What about right and wrong? 

Chapter five of
Dear Kim, this is what I believe . . .                           by Bill Loader
Dear Kim,

Sex before marriage, abortion, masturbation, prostitution, gambling, alcohol, smoking, playing sport on Sundays, homosexuality, mercy killing, profiteering, embryo experimentation, drugs.... there are many areas where we need to know what is right and wrong.

The Church has often been a place where people have expected answers. And often, especially in the past, some in the Church have given answers even when people weren’t asking questions. Worse still, they have been often quick to condemn people. Nobody appreciates ‘holier than thou’ people or those who seem to have to have all the answers. Jesus had his fair share of conflict with religious people of this kind. As we have seen, for him people mattered most and rules or guidelines were there to help people; people were not made to be fitted into someone else’s rules and regulations - not even God’s. God is much more generous than that!

But all the same we do face decisions and the Church carries with it nearly 3000 years of wisdom on a wide range of issues. It’s worth listening to what people found to be right in the past. But, for many people, that is only half the story; there is not only wisdom; there are absolute commandments given by God which must be obeyed. They are not to be questioned; they are only to be obeyed.

I have some problems with this, especially if it means that I am doing things in a kind of blind obedience. I may choose quite freely to obey a commandment given me in this way, but I would much prefer to choose to do it also because it seems right and good. Do I do it because I’m told to or do I do it because I believe it is right and good? I much prefer the latter; it is also how I see good parenting. There’s a lot of difference between telling someone to do something ‘because I say so!’ and getting them to do it because it is right and good for them and for others. The second way shows far more respect for the person.

Love before laws, people before rules

Ultimately, it is respect for people, caring about others and oneself, in short, love, which lies at the heart of Jesus’ picture of God. Everything, even creation itself, stems from God’s goodness. I don’t mind saying that there is one demand I do feel and that is God’s demand of love. But, even so, to speak of love in this way, as God’s demand, still makes it feel too narrow. It robs it of its life. Love is much more than a demand. It is wanting what is good. It is caring about others and the world.

So when I think about right and wrong, I don’t start with a set of rules, not even a set of commandments, but with this central theme of love. But, as soon as I start looking at specific situations, I grasp for every bit of assistance I can get. Not that I don’t trust my own ability to make a decision. But I know myself well enough to know that I can usually only see things in a limited way. I’m not God. Others will see things I don’t see. This is one of the reasons why the more we can make decisions about right and wrong in discussion with others, the better. Also, if I am deciding on something where I am emotionally involved, there’s an even greater chance that I may skew my own reasoning and neglect important things. This is also where the wisdom and the rules of previous generations become very helpful. But they need to be weighed up carefully.

Take a matter like divorce. There’s little doubt that Jesus took a very strict line on divorce and forbad it. He may have felt this was really important in his social situation because divorce was being used against women and driving many of them to poverty. Perhaps he saw no other way.

It would be quite logical to apply the same law today and say that at least people wanting to be followers of Jesus should not divorce. How can you change a law laid down by Jesus? Yet many Christians and many Churches today have come to accept divorce as the more loving and creative solution to some marriage situations. Are they turning their back on Jesus? It depends how you see it. At one level they are; but at another level they are putting Jesus’ message of love at the centre and acting on that basis. In many situations to abide by Jesus’ divorce instruction would be to contradict the thrust of his central message. In such situations we follow Jesus more truly by being loving than we would by staying with rules.

What about sex?

What about sex before marriage and sex among people not or no longer married? The history of human thinking about sex is very complex. Most ancient religions have special rules about sex. Partly these are to prevent unwanted pregancies and to keep society stable by having children born into families where they can be cared for. Partly they are about protecting male property rights over women against other males. Partly they have to do with ancient taboos relating to sex and the sacred. Sex brings people into close connection with major life and death issues. Menstruation, childbirth, male ejaculation, marriage were all seen to be connected in some way with holy things and there were usually special rituals associated with each. There were many taboos connected with sex; probably Paul’s concern about women’s head covering in Church goes back to an established taboo. In some ancient religions, at the same time, sexual intercourse, itself, was used as a sacred rite, a way to be in contact with the gods.

