I take it as axiomatic for the Christian that we live within a Fallen world – in other words, a world that is broken, within which good things happen to bad people and the reverse, and in which we are often placed within a situation where there is no clearly right way forward. The expression ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’ is one that is, I believe, thoroughly appropriate for exploring our situation. There is, however, a clear distinction to be drawn between how a Christian responds to the choice of evils, and how a secular perspective might see things, and that is what I want to tease out.
In my house group the other day, we were considering a story of two soldiers in the Far East in World War 2 who were being pursued by Japanese forces. One of the soldiers was injured and impeding their retreat. He realised that unless his fellow soldier was able to go ahead without him, they would both be captured and tortured. Yet he didn’t want to be captured and tortured himself, and so he asked his fellow soldier to shoot him dead.
Here is a classic instance of having to choose between evils. The evil of killing a friend, the evil of allowing the friend to be captured and tortured, the evil of both soldiers being captured and tortured. What is the right way forward?
I suspect that there is no necessarily ‘right’ answer – we do the best that we can, and we live with the consequences. We are all compromised, none of us have clean hands. Which is why the gospel makes such sense, and why it is liberating to be washed in the blood of the lamb – it means something.
What I want to insist on, however, is the difference between a Christian perspective upon a situation like this, and one that derives from utilitarianism (which is the ideology underlying most modern management and ethical thinking). The Christian perspective insists that there is a difference between the right choice from available options, and that choice being in some sense actually right. That is, it is perfectly possible – more than that, it is the normal human condition – for an act to be the right action in a situation and yet still be inherently sinful – and therefore, in an important sense, ‘wrong’. To a utilitarian perspective – the right action is the action which maximises the available benefit (utility) – this is incoherent. It is not possible for an action to be the right action whilst also being in some sense wrong.
Viewing the world as broken, as a result of the fall, and yet also as being progressively redeemed, with the Kingdom breaking in, means that a Christian can actively sin even whilst pursuing the good to the best of their ability. This is spiritually hard work, but it is the nature of an honest discipleship. The difference comes in the vision held before us. Are we simply making short-term tactical decisions, or is there a direction in which we are travelling, and a destination that we are hoping to reach? With utilitarianism there isn’t; with Christianity there is.
To bring this back to my TBLA theme, I want to talk about two social shifts that took place primarily through the late 1960s, and consider the consequences. The first is abortion. The justification of abortion is principally through what might be termed ‘hard stories’ – in which is is transparently obvious that the right conclusion to reach, which no morally sensitive person could avoid reaching, is that, in a particular case, an abortion should be procured. Such should therefore be allowable in law. Yet I do not believe for one moment that those who devised and enacted the change in the law ever anticipated that this shift would lead to the holocaust that has followed. As the change in the law effectively said to society that ‘abortion is [a/the] right choice’ it has become something seen as not morally significant – and this detachment from moral moorings has led us into a very dark place. A Christian perspective might well agree than an abortion in a particular case was morally defensible – but it would also insist that it remained an inherently sinful act – and it is that insistence which, I believe, stands as a bulwark against ongoing moral degradation.
In a similar fashion, there were hard stories that justified the change in the divorce law – cases where, clearly, a divorce would be the lesser of the available evils. Yet the same thing has happened. In the absence of a sense that a divorce is still inherently sinful – in the absence of a vision or ideal of what human marriage might be – the consequences of the change in the law, have, I believe, gone a very great distance beyond what was envisaged by those who changed the law, with consequent havoc and human misery following in its wake.
What I am wanting to describe is a situation in which something may be tolerated and accepted whilst still being seen as sinful and requiring of repentance. So, for example, in the Middle Ages, a knight returning from a Crusade, who had shed blood, would be required to sit in the porch of a church for a year before being readmitted to communion. There was a whole ritual space which recognised both the necessity of what the knight had to do and also the inherent sinfulness of it. Put differently, this was an understanding of the world which recognised the tragic nature of human existence, and put mechanisms in place to enable fragile human beings to navigate their way within it. It is this framework that has been lost, to our very great cost.
Two last points to round off this post. The first is that there is a picture of the world that lies behind the Roman Catholic view (and the pacifist view) which I view as consistent and honourable but which I cannot bring myself to share. This is the view that says some things are never justifiable. So, in the first example of the soldiers, the option of one soldier killing his fellow soldier is simply unjustifiable – it is murder – and so those soldiers should have evaded capture for as long as possible, and then simply been captured, tortured or shot. To act from a pacifist basis is to see nobody as beyond the reach of love, and the refusal to act on the basis that the enemy is unloving is actually the path of holiness. More specifically, it is the path of redemptive suffering, as demonstrated by Christ on the cross, and which all Christians are required to follow. A similar analysis is applied to issues about abortion or divorce, so, for example, a virtuous wife is enjoined to suffer the depredations of a vicious husband in order to, for example, convert him by her example. As I say, I see this as being honourable and coherent, but I don’t agree with it. I simply note that here; it deserves a post – or a book! – all of its own in order to explain why.
Secondly, in so far as this sequence is going to be exploring issues around human sexuality, this distinction between what is ideal (or what is of the Kingdom) and what is a pragmatically right choice in the present is one that is central to what I expect to be arguing for. So, for example, I’m expecting to argue that polygamy is one possible permissible social arrangement for a Christian community, but I would see that as a pragmatic concession ‘for your hardness of heart’ rather than something which is reflective of God’s original intentions.