Saturday, March 24, 2012

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase 'the lesser of two evils'. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is 'Sophie's Choice' but they don't have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn't enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of 'The Fall' – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it's called 'casuistry'), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it's called 'utlitarianism' – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God's point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God's intention for that family. Therefore, even though a 'lesser of two evils' decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a 'wrong'. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don't have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the 'wrong direction' can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I'm in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I'm not in favour of 'gay marriage'. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the 'ideal'. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I've even been privileged enough to speak God's blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying 'you were right to choose the lesser evil'; it is simply God saying 'I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation'.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus' own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don't fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don't meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn't indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God's intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were 'right' – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the 'ideal' as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called 'Anthem' which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that's why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

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