The Bible and sex

The people of Israel, whose attitudes are preserved in the Old Testament and strongly reflected in the New Testament, shared many of these understandings. In their earlier traditions they show that it was not uncommon for men to have more than one wife (not vice versa!) and to sleep with their slave women. Later we find having one wife was becoming the norm. On the negative side, they came to draw the line strictly at prostitution and at the use of sex as a religious rite. They were strict in forbidding sexual intercourse before and outside of marriage. And they also rejected all forms of homosexual practice, sex with animals, incest and male and female rape.

By the time of Jesus and the New Testament the norm and rule was that sex belonged in marriage. In the world of New Testament times there was even a tendency among popular moral teachers, both Jewish and non Jewish, to play down sexual pleasure as an unworthy concern and to argue that sex should be engaged in primarily for the purpose of bringing children into the world. This was the noble way to live. In this respect it is, therefore, interesting that Paul did not conform to this trend. Although not married and also sharing some of this reluctance about sexuality, Paul is happy to support those who, as he puts it, were ‘burning’ with sexual passion. He says that for them to go ahead and find fulfilment in marriage is a good thing. He affirms that marriage partners need to respond to each other's sexual needs. His view was obviously not as narrow as many of the moral teachers of his time, even though it still remains bound by common values and assumptions.

On most questions of sexual morality the Bible is quite unambiguous. For some, especially fundamentalists, that settles the issue once and for all. People are still the same; the rules are still the same. But, quite apart from not wanting to treat the Bible in this way, I also believe that there have been some changes which mean we must look at many of these issues in a new way.

Has anything changed?

One major change is that human beings have discovered far more effective means of contraception. There need be no fear of unwanted pregnancies where contraceptives are available and effective. If such contraceptive capacity had been available in these ancient cultures, would their rules about sex before marriage have been different? I suspect they would have been. We are in a different situation and I no longer consider it appropriate to carry over into our own time without question such rules developed for a largely non-contraceptive society. We are the first generations living in a contraceptive society and I think we must make our own discoveries about boundary setting and do so, as far as possible, without the guilt and fear which has so often accompanied sex in our western society. Our understanding of sacredness has also changed and the notion of male rights over women in matters of sexuality have rightly been challenged.

We now have another major aspect to our caring in the area of sexuality. The arrival of AIDS has curbed the sexual euphoria of the seventies and early eighties. People have rightly become more cautious again. A healthy fear has its place here, but so does care and compassion. Both in our own personal interests and in the interests of the community as a whole we need to prevent the spread of AIDS and to show compassion to those who have contracted it, however that may have happened.

Are there any guidelines?

But apart from the obvious concern about protecting ourselves from the AIDS virus and the behaviour which should flow from that, are we otherwise now all at sea without any directions to help us in relation to sexual behaviour? I don’t think so. It was, after all, not only fear of pregnancy that concerned the ancient world and determined the biblical teachings. There were some factors which remain just as relevant today. One was the concern for stability of society. Marriage and the family were seen as an important context for bringing up children and for protecting women, especially, against sexual exploitation. Then there was the feeling that sexuality was a sacred area where taboos were especially appropriate. Sex connected them with very deep parts of their own being and the being of the universe.

If biblical laws were based largely on fear of unwanted pregnancy, we could suggest that in the age of safe contraception all we really need is for people to make contracts to give stable parenting to children during their formative stages; we wouldn’t need anything like marriage. But if we didn’t have marriage, my hunch is that it would soon be invented. People would find some way of making public that they wanted to be a permanent couple and of asking others to recognise and respect the fact and not to interfere. The challenge of making it permanent, secure and fulfilling would be a matter for the people concerned and the ground rules would probably end up looking much like the traditional values we associate with marriage. The best marriages, to my mind, are the ones which operate something like this and are not the ones which give highest priority to claiming obligations based on formal rites. I suspect we are moving more and more away from understanding marriage as conferring rights and on to seeing it much more as a voluntary partnership of respect of equals.

Sex is powerful and connects us with life and vitality. It links us with creativity and God, not just when it leads to the creation of new human beings. It is a way of being intimate and close to another human being and out of that shared love many other things are born and created, too. Love and life reproduces love and life. The joy of sex is very close to the joy of being one with God. But what does that mean about the decisons we make about sex in an age of safe contraception?

