The Currency of Conviction
It’s been remarkable to see the relativists head for the hills in light of the Penn State sex abuse scandal. The moral outrage has been loud and immense (and justified). I’ve heard no one appeal to diversity, multiculturalism, situational histories, or different ways of being. Every person I’ve talked to, every sports talk commentator I’ve heard, every article I’ve read—they’ve all said the same thing: the abuse was wrong, the cover-up was wrong, the priorities of the school were wrong. Shame on everyone.
Which has me wondering why some sins are so obviously scandalous in our culture and others are not. The difference, as best as I can figure it, has to do with victimization. In general, Americans (like most people I imagine) don’t want innocent people to be hurt through no fault of their own. The equation is simple: if your actions make someone else suffer, they are wrong. It’s easy to see this logic at work in the Jerry Sandusky case. A grown man molests underage boys for his own perverse pleasure and to their great detriment. He wins; they lose. Big time. The moral calculus is clear. And in this case, spot on.
But this line of moral reasoning has its limits. Actions can be wrong whether they visibly hurt someone or not. And actions that provoke suffering or discomfort or disappointment in others (be it emotional or physical) are not always evil. Think of spanking or speed limits or prohibiting harmful substances. Some victimless crimes are still crimes, and sometimes insisting on the right thing produces “victims.”
Our culture is deeply moral. All our fiercest debates–from abortion to homosexuality to budget cuts and taxes–are about morality. What is fair? What is just? What is right? The problem is that too many Americans only trade in one currency of conviction. It’s victimization or nothing at all. This is why the pro-life movement has (rightly) been able to make some headway. Abortion hurts the women who get them and manifestly hurts the children it strikes dead. We can easily show others (if not always persuade them) that abortion causes suffering. There is no higher moral high ground in America.
The same logic works powerfully against Christians when it comes to homosexuality. Since the physical ailments associated with homosexual behavior have been buried deep in the ocean of “don’t you dare go there” there is little accepted moral force left on our side. What could possibly be wrong with two consenting adults expressing their love in private ways mutually agreed upon? No one is hurt by homosexuality. How is your marriage ruined by two other people getting married? Those are the arguments that are almost unassailable given our cultural climate. What’s more, it’s easy to see how advocates of traditional marriage quickly fall on the wrong side of the prevailing moral calculus. We are the oppressors. We are the ones causing innocent people to suffer. We make ourselves happy at the expense of others. Christians are the Jerry Sanduskys of the world.
Think of almost any issue: if you can find a victim, you can make a case. If not, you’ll likely end up the victimizer. So Christians can get quick traction in society by opposing sex trafficking. The oppression is obvious; the sin is scandalous. But we get little traction in opposing premarital sex and great pushback in opposing homosexual behavior. Abortion can go either way because the baby is a victim but denying the woman her choice seems cruel too. Economic matters are also tricky. Cutting the budget may hurt the poor, but confiscatory taxation feels unfair.
The postmodern world knows only one form of moral reasoning: show me the victim. And Christians in this country have played into their hand over the last decades by constantly presenting themselves as oppressed, persecuted, and discriminated against. While all those charges may be true at times, we’ve played that hand so frequently that it’s too late to realize the deck is now stacked against us.
In light of this reality, two things must be done.
First, we must do more to show the long term consequences of seemingly innocent behavior. This is not a call to play the victim card but to do our homework. The sexual revolution of the 1960s seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know that communities were made weaker, women have not been made happier, and children have been put at greater risk. Just because everyone seems happy with the sin right now doesn’t mean people won’t suffer in the long term. Just look at no-fault divorce.
Second, and more important, as Christians we need to explain the true nature of sin. While oppression is always sin, sin cannot be defined solely as oppression. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). An action is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on God’s standard. This definition will not be accepted by many, for God has largely been removed from our culture’s definition of evil. But try we must. The culture war is not the point except to the degree that God is the point. And our God rests too inconsequentially upon our country and our churches. The world needs to see the true nature of sin as God-defiant. Only then will it know the true nature of our sin-defiant Savior.