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Marching is a viable ethical option

Written by - Pastor Isaac Fleming

MDIV - Asbury Theological Seminary

2020, Living Water Church

Romans 12:15 “Mourn with those who mourn.”

Dear Church,

Why would your pastor go to this solidarity march?

Overview: The main point of my writing here is to show forth our Christian ethical system/s, then relate that to showing support for our African American brothers and sisters, and for all humanity in general as we look forward to the future, one in which we all yearn to keep improving. I want to expound how a Pastor like myself would find it a good decision to go to this upcoming peaceful gathering at the state capitol led by the African American Council of Churches (AACC). However, one other aim of this writing is to try and show that one’s presence in/at an environment, does not auto-entail support for every other view that other given person or persons hold to that are also attending.

As a warning to those who are reading, this is not an inspirational sermon kind of read. It is a much more so an evaluation of ethics, which tends to be somewhat dry. But, it is good information to build the rest of your life on.

Relationships are Everything’

I was invited by the MP3 group by which I have been a part of for the last three years. A variety of Pastors from this group are going to this march which was organized by the African American Council of Churches. Two in particular that people from Living Water will likely be aware of, are City Church’s Pastor Tom Flaherty, and New Crossings’ Pastor Craig Robertson. There are many more going as well. I only mention these two because these are the ones you would be most familiar with. Likely those going are not all going for the same reasons. None of these are simple people, unaware of the complexity of any joint event.

Living Water Church’s motto is Relationship’s are Everything. The relationships that I have embedded with in the Pastoral community, provides good impetus to attend this event for me, to link arms in solidarity with those who we have linked arms with elsewhere, and listen to one large segment of Christian Pastors in the black community who have invited Christians of all kinds to join with them in an act of peaceful solidarity.

The stated purpose of the event is “The African American Council of Churches Madison, WI has organized a march for the faith communities to gather and march in solidarity of faith and justice in memory of George Floyd. It starts at 5:30 at University and Park on Sunday, June 7.”

Pentecost Hangs in the Background

It is hard to get away from the meaning of Pentecost during all of these events. How can we be agents of healing and grace? How can we love and support other races and remove the hostility that still takes place? Celebrating Pentecost, and helping to do away with the division of the nations that we saw at Babel, is part of our Christian walk. To be sure, we can do this different ways. But, I envision that this is one way of helping to love the peoples of the world in a difficult time.

Talking to Strangers

A learning experience is typically better when it is one’s own, rather than just heard through someone else. The book “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, is a book that really challenges all humans to get to know the “other” (whoever that might be) despite how hard this actually is in practice. Many husbands and wives can relate to this. If they have been married a while, they likely know each other better than anyone else does. However, if they had different cultural or familial models growing up, the understanding process can be long and arduous (and sometimes joyful too!). In other words, if it is hard for two people living in the same household for years to really ‘get’ one another, how much more so across the human race. This ushers us to take time to think like others think, place ourselves in their shoes, and try to understand the world from their eyes and experience. For sure, this event offers a little peak and a shared learning experience that can afford wider opportunities of mutual love and support for the present and the future.

Online is a key avenue for sharing these days. The world jumped on Facebook, and now we have millions of cultural commentators who ‘really understand’ everything. Of course I mean this with a bit of humor. The mish-mash of perspectives is amazing, but also daunting. Watching Facebook over the years I have noticed that people can isolate themselves from the “other” or the “others ideas” quite easily. Still, they all can choose to engage with and learn the “other” too. Often, the isolation is quite easy. We find our friends. We enjoy their posts, and eventually we filter out those we think are “off base.” To be sure, there is much genuine reflection as well, and social media offers people the opportunity to use this sharing experience to know what it is like to be another mind/person from another culture or way of thinking.

Whether on social media platforms or in my actions in the physical world, I hope to facilitate more of this positive genuine reflection for myself and others. Jesus Christ came down and lived among our pain and suffering and our sin and triumphs. His presence in our environment was perfect purity (Jesus) compared to imperfection/sin (us). If our savior can go into interesting environments for the sake of identifying with others, so can we. Moreover, his actions often afforded opportunity for teaching his disciples later on. Any shepherd looks for these opportunities.