People often say today that the most important sexual organ is the brain. In redefining our sexual practices there is one overruling guideline: care and respect for persons. Anything which depersonalises others, exploits them or treats them as things runs contrary to such loving. Whatever decisions we make, we need to make them in a context of openness and honesty and concern both for our own good and the good of others. If fear is in our thoughts we need to ask why; perhaps it is groundless and based on an irrelevant disapproval we feared once and should long since have given up; perhaps it is well-founded; we can learn from our intuitive fears. The best decisions are often those made in consultation with others who can help us keep our feet on the ground.

I have very great respect for what many in the present generation have to grapple with in the area of sexuality. In many ways I believe we could be moving to a much healthier attitude to this area of our lives. I respect that some will want to remain on the conservative side of decision making. I have the same respect for others who in care and openness explore new boundaries. Sex belongs within the context of human intimacy and caring. It is part of enjoying the way God made us. Like any other gift we can use it for good or ill, for wholeness or destruction in others and ourselves. Jesus’ own teaching shifts our focus from concern with acts to concern with attitudes, which is more radical. He shifted the focus from murder and adultery to the attitudes which led to such actions. This is more radical. Whereas in the ancient world adultery automatically destroyed a marriage and any reconciliation was considered impossible and often illegal, today we recognise that many things can destroy a marriage relationship, whether actual adultery is entailed or not and, conversely, that marriages can survive adultery and relationships can be renewed and developed in ways that were once thought to be out of the question.

Re-inventing the wheel?

It is naive to impose on people the expectation that they reinvent the wheel, let alone keep it well balanced, without drawing on the wisdom of experience and reflection. This is especially so for those facing the ups and downs of puberty. Here guidance is appropriate, as are guidelines, boundaries, even legal statutes (for instance, on marriageable age). The key thing, however, is having a relationship with someone more experienced in life, whom we can trust and with whom we can share the ups and downs and weigh the decisions. Parents can sometimes fulfil that role, but sometimes it has to be someone else. Adolescence can be turbulent as well as exciting, but it is a wonderful gift to be experienced and an important stretch of the jjourney through which to make our way. Unfortunately, in the area of sexuality, some people remain adolescents for decades, perhaps under the misconception that they will never be able to marry growing up with sexual fulfilment. The contrary is true: adult sexual fulfilment can only really blossom if we allow ourselves to continue to grow and let our sexuality take its full place within our living and our loving.

Sexual Exploitation

The last two decades have also brought a greater awareness of sexual exploitation, especially of women by men, both outside of and within marriage, not to speak of child abuse and incest. Much of this is the product of people not making the journey to where sexuality assumes its natural role. Sexuality cut off re-emerges as a force of its own and with a mind of its own. Some of it reflects traditional patterns of behaviour. We are still emerging from age old prejudices which have subordinated and often subjugated women to the whims of men. There have been codes of silence which have hidden abusive behaviours. Male aggression in sexuality, whether overt or covert, is still rarely questioned in our society and lies at the base of many forms of sexual abuse. Exploitation belongs also to a much wider system which is reflected in many women holding down two jobs, one in the community and one at home, and in much more subtle attitudes, enshrined in our very language, which discounts women and women’s contributions.

Christianity’s adaptation, already by the later New Testament writings, of the prevailing patterns of household management in declaring the man the head of the house has contributed strongly to such attitudes. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained. They colour our language about God, our styles of decision making, our structures for decision making in the Church and the community. It has been liberating in recent years to recover Christianity’s earlier radical traditions which set women and men equally side by side. The benefits of such developments are as much for men as they are for women, both generally and at the level of their sexuality.

Homosexuality and homosexual practice

One of the more turbulent areas in modern thought about sexuality is homosexuality and homosexual practice. The biblical writings reflect strong abhorrence of homosexual practice. In the world of Jesus’ day homosexual love between men and young boys was a common feature of non-Jewish society; but the other forms of inter-male sexual activity were also well known and roundly condemned. One of the terms for anal intercourse, sodomy, derives from the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, although originally it is a story about male rape, not about non violent male sexual relations. Apart from the fact that the traditional laws of Israel had condemned homosexual actions from early days, other reasons for its rejection were the pairing of two of the same sex as being unnatural and the exploitation of minors.

