The great danger of the emphasis on moral values in the recent election and continuing public debate is that they have narrowed the view to public policies related to same-sex marriage and abortion. By defining these two enormously important issues as the nexus of morality, we may have safely acceded much daily moral initiative to others–since most us are neither gay nor inclined or able to abort.
With the great rhetorical battles concentrating on these few values issues, a vast array of social issues and enormous areas of need are ignored. For our greatest need as a nation is not for value judgments on matters from which we are largely isolated, but personal virtue in private and public places.
The Political Illusion
We are inclined to seek government solutions to moral problems because we desperately wish that there would be sweeping institutional solutions to the gritty personal rebellion of our souls. As such, we make politics an overwhelming concern. Many of us have fallen prey to what Ellul called “the political illusion” that politics provides the antidote to all personal and societal ills.
While law can be a moral teacher, politics is hardly a school of the virtuous arts.
Worse, the political diversion of moral energies has given rise to a new kind of hypocrisy. It is now possible to consider ourselves morally exemplary simply because we adhere to an enlightened set of social principles. And we take pride in expounding on our enlightenment (particularly if it is well-linked).
Virtue is Not an Ideology
When we disengage a bit from the daily battles, we realize how petty, selfish, and downright cruel the political wars and public discourse can be. And it is obvious that the followers of Jesus Christ are not called primarily to the values of the right or left, but to the virtues of the kingdom of God. We easily forget in the midst of the fray, when the posts are flying, that there are Christian virtues that transcend ideology and trump politics.
While we may (and should) advocate and vote in accordance with a set of moral principles, this requires nothing of us personally. Being right politically doesn’t require us to lift a finger to help anyone. Political superiority still permits us to be ruthless in relationships with other people.
Because morality has been sublimated into ideology, we often feel that we have an adequate moral identity merely because we hold the “right” view on public policy matters–same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia. environmentalism, militarism, and many others. We may lead narrow, self-indulgent lives, obsessed with our physical health, financial affluence, political power, creature comforts, and personal growth, yet still feel a moral advantage over those who—despite lives more attuned to biblical principles—are ideologically unsound.
The Contrary Virtues
What are our ethical standards? What virtues are called for in public life and private practice? There are many historical perspectives on the virtuous life. Drawn both from classical Greek and from the early Christian church, there are a number of versions of the virtues. Listed here is what has been called the contrary virtues, derived from the epic poem “Battle for the Soul” by Prudentious (c.410). They are called contrary because they confront each of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Humility (against Pride)
Pride can run through everything we do. And the worst of it, as Dorothy Sayers warned, is that “the devilish strategy of Pride is that it attacks us not at our weakest points, but in our strongest. It is preeminently the sin of the noble mind.” Humility is a form of clear-sightedness. It is realism about ourselves, plus trust in God. Jesus addressed pride in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus said: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Kindness (against Envy)
Kindness is often seen in the rough and tumble of public life as the soft retreat of weak minds. But it can be more accurately seen as the strong response to the temptation of an envious heart. Envy is a product of our age. Henry Fairlie writes in The Seven Deadly Sins Today:
“The idea that we are equal has been perverted into the idea that we are identical; and when we then find that we cannot all do and experience and enjoy the things that others do and experience and enjoy, we take our revenge and deny that they were worth doing and experiencing and enjoying in the first place. What we are unable to achieve, we will bring low. What requires talent and training and hard work, we will show can be accomplished without them.”
Kindness is an antidote to envy, for it is hard to have destructive envy for someone you are kind to, just as it is difficult to hate someone you pray for. The real solution to envy is deep satisfaction with what God has given and a deep understanding of our own unworthiness. Seeing ourselves in the light of God’s grace.
Abstinence (against Gluttony)
Americans are the fattest people in the world. Has there ever been a more obvious need for an entire nation to just say “no” from time to time.
