To Double Business Bound
James Tunstead Burtchaell, C.S.C.
To be moral, must we be consistently so? What might that mean, or entail? And what is at stake in moral consistency? Let us think about that.
I invite you to begin this inquiry with me by eavesdropping on the unusually candid and almost conscientious words of the late King of Denmark, Shakespeare's Claudius. He had secretly slain his brother, the former king, and then incestuously married his sister-in-law, the widowed queen, to consolidate his claim to the throne ahead of Prince Hamlet, the rightful heir. Hamlet was too befuddled to sustain more than a fuzzy suspicion that all was not morally consistent in Denmark, and Shakespeare invites us to witness his slow, traumatic emergence from that moral reluctance and confusion. The truth emerges one day when an unseen Hamlet overhears an untypically honest attempt at contrition by his uncle in the castle chapel:
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. . . .
My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder"?
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above . . .
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Claudius forgoes forgiveness from heaven, not because it is being withheld from him, but because he is incapable of receiving it until his actions move into costly conformity with his repentant judgment. There is another sense in which one could say that his mind cannot be truly repentant until new actions begin to follow . . . consistently.
I take it from this very cogent drama that a sound morality requires and involves an ability to face the truth, and to conform one's behavior to the truth. Behind that is the prior fact that both good and evil character among us humans somehow involve our capacity, or our incapacity, to admit to ourselves what we are up to ¾ the more so when we are to double business bound.
Let me offer a few anecdotal examples ¾ on a much more pedestrian level ¾ of the various ways our moral capacity and judgments can entangle us in equivocation and dispute.
Ray Duffer and Linda Spidell named their child Quintessa Martha McKenzie. The county clerk refused to register the newborn under this name, and was eventually sustained by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which insisted that her surname must be that of one of her parents. But one Judge, in his dissent, raised a much more troubling prospect, were anyone to have listened seriously: "It is a bizarre rule of law" that gives women a fundamental right to prevent their children from being born but "says they cannot name their children once they are born." This was obviously a moral argument from consistency and proportion in what was a legal matter. It did not prevail, but it leaves the conscience of any listener ringing.
A letter to a North Carolina editor deplored an allegedly unfair response to criminal violence: "In Louisiana, a male with a mental capacity of a 13-year-old is on death row for murdering one man. Some may view this as a fair penalty. On the other hand, a Forsyth County man killed four people while in a mad rage. He receives psychiatric treatment and may be free sometime in the future. How can two men commit the same type of crime and get such different sentences? . . . I am not making any moral judgments here. I am just saying that some consistency is needed." But the letter-writer misgauged the force and bearing of his or her insight. The accusation of inconsistency is a moral judgment.
The U.S. Supreme Court was criticized for inconsistency when it ruled a crèche at the Pittsburgh courthouse, surrounded by flowers with the text Gloria in excelsis Deo , to be unconstitutional, but found no fault with a Hanukkah menorah and a Christmas tree at the city hall a block away. Justice Blackmun was at pains to point out precisely why this was not an inconsistent judgment. The crèche with its message, " Gloria in excelsis Deo ," he explained for the Court, endorsed Christian doctrine, while the menorah and Christmas tree with its message, "Salute to Liberty," became a "secular recognition of different traditions for celebrating the winter holiday season." Go figure!
The examples given are juridical, but the consistency required under law derives from the prior imperative of moral consistency, based on our observation that the character of our words, and of our actions, and of our persons are somehow vitally entangled.
Our question is: How?
First of all, we need consistency of moral judgment.
In 1983 the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago began to propound what he called a "consistent ethic of life." Opposition to both nuclear warfare and abortion, he argued, should be conjoined in moral advocacy if one is faithfully to follow the general norm that prohibits the directly intended taking of any innocent human life, a norm grounded on the principle that since all human life is sacred we are responsible, personally and socially, to protect and preserve it.
He then took a further step: if we are consistent and principled in following this imperative, two further moral duties would then follow: to abstain from capital punishment, and to prevent the liquidation of the incapacitated elderly or the gravely ill by what is ironically called "euthanasia".
His fourfold proposition was immediately challenged because capital punishment was clearly not an instance of the taking of innocent life. But the engagement itself showed how all parties to this debate were persuaded of the need ¾ the moral need ¾ for consistency.
Further, we would be bound to consistency of action.
Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), a member of the Nazi Party before World War II, was spared military service because he manufactured various items for the war effort, exclusively through the forced labor of Jewish prisoners. Survivor of a spoiled and affluent youth, he became a bon vivant of extravagant drinking capacity, a womanizer who ignored his wife, a major figure in the black market, and a wealthy profiteer from war contracts through bribery and corruption.
Yet he, a Gentile, was also one of the most daring protectors of Jews, running a factory and later an adjoining prison camp where no Jew was ever killed or even struck. He rescued thousands of Jews from concentration camps, including the only group known to have been extracted from Auschwitz. Several times arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned, he falsified documents, corrupted SS officials, and in the last stage of the war ran an entire plant without producing any war materiel, paying more than $16,000 a week in labor fees to the SS simply to withhold his Jewish workers from extermination.
