On moral purity: "If the sins that concern you most are sins you know you will never commit..."

By Nicholas Adams
June 20, 2017

This article considers the concerns and dilemmas involved in taking ethical positions, engaging politically, and being theologically responsible and responsive.

Here is a starting point. What is a good Christian to do, when he or she wishes to argue in good faith for a theological position in which there cannot be gay marriage, and yet one is tarred with the brush of homophobia?

What is a good Christian to do, when one party has legislation against abortion but also seeks to defund public healthcare and education? Alas! The other party has legislation permitting abortion but offers health coverage and education to those who otherwise cannot afford it. What kind of alternative is that?

The beautiful souls of many Christians are in agony. The purity of holding out for ‘the right thing’, of insisting on it despite everything, is threatened by an onslaught of information which renders every principled position precarious. My political choices cause untold suffering (actually, told suffering: the information is available) for others.

Moral purity used to offer the best high: a blissful intoxication whose hangover others must endure, and do so out of sight. It is unbearable to be confronted with the facts, the contradictions, and the consequences. ‘Alas, I cannot in all good conscience vote for any of them.’

Men don’t have abortions. Straight people don’t usually have gay sex. At least here there is a peaceful zone of moral purity. Abortion is surely a ‘special case’. Can one not, as a decent person, oppose gay marriage on theological grounds without being homophobic? To identify sins I will never commit, and to know these are the worst sins: what a relief this is.

When what most concerns me are sins that I am unlikely to (or cannot) commit, I have really lost my way theologically. This is exactly what we see among groups who claim to be Christian.

Put differently (and in terms of culture wars), if the question is, 'What is wrong with our society?', and if my answer is dominated by what other people are doing wrong (rather than including, and probably starting from, a healthy dose of self-examination), then I am in deep spiritual trouble. And if this habit extends to an entire group, the problem is theological and calls for theological repair.

The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper: none begins with a general confession of other people’s sins.

In a more literary form: an excessive focus on Augustine’s City of God can in many cases be corrected with a dose of Confessions. We live in the earthly city, but we Christians are not condemned to be limited by it because we are also citizens of the heavenly city, it is true. But to focus on the sins of the earthly city is to forget to say, 'I am a sinner. Thank God for grace.’

Does this mean that Christians are not to engage, nor seek to correct, the errors that others commit? Are we not to defend those vulnerable to rape, to murder, to domestic violence, to enslavement, to theft of land? Must we be silent if we are not rapists and traffickers?

God forbid! But it may be wise to get out of the culture wars.

The culture wars are a useful distraction (from the perspective of powerful interests) from a focus on oppression. The big challenge for those St Luke's Mary calls 'the mighty' is: how do we get the poor to act in our interests and against their own interests? In a democracy: how can we get the poor to vote for the interests of the mighty?

It’s important not to think of the mighty as evil villains with a master plan. One can be more Nietzschean: the mighty are quite sentimental about the poor on occasion, but when it comes down to it, the poor belong at the back of the plane and the mighty belong at the front. This is not hatred. It is cheerful entitlement. And perhaps a certain appetite. As Nietzsche says in Genealogy of Morality, eagles harbour few resentments: ‘We don’t bear any grudge at all towards these good lambs, in fact we love them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb’.

So: if the poor get wise to things (the problem of so-called 'false consciousness') then the game is up, and the mighty had better flee. This has happened from time to time and in most cases the church has been both oppressor and victim. As Voltaire remarks in Candide, the interests of clerics often intersect with those of the aristocracy. There is a reason that, historically, bishops have lived (and live) in palaces. But there is also is a reason why Patriarch Kirill's staff photoshopped out his Breguet watch. There is a patent absurdity in the attempt by Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis to explain why they need private jets. The interests of certain Christians align with those of the mighty, and it is awkward when this gets noticed. How, then, to distract?

As many of the great atheist thinkers of the past pointed out (I find this group so fascinating that I teach an entire course on them in Birmingham), the most common strategy is heaven-carrot and hell-stick. It is rather interesting to note when, in history, concern with hell and heaven becomes acute; could it be that it coincides with periods of intense political upheaval, when the interests of the mighty are under threat? Surely not!

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, has some quite pointed things to say, in the late C17, about the political function of fear of hell and hope of heaven. God bless him!

These days, strategy has settled around mobilising large groups of Christians, whether through mass rallies (as in the period 1970 - 2000) or online (today). It doesn't much matter what issues are used for such mobilisation, just so long as they are not readily connected to things like poverty and can thus distract from it. The Moral Majority found that Christians could be mobilised around white privilege and then, after a while, the issue of abortion. Abortion was a shrewd choice, it turned out, because it produced a hitherto unthinkable alliance between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Vast numbers of poor Catholics and Protestants could be rallied around abortion and then persuaded to vote (in huge numbers) against their economic interests.

Donald Trump doesn't care about abortion, obviously. But millions of Americans do (and so they should – abortion is an evil). By offering a Supreme Court Judge who would oppose abortion (Gorsuch's investiture was this week), millions might find a reason to vote for the interests of the mighty. How we all laughed at such a stupid and barefaced strategy. We're not laughing now.

But surely Christians must not be intimidated into abandoning their theology, just because others confuse it with homophobia? Surely we must appeal to the need for diversity of positions rather than capitulate to ‘the liberalism of the elites’?

Certainly. But the problem is not just, and not primarily, that ‘other people’ confuse an opposition to gay marriage with homophobia. Nor is it just a question of insisting, in a persuasive manner, on these distinctions. Admittedly it is a well-known problem that our mass media require short, clear answers to questions that may demand longer more tangled reasonings. However, it is not just a matter of presentation and perception or better apologetics. There is a darker reality which we can name ‘the scaffolding problem’: our theologically defensible positions act as support, and as cover, for positions we do not share and indeed which we oppose.

This scaffolding problem should properly upset us: what should we do when non-homophobic positions function to support homophobic ones? There are some uncomfortable lesser evil arguments here. 'I realise that my theologically correct position must be abandoned because it functions practically to shore up theologically catastrophic positions', said no purist ever.

But surely Christians are right to vote against our own economic interests in pursuit of what is right and good, and in order to defend the weak?

Certainly. But that is the beauty of the distraction: it is precisely by ‘defending the weak’ that the weak are betrayed: it is no accident that ‘voting your conscience’ has the effect of condemning the poor to underfunded education, substandard healthcare, and a bonfire of ‘red tape’ that renders buildings susceptible to fire. We would never vote for such things! Unless, of course, voting for such things is inseparable from voting against abortion or against gay marriage: against sins we would never commit. Forging that inseparability was quite a project. Its success is overwhelming.

‘Go, sell all that your servants have, and follow me’. This is what Jesus never said to the rich young ruler.  But that is, in effect, what millions of Christians have been persuaded to do.

If the sins that most concern you are sins you know you will never commit…

…it is probably time for some theological repair, for discussions about lesser evils, and for a refusal – the most strenuous refusal – to be distracted.


© Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham.

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