because he was a human being. And the neighbor-man, the Samaritan, embodied that ethical principle when he gave care.  Let’s be neighbors toward one another, even in politics. Especially when the issues are difficult and potentially divisive.

Love God, but use your head when you’re doing it. Love your neighbor, and do so by seeing him or her as a fellow child of God, worthy of your care and respect without regard to politics.

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