Sin and sinner are words that belong to the vocabulary of religion and are primarily oriented toward God. In the final analysis even when one "sins against" someone else (Matthew 18:21; Luke 17:4), it has the effect of an offense against God (Luke 15:18, 21). In a secular society with the exception of life within religious communities the concept of "sin" is an oxymoron. Secular societies in a representative democracy function on the basis of laws, and actions are judged legal and illegal. Something illegal is "against the law" or "against the body politic"; that is, it is against the people who comprise the community with whose approval the laws are made. Something legal is "permissible," not necessarily "right."
Doing right and wrong are moral and ethical concepts; they are not legal or illegal concepts. For example, I would judge it wrong to obey immoral laws, or put another way: breaking immoral laws is ethically the right thing to do. Of course, whoever breaks even an immoral law will nevertheless suffer the consequences—even if their actions are seen as a moral act (i.e., the right thing to do). "If you do the crime, you must do the time."
An example of immoral laws, now recognized by all civilized nations, are laws regulating the purchase, sale, and ownership of slaves—that is the buying and selling of human beings as chattel (property). It may be a shocking thought today but, 200 years ago such laws were not only legal, but regarded as natural and "right."
This way of stating the situation raises the question: on what basis does one judge the morality of one's actions? Or put another way: how does one know what is right (moral) and what is wrong (immoral)? In my view an action is only right if it benefits one's fellow human being in some way, and it is wrong if it does harm to a fellow human being. Or put another way, actions done for the greater "good" of others are right and any action that brings harm to another is wrong. Hence the standard of right and wrong is how one treats a fellow human being.
What is the theory that might lead one to this principle of behavior? Oddly I have come to a humanist ethic through traditional Christianity and the Bible. It began with this concept:
If anyone says "I love God," yet hates his brother; he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Of course, as it is stated, this statement reflects a narrow community ethic (i.e., love for one's fellow congregant), but the principle is broader: love for a fellow human being is made the standard for judging one's love of God. Paul's idea that "the whole law is fulfilled in one saying: you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14) may actually go beyond the narrow limits of the saying in Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:18), where it refers to fellow Israelite. In Paul's thought it may achieve the ethically broader concept of love of humanity (cf. Galatians 5:13). That is to say, love for humanity meets the requirements of the Israelite law.
Clearly a saying attributed to Jesus in Q, "love your enemy" (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-35), does exceed the narrow limits of a community ethic; the saying includes one's fellow human being—even up to and including a hated enemy whose goal it is to destroy the one aiming to love even the enemy. The saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25:34-45 is clearly not a community ethic, and evokes a broad humanitarian concern: one serves God by extending compassion and aid to "the least of these" in human society (Matthew 25:40, 45). In other words regular service in a soup kitchen is higher up on the scale of service to humanity than teaching Sunday school.
In many ways this ethical standard is an impossible ethic to keep when viewed on a broad scale in terms of whole companies, communities, and nations; for in acting in the best interests of some, one will inevitably injure others. For example, a major employer in a small town is faced with radically reducing the company's number of employees and drastically cutting the wages and the benefits of the remaining workers in order to keep the company from failing altogether. In this example what faces the employer is a mixed decision that will "injure" all employees, some it will ruin economically, while the economic viability of others will be compromised. In other words in a complex world often all one can do is aim for the greater good of the largest number of people, while keeping the injuries incurred by the rest as small as possible—a decision that is neither black nor white but rather a dirty shade of gray.
To judge by the blind impact of natural disasters not even God can do any better.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
In "Religion Under Attack," Nigel Leaves cites Phil Zuckerman's "Society without God," saying that in free democracies he studied, "People 'stopped being religious of their own volition'. Able and content to find meaning in life without supernatural sanctions, people simply abandoned traditional religious paths. This lack of religious belief did not lead to moral decay, anarchy, hedonism or the dissolution of society. Indeed the opposite seems to be the case with Denmark and Sweden scoring exceptionally well on indicators of societal health" (p. 171). I don't see Christianity as being particularly relevant anymore when it comes to morality. (With the percentage of people who are unaffiliated, that's a good thing!)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Dennis,
Thanks for the reference to the literature. I will eventually get around to checking out Zuckerman. I have two questions for you: 1. If Christianity is no longer relevant for determining what is and what is not moral, how in your view do human beings in the West determine what is moral from what is immoral? Or put another way: how you determine what is moral from what is immoral?
And 2. Do you think Christianity has any remaining social value, if its value as a guardian on our behavior is no longer operative now that people have stopped being religious in a Christian sense?