Has anything changed? Few would dispute that the argument against exploitation still stands. Some would dispute that homosexual practice is unnatural. Generally our society is much less accepting of homosexuals and homosexual practice than was the ancient non-Jewish world at the time of Jesus. My own thinking in this field has taught me to be cautious.

What if there really are people whose natural sexual preference is different from their outward physical reality? The ancient world of the biblical writers generally ignored such a possibility. What happens if we don’t ignore it? Who am I to say they should try to live contrary to their natures or that they should see themselves as unfortunate accidents of nature and withhold themselves from acting out their sexual preferences with others? The issue is what is most caring for such people, not adherence to rules. How can I condemn when I - and many others who venture an opinion (including ancient biblical writers) - know so little?

If I found myself having such natural preferences, I would probably try to get them reversed to save all the hassles of living like that in today’s society in the face of so much prejudice. If I found myself at some stage in my life developing stronger preferences in that direction, I would probably feel more confident about succeeding in such a reversal - I might just have suppressed my heterosexual energies for some reason. But who knows? For me, love means making room for people to make their own responsible decisions, not condemning them or haranguing them. I know some who have done just what I said I would do and have gone through hell in the process. They are committed followers of Christ, loving and caring people, and are now practising homosexuals.

Masturbation, prostitution

On other areas of sexuality like masturbation and prostitution I apply the same guidelines. The guilt that has been engendered because of the former has, to my mind, been largely a sad reflection of an unhealthy attitude towards sexual pleasure which has affected large parts of Christianity over the centuries. Orgasm in itself is a natural and healthy life experience. I am not persuaded that self engendered orgasm harms either the person or anyone else. Older arguments about wasted semen belong to the wider view that ejaculation must always be tied to the effort to reproduce, a view which lies behind some opposition even to contraception. We also know now that waste is not an issue; males are hugely oversupplied. The argument is in any case irrelevant for females.

Sexual pleasure, like the pleasure of taste, is God given pleasure. Pleasure does not make anything good or bad. It is all a matter of attitude towards others and ourselves. Affirming my own sexuality means being in touch with where it is going, where it is suppressed, where it needs direction and control, where and how it needs expression. We need to be responsible about what gives us pleasure.

Prostitution is another matter, largely because it seems to belong to a system of exploitation of women (sometimes, men) of which I don’t want to be a part, even though prostitutes will often deny exploitation. It is not a system I want to support or encourage. It also can take the form of sexual slavery and exploitation of the worst kind. Yet I also have no interest in declaring them bad people. There are many stories of very caring prostitutes - some made it into the lists of the Bible’s heroes like Rahab.

Individual moral choices and laws to protect people

There is also the related question of what stand to take in the issue of legalisation of prostitution. Let me take this point as an opportunity to comment on the major difference between what people might do, themselves, and what they consider should be legally forbidden. It is important not to confuse the two. I can see that there is a case in our society for allowing legalised prostitution on the grounds that it may be a more caring way to look after all concerned than to have a system where it is practised illegally in secret locations without proper supervision and medical care and where the police cope with it by turning a blind eye. Which is the greater evil? Or, better, which way are we going to care more effectively for the people concerned? The answers to such questions are often not simple. Sometimes we have to live with the fact that we are not sure which is the appropriate action. In such borderline decisions we need a maximum of knowledge, tolerance and care. Dogmatic authoritarian assertions are least helpful when dealing with matters of such sensitivity.

Another complex issue is abortion. Here differing concerns compete. What is more important: the life of the foetus or the life of the mother? When does the child’s life begin in the womb or when should it be considered a human being? What constitutes danger to the life of the mother: death? psychological trauma? social deprivation? I respect those who hold to absolutes here: life must not be taken under any circumstances. Yet I am unhappy with it as a fixed rule. I have the deepest respect for people who grapple with the issue at a practical level. I want to support people making decisions in full integrity, seeking the most caring way forward and I think that, given the complexities of many cases, I would not help the situation with foregone conclusions. I would certainly want our legislation to leave some flexibility for personal decision, but that also means setting some limit beyond which society must say no.