Making an Ethical Decision; specifically in the case of this Sunday’s Solidarity March

Three Major Ethical Systems

Consequentialist – This system looks to the consequences of a given action to determine if the action is good or bad. Basically, if the outcome brings benefit, it could be good. If it does not, it could be bad. There are different ways of looking at outcomes, such as immediate, or long term etc. This particular viewpoint is something that all Christians can use in every day decisions. We of course do not want to pay zero attention to consequences. However, the system as a whole has been considered unchristian (without some other system for its foundation). This is largely because Christians have advocated for a view of the right, that looks to the actual action itself. If someone did an action, and the consequences were good, that would not make the action good in itself. Moreover, if someone did an action where the consequences were negative, that alone would not make the action bad.

In reflection on this system, one could make a good argument for or against going to the solidarity event. Each could rack up consequences on either side of “go” or “don’t go.

Rules Based Ethics (Deontology) – This ethical system admits to a number of rules that are good for everyone to obey and live by as well as certain things to avoid because of rules. This is of course (for Christians) things like the Ten Commandments or Love God, and Love Neighbor. Certainly, there is some significant ground to use this system of ethics as a Christian (ex. The just mentioned rules in Scripture). And, although I do not think this system is complete without the next system, it is a very good one, and one I will come back to later to add a level of complexity to it in relation to why it would or at least could be good to “go” to this event.

In reflection on this system, it is hard to see why one “should not go.” By that, I mean that if one goes, it is hard to see them violating any of the rules that God has provided for his community (so long as their intention is good). If one is going with hatred in their heart’s, and wants to ‘get’ whoever should be held responsible for the death of George Floyd, then certainly they personally would be breaking one of the rules (Forgive one another). However, if their intentions are well, then they are not breaking any of the rules, and are expressly following at least one of them, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, the Christian who is using this rules based ethical system, as given in Scripture, can feel (as long as their heart is in the right place) that they are not violating any commands of God, and in fact are following one of the most important ones.

Virtue Theory (Character Ethics) – This last system does not always ask “Is this right or wrong” but rather, “What would a good person (as in a person who has well formed character) do” in a given situation. The Beatitudes are one example of this in Matthew 5, as well as Galatians 5:22-23 in reference to the fruit of the Spirit. These are well formed character attributes, that come about by practicing certain habits again and again until you are fully formed in them. For Christians, the greatest virtues are “Faith, Hope, and Love.” To be fully formed in making loving decisions, or wise decisions, or prudent decisions, or courageous decisions, are examples of being a good character. Sometimes under this heading, one can begin to find examples of what other ‘saints’ have done in the past, and since they were formed in love, we can use their example today.

My reflection on this one is that without this theory under-girding the rules based theory, rules alone do not answer all of our ethical questions. There are such vast numbers of situations that we come across on a daily basis that God has not specifically outlined a rule for against. Moreover, God wants us to be mature human creatures who develop ourselves through repeated decision making for good things. This is so in order that we can properly understand the very habits that are fully formed in heaven. For sure, in this case (the solidarity march) could either go or not go to the solidarity march, and still be a good example of Christian Character. However, it would be hard to find a good reason against going. By that I mean, it would be hard to fault someone for going given this character ethics perspective. All one has to do is intend to love their brothers who invited them, and they are in the right and are in good position to keep enhancing their character.

Christians have rules based as well as virtue based ethics to inform how they go about making decisions, including the solidarity march. But, there is still more to these ethical systems, and one in particular needs a bit of attention.

Graded Abolutism (Hierarchical Rules)– Christians believe in absolutes. Love your neighbor is a universal good. Murder (unjust killing) is a universal bad. However, throughout Christian history, Christians have noticed that sometimes our ‘absolutes’ come in conflict with each other, and then we are left wondering which one to follow in a given situation.

Some really clear examples of this have been the case of the babies during the Mosaic period. Pharaoh wanted the midwives to kill the Hebrew children, (which is wrong). They knew killing babies was wrong, so they lied (which is wrong) to Pharaoh about not getting there in time ‘because Hebrew women birth differently than Egyptian women.’ God blessed these Egyptian women, not because of their lie, but because of their protection of life. In this case, we see a hierarchy start to emerge. If there is a conflict between life and truth, one has the moral ‘right of way’ to make sure life comes first.

The point of all this is that, when two absolutes come in conflict, God has created a ‘right of way’ for one to be followed. Just like when we get to a four way stop, our society has a system in place that the one to the right, has the right of way. God’s own system is similar to the declaration of Independence. The declaration offers a graded approach to the American system of rights, the rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The only way to protect the pursuit of happiness is to enshrine and guarantee liberty. Without liberty there can be no free pursuit of happiness. However, how do we protect liberty? By protecting life. Without life, there can be no liberty. Therefore, when any of these come in conflict, we go up the chain to the higher right which enshrines other rights.

