Does anyone really know what is right? Maybe the question should be how do we know what is right? Considering what is right in any situation baffles the brightest minds especially when the situation is real life instead of hypothetical. In reading the news headlines on the PRTC website (PRTC is our local telephone and cable company) I saw an article about an Episcopal priest’s church trial. The charges stem from inaction on the part of the minister, Charles Bennison, regarding his brother’s relationship with an underage girl. The article states…
“(He) didn’t put a stop to it … and didn’t alert the church,” church lawyer Larry White said in his opening statement Monday. He said the sexual relationship started when the girl was 14 and continued for five years.
“(She) wanted to be rescued from abuse she was powerless to stop,” White said.
The church indictment, called a presentment, charges that Bennison reacted “passively and self-protectively” and “failed to take obvious, essential steps to investigate his brother’s actions, protect the girl from further abuse, and find out whether other children were in danger.”
Most of us looking in hindsight can see the right behavior proclaiming that we would have opted to pursue that right way. Most of the time we can also look ahead forecasting how we might react in certain situations. Yet when faced with a difficult situation like the one above we cannot relegate the decision of right and wrong down to mere guessing game.
Morality should not be left to the relative nature of a situation. Situational ethics teaches more or less that all decisions about right or wrong are made based on the situation at hand. Therefore no one can make an ethical decision apart from the situation. Though this seems to be appealing, one must only prove that there is one behavior that is always wrong. The situation facing the priest may be one such behavior.
The priest above had a real choice to make. The article states that he “apologized to the diocese for ‘lack of action on my part.’ He told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he did not report the matter to civil or church authorities because the girl’s parents had not chosen to do so.” In a situation where the parents of the party did not pursue action, perhaps it is right for the priest not to usurp their authority. YET, could anyone honestly say that there would ever be a time when this type of abuse would be acceptable and righteous? I tend to think that a majority of people would say that sexual abuse of a minor could never be considered righteous. Therefore, the premise of situational ethics must not be true. All moral decisions are not based on the situation at hand.
The case that is made proves only that there are some moral absolutes. The next question must be where do we find other such moral absolutes if they are available. I think perhaps a quote from a wise author named James would be appropriate. James says “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17) Though this sounds somewhat like a situation ethics statement, one must be careful to weigh exactly what this statement is relating.
- First, this does not base morality in situations, but rather in people. There is within each of us a natural revelation of God spoken into us at Creation. Though Fallen as we are, this natural revelation is broken but still present within us.
- Secondly, this relates that people can know definitively what is right and wrong. James saw the source for all of that which is right and wrong in the Old Testament Scriptures he knew. Believers can see this in both Testaments of the Bible. BUT James is stating that any man apart from any specific revelation can discern and know right and wrong. The beauty of James’ statement comes for a person who knows that though he does not see something as wrong for all people, it is wrong for him. For instance, if I drank a beer in front of an alcoholic friend, I believe it would be a sin because I tempt him to fall back into his previous lifestyle. On the other hand for me to have a drink in the midst of others who are not alchoholics would not be a sin (personally though I believe it would be a sin for me as a minister to have a drink in the presence of any man because of the way it could make them stumble).
- Thirdly, this makes it clear that if one fails to do the right thing, even in situations where the right thing seems to be more difficult or less advantageous it is sinful and wrong.
People struggle with this type of ethics in part because it forces the admitance of sinfulness. In situational ethics, no one has to be sinful and wrong because behavior can be explained away by the situation at hand. At the same time though no one should be considered righteous because their goodness can also be explained away by the situation. Therefore the actions of Hitler or Stalin are no different than the actions of one like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham because they all faced different situations and made their decision to meet the demands of their situation. To me this seem ludicrous (See I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek).
Moral absolutes provide both for sinfulness, and for righteousness. So perhaps in a world of moral absolutes one should think not of doing right or wrong; but of doing what is righteous or what is sinful. Is that really all that bad? More importantly is that really all that inaccurate? We can all come to the conclusion that there are villains in this world despite their seeming positive aspects. We should also consider that there are real righteous people despite their imperfections. The minister in the article mentioned above, though probably having delivered many fine sermons and met the needs of many sick and needy people in the end appears as a villain because he choose to violate what he knew to be right. For all of us, the reality of moral absolutes means that we can do what is truely righteouss as we decide to do what is right!