Situation Ethics

   They finished eating, cleaned up after themselves, made coffee and tea, and retired to the porch steps.

   “I’m so full, I could fall asleep right here, right now,” said Greg. “I suppose that means that you have some really serious, really complicated thing you want to discuss.”

   “You know me so well.”

   “So, what is on your lovely, but overactive, mind today?”

   “Rules and regulations.”

   That stopped him for a moment. “Rules and regulations? Have I overstepped somewhere along the way, and you’re just telling me, now?”

   “Not us, silly. I’m talking about churches, and religions. Remember when we were talking a couple weeks ago, and you said you didn’t like all the rules and regulations in the churches you’d been to? I want to know more about that.”

   Greg groaned. “Last week, I was a college professor. Today, you want me to be a pastor.”

   “Not really. I kind of want you to be an anti-pastor, and tell me what’s wrong with church rules, not what’s right.”

   “Antipastor. Isn’t that some kind of Italian smorgasbord? After the meal I fed you, how can you still be thinking about eating?”

   “You’re really trying not to be serious, aren’t you?”

   “No, I’m just stalling; trying to get my thoughts in order. Let me see. I’ll start with individual rules that churches have, like coffee for the Mormons. I really don’t know why Mormons aren’t supposed to drink coffee or other beverages with caffeine. It’s certainly not a Bible rule, and I doubt it’s from the Book of Mormon (although I’ve never read that). I suppose it has to do with taking things into your body that aren’t good for you. If that’s it, I have two problems. One, medical people and such are still arguing over the pros and cons of caffeine. Sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good. Beyond that, we take many, many, many things into our body that aren’t good for us, either in general or in the amounts we consume. Why aren’t there prohibitions on all those other things. It just seems a silly, pointless rule.

   “We’ve talked about dancing. I forget which denominations are against it, but the point seems to be that dancing leads to lustful thoughts. It may, but probably not too many that weren’t already there. Besides, much of the dancing I’ve seen has the couples nowhere near each other, doing their own moves. And again, dancing certainly isn’t the only thing people do that could lead to lustful thoughts. Why aren’t they taboo, also?”

   She interrupted his narrative. “If you danced with me, would you have lustful thoughts that were already there?”

   “It seems likely. I suspect other lustful thoughts might develop while we were dancing, if we were dancing close to one another.”

    “Oh, that’s… That’s interesting.”

    “Yes, it is. Now, before you lure me into a different conversation, do you want me to keep talking about religious rules?”

   “I’m not sure. Let me think a minute.” She paused. “Okay, although the different conversation seems to have interesting paths to follow, I think – this time – I’d like to stay with the original theme. But I’m not forgetting about the different conversation, by any means.”

   “Okay, moving forward then, I think these kinds of church rules are silly and ineffectual, but I also think they create hypocrites. You sign a pledge that says you won’t drink coffee, or you won’t dance. Still, you think, this has nothing to do with God. He’s not going to care if I drink a little coffee in the morning, or take my wife dancing. So, you break your pledge to your church.

   “I think there are a lot of these kinds of rules, but what I was really thinking about last week was the whole idea of specific rules we have to live by. I don’t know about other religions, but I think the whole idea is kind of un-Christian.”


   “I think so. As I understand the Bible – and remember, I am far from a Bible scholar - God went through an experimental phase – with gardens and snakes and arks and floods. After all that, things settled down, and he pretty much told the people to live their lives on their own terms, that he wouldn’t give them a lot of rules and regulations. They didn’t take to that freedom very well; they sought out idols to worship, and looked for concrete rules for how they should live. God gave them what they wanted – check out Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if you have any doubts  – direction all the way down to how men had to clip their beards. A lot of the rules seem nutty; some people tried to keep them, but it was pretty much impossible to live that way. God finally said: ‘Okay, we’ve had our little time with the Law. You utterly failed to keep the letter of it. Worse than that, you entirely missed the spirit of it. So, let’s try it again, this time without specific mandates.’ And that new way was shown by what Jesus did, and what he said.”