In the ‘going to any event’ there is likely some level of imperfection. Even now I am thinking about the clubs I have participated in, the stores I have gone to, the brands I have worn. Imperfection in the aims or imperfection in the forms or both, is likely to take place in the complex world that we live in, even at joint events that have good purposes. In other words, there is likely to be some conflict of moral principles. Therefore, if one is unsure of something, they can simply look at a hierarchy of goods, such as justice, mercy, life, and love and see if they can work the conflict out between moral aims and goals.

My own “going” is out of compassion and the felt need for mercy. If one is trying to do an act of mercy in identifying with the black experience, and showing solidarity for humanity, then they are showing an act a mercy, something very high up on the hierarchy of absolutes.

So to go or not to go? Shoot for the highest good, which may vary slightly for each individual and their variety of circumstances.

Disentangling Political Either/Or’s

Christians believe that God’s truth transcends political party and transcends news media portrayals of events. Thus, there is a false dilemma being offered to “pick sides.” One can support the vast majority of police (as I have done by volunteering at the Night of Heroes in Sun Prairie) while at the same time supporting our black brothers and sisters who feel like they have no voice or power at this time. We can collectively push society and ourselves to come up with solutions to problems existent in our society. This is not the time to “pick sides” or choose narratives. Resist that urge with all you have. This is the time to reach into our hearts, love our friends and family, and show solidarity for those who feel left behind and seek better ways for society to live together and work for the common good.

Love for the alienated

The story of the Good Samaritan challenges us to put our time aside and take care of someone who is need. Our African American brothers and sisters need all people to reach out to help and support during this time. The Bible, constantly talks about love for the stranger, the downtrodden, and more. So many of my black friends are grieving right now. They feel like strangers. They feel left behind. I think we can help lead to make sure we do our part to let our black brothers and sisters know that the rest of humanity looks out for their needs.

Perhaps anyone reading this has another way of doing this. There are many way. So, please do them.

To Avoid Missing an Important Moral Moment

I hope our congregation can begin to have this conversation. Even if you do not go to the march, you have the opportunity of thinking through these subjects. It is a challenge to dialogue on race and community and the equal treatment for all people. Let’s begin the conversation like the original Apostles gathered at the Jerusalem Council, to figure out the best way of addressing the present needs of their community.

To avoid missing taking part in the issues that our world cares about has historical import. Evangelicals (See the book An Evangelical Heritage) in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, wrote about how they were more concerned about small moral issues, like which movies to watch and the right clothing to wear for modesty, while the world talked about much bigger and more critical issues. I don’t want to miss taking part in this conversation, and I hope to lead other Christians into engaging in it. For sure, this will be done imperfectly, but it is better to do imperfectly, than never to do. Let’s remember the earlier Evangelicals, such John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and Charles Finney who were on the cusp of issues like this in their time. some of the leaders in areas of social justice in many areas provide an example for us to lead and not sit on the sidelines. I think we need this earlier history to reflect on.

Does presence communicate universal agreement?

Throughout my nearly 7 years of Pastoring in two different churches, I have witnessed that some have a worry that one’s presence communicates complete support for everything that goes on at an event. However, I have come to believe that these worries are often unfounded.

I remember years ago, I did not go to a party for a friend because it might have made some congregants mad/annoyed. The reason it would have, is because they saw a particular view of this congregant being affirmed by my presence. I decided to listen at the time. The problem was, in listening I did not show love in this great moment of this person’s life. Instead, I heard all of the wonderful stories of goodness, and beauty that everyone who went experienced. Since then, I have found the ‘auto-support’ idea, that one’s presence communicates support for all thoughts/views etc. to be incorrect.

For sure, my views on virtue ethics has grown quite a bit, and now I realize that a good character can find themselves in so many places loving people or working for justice, without having to be entailed in whatever narrative society might spin about it. A good example of this is Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4. This was a Samaritan woman, which the Jews looked down upon. The apostles went away from Jesus and left him at the well. He reached out to this Samaritan woman when she came by. When the Apostles came back this is what we read. In John 4:27 it says, - Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” -

Jesus did not let the views of the apostles dictate the good he was doing.