I think community and its culture define right and wrong along the same lines you wrote above (whether a behavior harms or helps one). A community is built on common goals and purpose and in order for it to function there must be cohesion and order. I see people generally finding that it is not helpful to the community, therefore to them, to rob, steal, kill and so forth. We have overcome the biblical view that slavery is right and are working toward a less misogynistic world than the Bible presents (women are no longer the property of the father or husband), so I think there is some precedent for that view.
Christianity has no social value to me and hasn't for around 50 years, when as a teen I escaped the SBC church because of its god's spiteful attitude toward integration. But, it is community and is a culture (a way of seeing, perceiving, believing), so to many it has social value and will remain as such.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
You continue to raise questions that challenge the reader and in this case to think about morality. For a simple explanation I would say a moral person would take no action that results in harm to another person, when possible. When not possible, e.g. the example you gave above, any action taken should result in the least harm to the fewest persons.
Thanks for making me think!
The following quote from The 17th century English philosopher Hobbes can be found many places on the net. I see Christianity as one of many influences upon the formation of the social contract, but some of it seems beyond general human capacity: such as settling with one's accuser on the way to the lock and load zone (e.g., Lk 12:58-59)..
Thomas Hobbes' 'Leviathan, or the matter, forme, and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civill, 1651'...Hobbes described the natural state of mankind (the state pertaining before a central government is formed) as a "warre of every man against every man". In the book he outlines the 'incommodites' of such a war:
"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; AND THE LIFE OF MAN, SOLITARY, POORE , NASTY, BRUTISH, AND SHORT.
Good Morning Gene!
And it is a very good morning in Missouri--though a little humid, although not like Mississippi, the Delta bottom land of my rearing.
I gather that the first paragraph is your personal comment, followed by the next two paragraphs quoted from the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbs.
The first paragraph comments on the difficulty of settling with an opponent as one is on the way to court. Perhaps so; but the court system today provides for a settlement attempt between two parties before they engage in a formal trial. The settlement attempt is called "mediation," which includes a presider (not necessarily a lawyer) and the two parties who seem destined to wind up in court trying to reach an agreement before a court trial. There is also such a thing as binding arbitration, where both parties agree to abide by the decision of the presider. These two options are available by those one their way to court. Sometimes the mediation works and sometimes it does not.
The quotes from Hobbs seem designed to describe the nature of humankind as brutish and uncivilized. I am not sure, however, how that relates to the issue of knowing right from wrong. Are you saying that humankind does not possess the capacity of knowing right from wrong?
It's in the 80's and pretty humid today in south central Pa, 25 miles west of Gettysburg, the site of the turning-point battle of the Civil War. Celebrated our 50th anniversary, joined by our daughters and their families, at the lake resort of Deep Creek in W. Md. this past week-end.
Yes, we can be thankful for mediation and arbitration. I had a larger court in mind for human failure, and that is the failure to settle differences prior to meeting on the court of the battle-field.
I think Hobbes is saying that humankind knows enough about right and wrong to develop a social contract for self and group protection against its own destructive nature, i.e., for survival. That seems to me to be true. My additional view is that at salient points in history there is the emergence of Spirit usually in the form of unique leaders, to point us beyond the limitations of the social contract to include reconciliation with enemies.
Good Afternoon Gene,
This is not really my area; so I am willing to defer to those of you with more knowledge in this area. But here are my thoughts: I have always thought of diplomacy as the main way to avoid war--diplomacy and sizing up the potential opponent, his resources, and will to succeed, etc. War is always a failure of the body politic. That said some wars can only be avoided at a cost higher than the war itself.
Your third sentence of the third paragraph: "Spirit emerges in the form of unique leaders." I am not certain what you mean by your capitalized "Spirit." which emerges. What is it , and where does it emerge from? If this is a cryptic way of saying that God endows "us" with "inspired" leaders (like the early leaders in Judges), what would you say about the saber-rattling folk in both countries--to complete your parallel with Spirit?
Regarding your first paragraph, if war is sometimes a less costly choice than avoidance, at least for one of the parties, I think it is because the leaders do not have the courage of their position to take the necessary steps to diffuse the conflict.
Regarding the capitalization of Spirit, I don't really know how life works so that these non-violent leaders arise, so I simply took a word from my own traditions to describe it. I could just as easily have capitalized Evil with reference to the emergence of someone like Hitler. I don't necessarily mean to imply that good and evil are transcendent realities, but they are certainly imbedded in the specifics of life.
There may be responsible leaders having many convictions (odd word to use) representing your country, but the concessions demanded by the hostile opposition are simply too much to accept by those representing your interests. The unacceptable concessions tend to make war the only option.
And sometimes those representing your interests never get a chance to negotiate terms of peace as for example the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the German "need" for Lebensraum in the 1930s and their unilateral invasion of Poland.
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