   “Is that true?” Vic asked.

   “I don’t know. Nobody really knows what the Bible is all about. Don’t you think my explanation kind of brings it all together, anyway?”

   “It sounds okay but, remember, I am far from a Bible scholar. So, what about this difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law?”

   “Okay – and again invoking my non-scholar status – Jesus seemed to be saying that following hard and fast rules was a good way to keep from seriously thinking about things, a way to avoid any real responsibilities in life. You could say ‘I haven’t killed anyone,’ so I’ve obeyed the law.’ Or, ‘I gave my 10 percent tithe; that takes care of that obligation.’ Or ‘The guy asked me for my coat, and I gave it to him. I’m doing great.’ Such things – barely – met the letter of the law, and a religious person could feel smug about that. But then Jesus comes along, and asks embarrassing questions, like: ‘You didn’t kill anybody, but did you hate somebody enough to kill them?’ The letter of the law says do this, and you’re good. The spirit asks, what is the real issue here? What would be the right thing to do? One way is doing a religious duty, the other is caring about the outcome of what you do.”

   Greg stopped. “It seems I have been – as is my wont – lecturing and pontificating, in a way that may or may not be what you want to talk about. Am I doing okay?”

   “Sure. I haven’t fallen asleep yet, but if you hear any soft, lady-like snores… I’m kidding! Keep going.”

   “Well, there is one other thing I wanted to cover. In recent years, some religious leaders have been talking about what they call ‘situation ethics.’ It’s been labeled the ‘new morality’ – by both supporters and opponents, obviously for different reasons. It isn’t new at all. It’s pretty much what Jesus was trying to convey. We’re not supposed to live by rules and regulations, by ‘dos’ and ‘donts.’ We’re supposed to treat every decision with love. Since almost every situation is a little different than any average, we have to think about what is the most loving thing to do at that moment. For instance, sometimes giving a homeless person a coat might be all he really needed. On the other hand, he might need shoes or socks. He might need food. A rule that just says give that man your coat doesn’t really do the job.”

   “Give me another example.”

   Greg thought. “Okay, giving 10 percent of your income for religious purposes is nice enough, and if not actually law, it’s certainly an expectation.  But what if there is a major need, and you could easily afford  20 percent, one time? Do you just stick to the ‘law,’ and say I fulfilled my obligation at 10 percent? Or, in the other direction, what if giving 10 percent meant that you wouldn’t be able to buy food for your kids the rest of the week. What’s the most loving way to handle the situation?”

   “Yeah, I can see that there might be a number of things you could – and should  - do, rather than saying your obligation was taken care of by following the letter of the law. Do you have a bigger example of what you’re talking about?”

   “Bigger? Let’s see. How about divorce? Some religions say that people can’t divorce for any reason. If they do, they lose their ability to participate in religious rites, they may not be able to be buried in so-called ‘sacred ground,’ and they may even (or, so says the church) miss their chance to go to Heaven. We know that no church can really deprive you of a place in Heaven – if there really is such a place – but many people believe it just enough that they let the church intimidate them into staying in marriages that they probably should get out of. It’s a nice thought that every couple who gets married will live happily ever after. In truth, people grow apart for all kinds of reasons. Some marriages can be saved through counselling and hard work, but what if one of the pair is an abuser, either physically or emotionally? What if the children are threatened, either actually, or traumatized by the continued strife of the parents? What if one of the couple is having romantic affairs outside of marriage, and won’t change? What if one is hopelessly addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, and it’s ruining them economically as well as emotionally? There might be a number of loving paths to take, but divorce has to be one possibility.

   “There, I think I’m done, and I don’t hear any soft sleeping sounds.”

   “You did very well, Mr. Antipastor. I like ‘situation ethics’ much better than rules and regulations. It’s the difference between being a robot someone else is controlling, and actually using your brain – and your heart – to help people.”

   “Aha, I have made my point. My job here is done.”

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