One’s presence in an environment does not auto-entail that one’s views are the same as everyone around you. This is an important lesson for all of us in life. The best way of figuring out someone’s view, is not to make them guilty by association for whatever event they are at, but rather, ask them what their intentions are in going to an event, or ask them how this informs them, or ask them how this can make their Christian character develop in positive ways or ask them who they are supporting in the process, or what grander issue that they are trying to draw attention to. If we see the ‘going to events’ in less concerned ways, in perhaps more character and intention oriented ways, we will not get hung up on does one communicate support.

Now, I am about to give a few examples that prove this. However, let me say, that if someone’s conscience does in fact think they are supporting something they would disagree with, then I would of course advocate for them to follow their conscience. I am speaking about the larger question here, about if one’s presence actually does entail auto-support.

I will give some examples

Example 1 – Atheist Club Meeting - About 2 years ago I was at the Atheist club meeting at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I was sitting through the opening comments of the meeting and talking with a few persons prior. No one but the leader knew why I was there, so from the conversations, the atheists and skeptics I was sitting next to, assumed that I was of the same viewpoints as them, or so it seemed from the conversation. Then, I was welcomed forward to speak. At this point, I invited the whole group to come to the Debate we were holding at Living Water Church. My reasons for being present were not known by my presence until I personally spoke.

Example 2 - Socialist Meeting– Just after I left the atheist meeting, a middle aged Asian man comes to me and asks me how to get to a particular room. He was from out of state and came to do some scholarly work. He was going to attend an organizing meeting regarding the Brett Kavanaugh events. I began helping this perfect stranger navigate his way to a room I did not really know the location of. We found it, and I found out that the meeting was a young socialist meeting, heavily opposing the then not appointed Brett Kavanaugh. I decided to go in and be present in the meeting. I listened. I left. Asking at this point. Why was I there? And why was this Asian man going?

Example 3 - Pro-life instance – When I tell people I am pro-life, I often get asked, “Why do you hold such wicked signs up?” This of course is a reference to some of the serious and grim pictures of aborted babies that some groups hold up near Planned Parenthood facilities to deter people from going inside. I proceed to tell these persons that there are several different Pro-life groups in the state, and my own interaction has been at the intellectual level, teaching debate, and examining items from the moral lens. This helps people ‘not worry’ about me being pro-life, at least not so much. However, to take this another step, I have had much difficulty supporting some of these ‘all or nothing’ groups in the pro-life world. They castigate those who are not as strict as they in approach. However, when a bill comes up that both can agree on, or a time period where both want to draw attention to an injustice that the rest of the world is now aware of, they work together for a period of time and get bills passed.

Lots of questions could be asked at this point, but the main idea in the first two instances is that presence does not communicate absolute agreement. I believe with the atheist groups, that thinking is good, and all people need to do more of it. I will easily join with them in this respect, and sometimes I wish more Christians cared more about learning like these atheists do. But, as you all already know, I am not atheist. There are better reasons to think God exists, than to think he does not.

In the second instance, I went to a socialist gathering. There is little I could say I agreed with them on, except perhaps that it is good to organize around the things you believe in, even if quite skewed. Still, my presence did not auto-entail universal agreement on all items. My intention was simply observational. I sure hope people would not have thought, “He is socialist” just by my going. In fact, I quite disagree with socialism. Moreover, what about the Asian man I asked about earlier? Why was he going? Before he stated his purpose to me, he seemed energetic about this meeting. You could easily tell he really wanted, even needed to find this meeting. He eventually told me that he wanted to see how young people were thinking about Brett Kavanaugh. This man, who literally flew in from another country that day, wanted to get right to understanding how people were thinking about popular events. One could hardly know this unless they asked him. He also was not a supporter of socialism.

But, then we get to the third example. The Pro-life example is fitting in a number of ways. There is much territory in the Pro-life movement. One can be Pro-life, without having to boxed in by one particular group or another. The same could be said regarding the “Black Lives Matter” organization. There is plenty of reason and space to affirm ‘black lives matter’ as a truth (namely as a statement, rather than an organization), without having to be boxed in by a particular group that may affirm the the same principle, but use different tactics in achieving their goals.

A quick close: If I have correctly represented Christian Ethics above (albeit not exhaustively), then one can feel fine about going (from an ultimate standpoint before God). All that being said, one does not have to feel obligated to go.

Why go if one can? Simply because it is an opportunity to be like Jesus.

If you are interested in some books that offer good perspectives on Christian Morality in general and how to go about making decisions, then I would recommend reading the following.

Christian Ethics by Norman Geisler

After We Believe, Why Christian Character Matters, by N.T. Wright

The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hayes

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