By Dr. Mark Poindexter
When I was in college in the early 1980’s, a number of professors at my conservative Christian college felt it their call to do battle with Joseph Fletcher and his book, Situation Ethics. I don’t know how many of them actually read the book, but I do know that they thought it their duty to argue against their understanding of what this book was about, that there are no moral absolutes; what is moral is determined by the situation. Well, since so many professors were telling me that I should flee from the moral relativism that Fletcher espoused, I went out and bought the book and discovered that my professors, intelligent as they might have been, really did not know what they were talking about. Fletcher’s book did not claim that there were no moral absolutes, but that moral behavior is predicated by what is determined to be the “most loving behavior.” Fletcher argued that “all laws and rules and principles and norms and ideas, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love” in that particular situation. Thus, those “laws, rules, principles, norms and ideas” could be broken if another course of action was determined to result in a more loving outcome. My professors misunderstood Fletcher. He did not argue against there being a moral absolute. He said the moral absolute was love and every behavior and action was based on asking “what is the most loving thing to do in this situation.”
Of course, if anybody spends much time with the scriptures they would have to agree that Fletcher is onto something. Jesus said that everything that had ever been taught in the law and the prophets could be summed in the idea that “you should do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Golden Rule is simply another way of saying that you should “love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul wrote this same thing as well to the church at Galatia, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The reason Fletcher and his situational ethics is on my mind is because as I have gotten older, I have realized that we live in a very morally complex world. What is right or wrong is not always crystal clear. It all depends on the situation and what love requires in that particular circumstance.
Here is the morally complex situation that gave rise to this article. It was reported in the most recent issue of The Christian Century (April 30, 2014). The archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the world-wide Anglican church), Justin Welby, fears that if the Church of England approves gay marriage then there will be a massacre of Christians in Africa. The news brief states that Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, anguished over the same concern. Welby’s concern is the result of a personal experience. He states:
I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that happened in America. The killers had feared that because of the Christians they would all be made to become homosexuals and so they determined to kill all Christians.
I recently stood with the folks of Freedom Indiana to help guarantee that one group of Hoosiers would not be singled out as undeserving of the rights that all other Hoosiers have, specifically the right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender. And I have always understood the church to be a place where all people are to be welcomed. In my understanding, this is what is right and loving in my situation. But after reading Welby’s concern for others, specifically the life of Christians in another part of the world – a situation I was not even aware of, I cannot say that his hesitancy in regard to gay marriage and the Anglican Church is wrong. In fact, his hesitancy appears to be rooted in love as well – love for those who might violently lose their lives because of a decision made in another part of the world. We live in a highly connected and complex world. The thought that there is one set of “laws, rules, principles, norms and ideas” that applies to all people, in all times, and all situations is not only unrealistic, it is not even sensible. The only absolute that seems to make any sense is love, which is to ask “what is the highest good that can be accomplished in this situation.”
I suppose that now should be the point in this article when a clear path is provided for us so that we will know how to determine what the most loving or highest good is in any situation. We so often want “how-to manuals” provided. But the truth is, I can’t do that. It all depends on the situation. What I believe is that at its foundation, to do the most loving thing is to do the most humane thing, to do that which enhances the life and humanity of others.
The reality is, there are not a lot of simple answers that can be provided in our world. A myriad of interests, different worldviews and agendas that all bump up against one another make providing answers very difficult. But I refuse to throw up my hands and quit working at it. I refuse to quit trying to do what is right, what is loving, and what is just. The life I have chosen as a Christian, is a life that seeks to lovingly engage the world, even its complexity.
Right and wrong are not a thing of the past, but they are things that are fluid depending on the situation. My hope with this post is that those who read it might, like me, realize that in this morally complex world, where love is the highest good we can seek, we desperately need to offer to each other that expression of love known as grace. . . . because there are situations when choosing to do what is most loving concerns both the rights of some and the life of others. And because of that we pray, “Lord in your mercy, guide our efforts to love.”