Setting boundaries and preserving individual freedom

At many points society must say no and restrict the freedom of individuals in the interests of the whole. We need such rules as well as guidelines. They are there to protect people’s interests, to set outer limits against actions which cause harm to society as a whole or to people not otherwise able to protect themselves. These are the outer boundaries. We need them. We need speed limits on our roads, acceptable blood alcohol levels, laws to regulate commercial life and so on. We need a system which enforces these society limits and a system for dealing with those who transgress them, a system which deters by punishment and which seeks reform and protects society from wilful harm.

Setting these outer boundaries goes a long way towards shaping the way we live together as a community. Caring about people means caring about these. This means having a lively interest in what is going on in the wider community. Are the limits being set in ways that allow some to exploit others? Is everyone being given a fair go? In his day Jesus focused especially on those who had little voice or power in community decision making and called his followers to be a voice for them and with them. This is why the Church, where it has its act together, is out front on issues of justice, poverty, protection of minority groups, respect for human rights.

In setting the outer boundaries of society we are defining right and wrong only in the broadest sense. True, if you cheat the rest of the community by holding back your contribution to the common purse (your tax), you can be caught and punished, but mostly the boundaries are set so wide that some levels of cheating, lying, deceit, exploitation, are all possible with little check on them. You can’t legislate against selfishness and greed. You can’t legislate to make people loving. You also shouldn’t try to. People need freedom to make their decisions.

Trying to force people to be a sharing and caring society was the ideal of communism and it failed. People do things best if they do them because they want to. That is why the western capitalist society, based on letting people pursue their own interests, works better: they have more room to do what they want to do and so to do things with energy and enthusiasm and therefore with efficiency. But that means, of course, leaving room for people to be simply selfish and greedy. That is the negative risk of granting so much freedom. This means that society must also act responsibly to counter exploitation by the selfish and greedy and to support the disadvantaged and the poor. Left to its own devices the free market economy will inevitably widen the gap between the rich and the poor. It is no real answer to declare that as the rich get richer the poor become a little less poor, because the gap is not diminishing.

Therefore enlightened and caring governments will establish structures which combine control, on the one hand, with room for initiative and reward, on the other. The same applies to the international community. Without controls greed will exploit the vulnerable in the name of its shareholders and then recoil in na´ve surprise when the exploited sometimes respond in totally unacceptable ways, including organised terror. We need a commitment to find ways of dealing with both kinds of violence: the exploitation and the desperate responses it evokes. The so called free world carries little respect when it abandons a sense of responsibility to control those of its members who are sucking the life blood from weak economies. There must be limits.

Within such limits I want to protect people’s right to make their choices, but that makes it all the more urgent that I am aware that it is quite another question how I as a Christian use that free space. To follow Jesus means also to use the space between the boundaries to live for love and that is quite opposite to how our western system of economics assumes people will use it and to why the system works as such.

Complex ethical issues

Back at the boundaries, today we are facing many very difficult new decisions on right and wrong. How free, for instance, should scientists be to experiment with human embryos, to clone human species, to culture human tissue for repair? When should medical treatment cease in the case of terminally ill patients? Should such patients have the right to terminate their own lives? What about animal experimentation? How far should the community sacrifice its forests and natural flora and fauna for the sake of exploiting new resources for the community’s needs? Can we afford to allow our cities to grow as they have? What limits should we impose on industries to curtail polluting gases in the environment? What role should our community have in arms manufacture? Is nuclear energy a responsible energy alternative? Should uranium be exported when there is only a limited assurance that it will not one day be used in nuclear weapons? Should pure heroin be made available to users to counteract the dangers which arise from use of impure heroin and the criminality and exploitation rampant in the illicit drug trade? How far should the community restrict sale and advertising of cigarettes? Should marijuana be legalised?

I cannot discuss these questions here, but they belong to the wide range of issues of right and wrong with which we must grapple. In approaching them our guidelines are few. They all flow from concern for people and include some of the following questions: Are the solutions in the long term interest of the world and its people? Is an adequate data base being considered? Have the possible effects on people and their environment been considered? Are the voices of those directly affected being heard clearly? Are the questions being asked in a way which ignores or excludes other relevant issues?