A recent news item: “A recent assessment of obesity in the US found that more than a half of all adult Americans were overweight. About 54 million adults were classified as obese – that is people who are about 15 kilos or more over the healthy norm based on height – and hundreds of thousands of deaths each year were attributed to obesity-related diseases. Health groups say one of the biggest culprits for this growing epidemic is junk food, and that the best time to break the cycle between obesity and bad eating habits is when people are young.”
Chastity (against Lust)
Lust is the exaggerated sin of our time, not nearly as seriously as pride. It is a sin of the flesh, yet it can corrupt the spirit. While the chaste life is the result of victory over lust, the antidote is better stated as purity of heart. Whereas lust blinds and dissipates our strength, purity of heart can concentrate our strength and purpose. Kierkegaard wrote: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Thus to love God with a love that is pure, simple, and total is the counterpoint to lust. But such a strenuous ideal can crush us with disillusionment if it is not accompanied by grace and forgiveness, through which Jesus upsets moralistic expectations. As William F. May said, we need to remember that “the ancient Hebrew circumcised the penis; he did not amputate it. Jesus forgave the adulterous woman; he did not stone her.”
Patience (against Anger)
The New Testament uses the imagery of fruit to describe the virtues of the spirit-filled Christian. Galatians 5: 22-23 says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” Bearing this fruit will certainly enable us to combat anger.
One devotional says: “It is through patience that we get a better understanding of the Creator, and our relationship with our Creator. It is through patience that we get a better understanding of the crosses that we bear day to day. The one that is without crosses, has ceased to be of notice, “For, whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth and scoureth every one whom he receiveth. If you endureth chastening, God dealeth with you as sons, for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” We may be called upon to bare not only our own crosses, but also those of others. If we would approach the Throne, we must come leaning on the arm of one we have helped. “Look not every man to his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”
Liberality (against Greed)
Many of us compassionate conservatives properly cite government’s inability to deal with poverty of purse and spirit. We call for private institutions to address the needs of the poor, but too often it is an excuse for personal selfishness. Liberals call for more help for the struggling classes, but really mean requiring people wealthier than they are to pay for government programs that have proved abysmal failures.
Yet as liberal or conservative followers of Christ we are called to love mercy. To show personal compassion to those who have failed or faltered. To feed the hungry ourselves. We’ve turned good deeds over to government, to agencies, to experts, even to our churches, without personal responsibility. As such the acts that constitute the social morality of our time are being performed by paid professionals in large public institutions, private or governmental, not by those who respond to the call of God to personally take up the needs of others—not as ideology, but in gratitude.
Diligence (against Sloth)
We live in a lazy, victim society. We blame anything or anyone but ourselves for our problems, and expect the government to help us if anything goes wrong. In the meantime, don’t interrupt our favorite television shows! Notions such as diligence, discipline, and responsibility seem antiquated. Sloth is defined by the coach potato.
We succumb to the temptations of sloth–both physical laziness and spiritual dejection that has given up on the pursuit of God, the true, the good, and the beautiful–when we lose our purpose and yield to what Vaclav Havel calls Nothingness. Havel was political prisoner before becoming president of the Czech Republic. He wrote:
“The temptation of Nothingness is enormous and omnipresent, and it has more and more to reset its case on, more to appeal to. Against it, man stands along, weak and poorly armed, his position worse than ever before in history. And yet I am convinced that there is nothing in this vale of tears that, of itself, can rob man of hope, faith, and the meaning of life. He loses these things only when he himself falters, when he yields to the temptations of Nothingness.”
Diligence is purpose. It is the pursuit of God, and as such, the rejection of nothingness.
We can only touch in this space on the many dimensions of the virtuous life. And we recognize the need to, as Os Guinness writes, “be on guard against the lurking danger of moralism—removing grace altogether and reducing the many dimensions of life to the single dimension of morality.”
But as he points out: “The forgotten classical tradition of the virtues and vices is fundamental to the renaissance of the ‘good society.’” For the passionate need of our time is not to revolutionize society, but personal virtue writ large.