Just Thinking

Shades of Meaning, Shadows of Death

The notable literary figure James Russell Lowell penned these memorable words:

        Once to every man and nation        Comes the moment to decide,        In the strife of truth with falsehood,         For the good or evil side;        With each choice God speaking to us        Offering each the bloom or blight,        Then the man or nation chooses        For the darkness or the light.    I have found myself thinking of these words over the last few days. The impeachment articles have been debated, anger has been vented from both sides, accusations of motives have been hurled without apology, and the nation has been torn in its political and moral fabric. If the moral demolition were concretely represented, the picture would be that of a bridge that has been ripped apart at the middle, wrecked by a quake of massive proportions. That is the image I have in my mind because every point of contact in our society seems to have been shorn off–political, constitutional, social and moral. There has been a shattering sound and a cloud of blinding dust. And entering the fray in the end has been a convicted pornographer whose reckless glee lies in throwing dirt at dirt and in triumphantly making an entire nation feel dirty for having a moral sense.

So much ink and heartache have been spent on this issue that I have resisted saying much before now. But there is an irrepressible urge to at least utter what I believe to be the breadth of damage done, and as we plummet, to remind ourselves of what the abyss before us contains.

I have no desire to castigate an individual. Controversial issues confront any leader and many of the decisions made by the one in authority may not be mine. Still, the office merits respect and courtesy. Part of the human drama of governance is the entailment that those elected to office will not always represent every individual’s ideas. Ideas are tested in the marketplace and that is how we move from generation to generation on the heels of will and choice. But the agony now inflicted upon society is not merely that we have antagonistic opinions, but that we are systematically undermining the very means of bridging life and thought. We have shaded words and killed language. How can we find shared meanings and values?

Does it matter if one’s word means anything? How duplicitous can we be when we debate the meaning of the word “is?” But that may well be what is at the heart of this country’s agony. Every textbook that defines truth inevitably borrows from the word “is.” Truth is whatever conforms to reality. Now we are manipulated to believe that truth is whatever you want it to be, because “is” is a fluid term finding its level at the whims of the user. I watched broadcaster Larry King, with the tone of an inquisitor, demand of an accuser of the president, “Have you always been faithful to your wife?” The Congressman ought to have answered by saying, “Do you want me to tell you the truth?” Someone has said, “Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue.” Why does truth matter if I can justify a lie in order to protect myself? But everyone knows that it does matter.

Truth is the verbal coinage by which we exchange concepts of value and engender trust. Moral truth by definition measures us against what ought to be. Just as a country collapses when it cannot redeem its legal tender, meaning dies when verbal value has no corresponding worth. We must awaken to the fact that there is something of greater value at stake here than impeachment. To admit the lie and ask for mercy is at least to redeem truth. To mitigate the lie in an attempt to save face is to bleed the artery of human discourse. The old philosophical conundrum surfaces again: “If a Cretan tells you all Cretans are liars, can you believe him?”

That words have redefined reality is shown by a second kind of death that has ensued–the death of legitimate consequences. After the candidate who was to be the next speaker of the House resigned because of his own failure, albeit years ago, the critic’s rhetoric erupted. In a deft move that turned a blind eye to the legitimacy of consequence, his antagonists birthed a new political category–”the politics of self-destruction.” Is that really what it was? Is there no place for responsibility and the willingness to lay down his own claim to power so that the nation might learn from example and cost? Does the one who holds on at all costs while the nation bleeds become heroic over against the one who is willing to bleed that the nation might live? How catastrophic it is to lose sight of the difference! The self has become supreme and the cause is subverted with the rhetoric of displaced martyrdom. Perhaps this is what Samuel Johnson had in mind when he once said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. To feign national interest in order to preserve power is tragic and morally genocidal. Ah! What shades of meaning we have manufactured only to darken the moral landscape.

There is a third death in this tragic saga. It is the death of sexual purity and the worth of the individual. Recently I spoke at a gathering of young people who had gone seriously wrong in life. In all my years of ministry I have never walked away and cried myself to sleep out of compassion and love in the face of such helplessness. These were fine young people, most in their teens, who had spent themselves into life-enslaving addictions. One young man stood up in the question and answer time and confessed to his unbridled lust that made it impossible for him to see a young woman without an inordinate passion to consume his desire. “I wish somebody could help me,” he said. “I am out of control.” The admission was pitiful. There, in the presence of all his friends and teachers, he pleaded for help.

I cannot go into the interaction we had, and all that I said to him, but let me state just one of the thoughts I passed along to him. God’s special gift to each one of us is our individuality, or if you will, our particularity. Every time we use an individual for personal gratification and nothing more, we physically and essentially denude them. We rob them of worth and trade their value for a sensation. That destruction of the particular is at the heart of physical pleasure for pleasure’s sake. “How ironic,” I said to him; “You probably struggle with self rejection and know how painful it is. Yet, in your sexual promiscuity, inevitably you render victim after victim with a diminished sense of her own worth. In an attempt to escape your own misery you spread the anguish by your uncontrolled appetite.” Such is the hell of a life that has lost sexual self-control. The tears flooded his eyes and he has since written to me to express his gratitude for helping him see his malady in terms he had never seen before.

