Jared Witt - September 24, 2018
I assume you don’t want to read a blog long enough to cover the entire history of how it got to be this way. Support your local library for that.
But basically a bunch of stuff happened. Something called a North American was invented at one point, and North Americans are “rights” people. We base everything from our private morality to our public policies and every major value in between on this nebulous thing called “rights.”
Not everyone in every time and place has thought like this. There are a million other values on which humans can and have based their moral systems. Familial loyalty, tribal or national loyalty, sense of divine holiness or justice, and pleasing the rain god have been among the most popular throughout history. And each of those old favorites pops its head up here and there whenever it’s helpful to a given speaker’s argument. But when it comes down to brass tacks, we’re rights people.
There is a big upside to rights talk. For one, it’s actually hard to imagine anything like a democracy if each individual doesn’t feel some level of entitlement to the basic fairness that personal rights are meant to guarantee. Even if we actually apply these rights unequally and discriminatorily on the ground, the assumption that each individual has equal rights needs to at least be maintained at the symbolic and the theoretical level, or the whole thing falls apart.
But there are some issues with basing everything on rights. For one, they’ve tended to be negatively defined. “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”
A very visible representation of this is the “Stand Your Ground” law which is so popular here in the south. If you stay off the chunk of ground which legally belongs to me, then I’ll stay off of yours. But if you breach this contract, then literally any retaliation is justified.
In this way, “Stand Your Ground” is the clearest indicator of what we actually hold most sacred: possessions. Certain places and things simply belong to one person and not to another. If anyone should fail to observe this, then there is no higher value to which they may appeal and be spared the wrath of the private property gods.
This negative definition of rights is what inspired an entire book by the great 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflecting on the culture shock of his time spent teaching in New York. He was puzzled that we Americans seem to talk a lot about what we are “free from,” but hardly anyone ever brings up what we might be “free for.” Yes, there are all these things which we don’t want to infringe upon our lives. But what are we living for? What positive thing should we be seeking to enrich and improve our lives?
I imagine the poor German must have felt like he was surrounded by a sanatorium of people obsessing over what “they can’t force us to eat for dinner,” all the while never telling their long-suffering caretakers what they actually would like from the menu.
“Well I’ll tell you what they can’t make me have: Meatloaf.”
“You don’t need to eat the meatloaf, Mr. Wallace.”
“Bleckk. Meatloaf. I have rights, and I won’t stand for it.”
“Just order something else Mr. Wallace…”
Here is the biblical and theological edge to all of this. When your core value as a society is negatively defined, then the only reasons you can come up with for everything from basic morals to immigration policy tend to be negative reasons as well.
And as we’ve constructed our society, so we’ve projected onto God. It occurs to strikingly few Christians across this country to ever cite even one or two reasons why God might’ve called us “very good” in the Genesis account of creation—reasons why God would’ve created us in the first place—but almost everyone can tell you exactly what we’ve done wrong and what was required in order to stave God’s desire to punish at least a few of us.
As a pastor who believes we are punished by our sins in the present tense rather than punished for them in the future, I’ve been indicted by more than one of my parishioners for being too soft on crime (i.e. my definition of hell). “Excuse me pastor, but if there is no punishment for anyone in the afterlife, then what is the point of being a Christian?”
Think about that. Understand, first of all, that the tormented souls who raise such an objection tend to identify as the most adamant of Christians, yet here they can’t think of one positive reason to follow Christ. It’s all just, “If you don’t believe in him, you’re going to get it.” It gets even wackier still when you consider that the sole motivation they’ve laid out for wanting to know Christ is exactly the kind of looking-out-for-number-one, self-preservation fearfulness that he spent his entire career preaching against.
I suspect that people in this would-be “Christian nation,” who tend to assume that their version of Christianity is the only version there ever was, would experience some culture shock if they spent some time reading the lives of the saints of their very own tradition. Doing the right thing because you might get punished is a pretty joyless spin on things, so growing up as a good football loving, rights knowing American, I remember assuming that saints like Hildegaard of Bingen and Ignatius of Loyola must’ve been among the stuffiest and most joyless personalities in history.
The truth is just the opposite. They almost never talk about “morality” in the modern sense. Unlike the nervously legalistic bureaucrats who were often put in charge of the church, the frequently persecuted oddballs whom we now refer to as saints never talk like doing good is some business so dreary that we would only bother with it for fear of punishment.
Instead, what they seem to be motivated by more than anything is joy. They find beauty and laughter in nearly everything. They live selflessly like it’s more fun than living selfishly.
And here is the thing. We all talk so seriously about our negatively defined reward and punishment based morals as if it’s working. Look around you. It’s definitely not. In my near decade as a pastor in training and then ordained, I can confirm that I’ve counseled hundreds of people who have at some point downloaded all manner of medieval ideas about eternal punishment in some netherworld, and not a solitary one of them has stopped having an affair, lying on their taxes or feuding with their estranged cousin because of it. And for all the people I’ve met who take their concept of hell so seriously, I doubt one of them has so much as walked across the street to pick up some litter because of it.
Instead what I find is that joyful people tend to truly do the good more than joyless people.
To their credit, this normally isn’t lost on them when it comes to getting their own house in order. They know how empty and unfulfilled they feel in the midst of whatever way they’re screwing up. And Lutherans don’t have mandatory one on one confession, so by the time they come to me, they’re normally dying to get it off their chest and almost hoping I’ll come down hard on them with snakes slithering through eye sockets and all manner of sulfur-y images in order to assuage their guilt. I’ve surprised more than a couple of my confess-ees when my first response is always “So tell me about something that truly fills you with joy?”
The question surprises them because their culture has a negatively defined basis for all morality. So naturally, the logic goes, immorality would be the more fun or happier way to live. Ergo, we need the fear of punishment to incentivize the moral behavior more heavily than all that fun incentivizes the immoral.
But you know something? In all the years, I’ve been asking my confess-ees this question, and they deeply consider what truly brings them joy, their first response has always been something that lines up perfectly with Christ’s way of agape love and peacemaking. Literally always. Among the responses I’ve gotten to this question:
“Well, I help out with this city gardening group that plants vegetables in the middle of urban food desserts. That’s when I feel most whole.”
“When I was younger, I did some work with the Peace Corps. I guess that was the time when I felt happiest.”
Never once has someone responded:
“You know pastor, I guess when I’m stealing my neighbor’s cable, that’s when I feel most alive.”
“Actually, pastor, any time I can deny a loan to a racial minority, that’s when I really light up inside.”
So what are preachers trying to accomplish with their morality sermons? Come to think of it, for the dozen or so angry parishioners who have accused me of sounding morally loosey goosey when I “only preach grace” or of not “drawing the line somewhere” when I preach that God loves everyone, I’ve actually never encountered a single instance of someone saying, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to defraud my employer, because you never talk about right and wrong in your sermons.”
Why? Because no one is really ever concerned that they themselves don’t know right from wrong. It’s everyone else they’re worried about. And I guess that is why we negatively define the basis of our ethical worldview. The assumption is that I can't hope to really thrive in new and unforeseen ways but can only hope to hold serve while I protect myself from your immorality.
But it's joy that actually makes us better people. Not Fear.
So if you yourself are truly interested in living a good life, I suggest you stop worrying so much over what’s the most moral way to live, and start considering what’s the most joyful way to live.
We’re wired for it.
Cheers and Peace,
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.