The Church, at its best, addresses some of these issues and sometimes risks, for the sake of love, its own solutions, which may or may not prove appropriate. Safe silence in so many of these would be a betrayal of care. Often people, including many Church people, resent the Church’s having its say. In reality in most cases it is an elected body or a representative who issues a statement. It ought to be seen as only that and not more than that, as though the person or elected body were claiming to be able to express the view of every member, let alone, with absolute certainty the view of God! Yet the often fierce resistance which we encounter seems to hark back to just such an understanding of the Church (that it speaks for God and so claims infallibility). In most of these issues the Church as such has no particular expertise and joins the conversation primarily because of its concern for people and the world. It deserves to be heard, I believe, because of the long tradition of wisdom and love it represents.

Many of the issues noted above belong to the so-called ‘grey areas’ facing our community, where dogmatic assertions simply do not help. These issues need full discussion with adequate information and the willingness to take risks. Strong controversy aids the process if it means all angles and details are carefully explored. At its best our parliamentary system of Government and Opposition parties serves the process of exploration well. At worst we find decisions being made not in the long term interest but to gain votes to retain or regain power. The preferable process of decision making is one where every person is heard and respected and where people share a concern to work together for the good of all.

Fear of facing complex issues

Some people find such processes difficult and want someone to tell them simply what is right and what is wrong. In the wider community they want a heavy handed government or a ‘right thinking’ dictatorship. In a Christian context they claim the Bible has all the answers or that the person who prays will know God’s will. I believe this is simply not true. Occasionally we may be fairly confident of God’s will for us, although even then it is wise to check our perceptions with others; but often we do not know, and to pretend to know on the basis of misguided piety is delusory and can be very dangerous. Religions which have set answers of rights and wrongs have plenty of customers. But they are often, to my mind, an escape from reality. At the very personal level of individual living we often face ‘grey areas’ on decisions such as which job we should apply for, where we should live and with whom. We need to trust ourselves to make decisions and be caring and tolerant of our mistakes. We don’t need to walk around full of fears and surrounded by guilt.

Disappearing ‘don’ts’

I can only welcome the disappearance of so many of the ‘don’t’s that characterised Christianity and smile at them now: don’t gamble, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t go to the movies, don’t smoke, don’t play sport on Sundays. It now seems all so trivial, especially since I could take all that so seriously and yet have no idea what the bigger issues of life, like justice and peace and poverty, were about. It was just like the people of whom Jesus said that they strained out a small fly only to swallow a camel. I don’t mean to imply that none of those ‘don’t’ areas is relevant. There are quite a few where dangers to health and wholeness still lurk, not least in smoking, but hardly in dancing, movies and sport on Sundays!

There are bigger issues of right and wrong which have less to do with keeping petty rules and regulations and more to do with compassion for fellow human beings and care for the environment. It is the compassion I see lived out in the life of Jesus that is my starting point for thinking about right and wrong. Inspired by Jesus’ approach, I like to think of God sometimes as being like a wise old woman or man, full of understanding and also of no-nonsense caring. Such a one looks upon our struggles in decision making with eager compassion, understands our mistakes, stays with us in new ventures, has all the patience in the world as we learn to love and the sadness and anger when we don’t and shut ourselves off; but is always there, ready to listen, to comfort and to challenge.

There are, however, many situations in life, where we do not have time to think over our decisions and weigh our alternatives. And many of the things we do are determined not by what we think but by what we feel and what we are. So the kind of person we are is an important component in our thinking about right and wrong. In the same way in our society many wrong actions must be seen as part of a longer process which reflects something being wrong in society itself. When we see kids sniffing petrol and adults abusing themselves with alcohol, we need also to ask what has been going wrong in society that people make self destructive choices like these. When we do, we will often find a whole history of violence and abuse which has robbed communities and people of their self respect. Ask any Aboriginal Australian!

Ultimately discussion of right and wrong, whether in relation to individuals or to communities, needs to consider much more than what people do. It needs to consider how things are. This is why being Christian is more than being concerned with doing right or wrong. It is about a way of being, both as individuals and as a community, as I hope to show in the final chapter.

What about being Christian?

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