It is irresponsible of leaders to say, “It’s all about sex,” as if we are talking about something trivial. (Here, too, I might add, there is a distinction between a stumble and a pattern of sensuality.) To unclothe a woman is to either give her particular value or to destroy her particularity. Sex is not, emphatically not, a trivial thing. Yet, this is where our battle lines are drawn in society. When infidelity and perversion are rewarded by being the most admired person in the nation, let us weep, for our sensual proclivities are defining our reason for being.

In the early years of Marxism’s breakdown, a Polish writer visiting America contrasted his country’s economic wrong-headedness with that of America. He called it “non-profit envy.” For the Marxist, he said, a man with ten sheep looking at his neighbor’s hundred sheep would wish that ninety of his neighbor’s sheep would die. That is non-profit envy, he said. But in capitalism, he added, the man with ten would work hard to gain ninety more. I realize the crassness of the illustration, but he does have a point.

Now in ethical theory we have come to non-profit ethics. We select the basest and set it up as a standard to which we might all descend. This administration’s legacy may well be the celebration accorded to moral poverty. This will not be without cost. The millstones of God may grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. We have a choice. We either define sexuality on the basis of essential worth, or we define a person’s worth on the basis of sexual satisfaction. The ramifications are worlds apart. Sowing to the wind here, we will reap the whirlwind.

But the antagonist might ask, “Does not all of this argue from prejudice and Christian rhetoric?” Here, two challenges are presented. The first is a philosophical one. We are stridently reminded that all morality is a private matter and not for public enforcement. But if all moral convictions are a private matter, why is this very conviction itself not kept private too? Why is it publicly enjoined? Moralizing against moralizers kills both.

But there emerges a second challenge. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” I have heard on numerous occasions. Here we face a schizophrenic questioner. Evidently, society cannot completely shake off its bequest from a Christian worldview. For in every instance when I have asked if they are aware of the context in which those words were uttered, virtually none could give it to me. One said it had to do with the woman in adultery. I followed up and asked if he was aware of what prompted that imperative and to whom Jesus had said those words. There was silence. Significantly, the entire confrontation came about because the Pharisees were seeking to trap Jesus into either explicitly defending the Law of Moses or implicitly overruling it. The whole scenario was a ploy, not to seek out the truth but to trap Jesus.

Fascinatingly, Jesus exposed their own spiritual bankruptcy by showing them that at the heart of law is God’s very character. There is a spiritual essence that precedes moral injunctions. Many of those who vociferously demand that only the one without sin may cast the first stone would not grant credence to God’s Word in its numerous other pronouncements. And for some, sin is not even a viable category. This selective use of Scripture is the same game the questioners of Jesus were playing. What is lawful can only withstand the test of human guile if it reflects an understanding of what is sinful. Sin by definition points to an absolute moral law-giver. When the law is quoted while the reality of sin is denied, self-aggrandizing motives can override character. In our spiritually amputated times the art of obscuring truth has become a science in courtroom and political theatrics.

Herein lies the crucial death in our times. There is no transcendent context within which to discuss moral theory. Just as words in order to have meaning must point beyond themselves to a commonly understood real existence, so, also, must the reality point beyond itself to commonly accepted essence. Otherwise, reality has no moral quotient whatsoever and moral meaning dissolves into the subjective, rendering it beyond debate. Only the transcendent can unchangingly provide fixed moral worth.

This death of the transcendent comes with a two-edged sword, both for the skeptic and the Christian alike. Yes, the law has moral value but not as a means for shrewd lawyers to play deadly word games, minimize immorality and kill the truth. At the same time the law has spiritual value so that we do not destroy the truly repentant individual. The grace of God abounds to the worst in our midst. Hidden in the odious nature of our failures is the scandalous secret of God’s forgiveness. When the prodigal returned, the anger he faced was not the father’s but the older son’s who failed to understand how marvelous was the grace of his father. Throughout history, God’s way of dealing with the reckless has disclosed how dramatic are His ways. We must allow for such possibilities. “This my son was dead, but is now alive.” Death lay in the wanderings of the passions and the seriousness of wrongdoing. Life was spelled in true repentance to return and “sin no more.” But let us take note. Forgiveness does not minimize the wrongdoing. It is offered in full recognition of the heinousness of what is being forgiven.

This whole tragic episode has brought to light a larger scenario. It is really not an individual but the nation that is far from her spiritual home. When words, consequences, purity and transcendent contexts have died, the pigsty awaits. Only if we remember our Father’s address can we know where to return for forgiveness and love. But if we argue as quick-witted political power-mongers or legal wordsmiths with no spiritual context we may kill both law and love. That, I am afraid, is the abyss over which we now hover.

I am confident that as precipitous as the edge seems, God has always been in the business of rescue. The truth is that as human beings we all fall short. Our only hope is for an understanding of God’s ways, through which forgiveness and responsibility come in balance. There is indeed another bridge, one on which a body was broken so that a path was made that we might cross over and live. In that Cross lie both judgment and mercy. The Judge of all the earth cannot be fooled by shades of meaning, nor can He be obliterated by the shadows of death. James Russell Lowell closed his hymn with these words:

Though the cause of evil prosper,Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;Though her portion be the scaffoldAnd upon the throne be wrong,Yet that scaffold sways the future,And, behind the dim unknown,Standeth God within the shadowKeeping watch above his own.

He is our help in ages past and our only hope for years to come.

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