What can one make of a man whose pattern of behavior seems so inconsistent? His biographer admits that Schindler's is indeed a "strange virtue." He depicts the Schindler life as "the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil," rather than the account of a man of integrity. Yet how many morally coherent people ever wreak so much good, and at such high risk to self? The moral to his fascinating story, one would think, would seem to be twofold: that he was a daring hero and a clever profiteer. Yet it is quite difficult and confusing to make peace between these two moral judgments. I think we are obliged to admire him with that special judgment which knows that reality does not allow us to appraise a man with any more moral cogency than his story allows.
For a plausible moral judgment we must look also for consistency with constancy.
When a person undergoes a change in moral perspective and behavior (in either direction), does it entail a consistency of convictions, or a break? If the latter, then is it a personal conversion, or corruption?
Helen Keller as a child was, by all accounts, not only blind and deaf, without eyesight or hearing, but so morally without insight or heed as to be virtually autistic. Her family reacted by alternately spoiling and avoiding her. Eventually it was the devoted, dogged care of Anne Sullivan, her Irish teacher who stayed by her side for fifty years until her own death, that combined patient affection with unyielding discipline, and finally broke through the berserk little girl's self-confinement and transformed her at the threshold of an adult lifetime of articulate and far-seeing service. In this case there was a strenuous break from one consistent moral character to its opposite: a conversion at the core of Keller's judgment and action.
Another tale of personality change goes in the opposite moral direction. Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray , portrays a strikingly handsome but unsponsored young man who moves from the provinces to London and is befriended by a series of people well placed to give him advantaged access to social regard. Dorian becomes a self-seeking adventurer, and as he ruthlessly exploits those who have befriended him a doubly strange thing happens. He seems never to age, retaining the good-looking youth he had brought to London. Yet a portrait, painted as a gift by an artist who had admired him when he was still quite an unknown outsider (only to have been snubbed by Dorian after he acquired social standing), alters itself continually to display the increasingly ugly face of his depraved character. Dorian understands, and understandably hides the grotesquely authentic portrait because he cannot bear the sight of it ¾ and thus of himself. This story, of course, is one of corruption, not conversion. Yet one has the impression that there had been no strenuous break with the past such as Helen Keller's story displays. For Dorian's decline and fall seem to be the working out of sinister traits he had brought with him to London. The decline is somehow able, by its gradual corruption of both moral character and moral perception, to conceal his moral decline and death from the one who most needed to be warned by it: Dorian himself. It would have made a great deal of difference whether Dorian could or would have believed that moral infirmity, if it lead to moral death, recovers by nothing less than moral resurrection.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish adventurer in the Caribbean at the turn of the 17th century, later entered the Dominican Order, was ordained a priest and eventually a bishop, and climbed into the pulpit to become the scourge of the colonial authorities. By subjecting the natives to enforced servitude in the plantations the colonial officials and entrepreneurs were on their way to exterminating perhaps 90% of the population. His critique gained a wide hearing but had little effect. In his desperation to relieve the causes of this mass injustice he endorsed the importation of African slaves to replace the Caribs in the plantation work force. Today he is hailed as the patron of liberation for the oppressed in Latin America. But was he consistent? He allowed his partisan loyalty to one victim-group whom he cherished, to excuse ¾ to ignore, then fail ever to see, then forfeit the capacity to see ¾ the oppression of another group to which he had as yet forged no bond of sympathy. He could not bear to behold the injustice he could not resolve.
What is at stake in consistency over time, such that we tend to disbelieve in retrospect a commitment to loyal service that was later forfeited? If a man and woman promise to be faithful in marriage "for better, for worse . . . until death," and then one or both of them should find the "worse" unbearable (or sometimes only the "bad," before it has time to get worse), does a divorce represent inconsistency, in that a commitment has been renounced? Or does it perhaps represent consistency, in that an originally faulty judgment has been vacated, or an original loyalty is cancelled by a later one in another direction? Does consistency, in order to be rightly constant, require steadfast acquittal of all earlier commitments, or only of such as continue to seem worthy?
These are, then, a few evocations of moral changeover. Some, I think, cause us to distrust a person as unreliable; others, however, we accept as conversion, not corruption. But then we must ask ourselves what makes all the difference between a moral and an immoral change: in judgment, and/or in behavior?
Consistency of judgments within the moral community
Is anything really at stake, after all, in our being morally consistent? It obviously depends on the direction in which we move.
Abraham Lincoln tersely set forth the moral inconsistency our Civil War had imposed on the Quakers:
Your people ¾ the Friends ¾ have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other.
When called to arms in a cause many of them regarded as just but few were prepared to support by armed force, they were obliged to pay severe fines for their refusal of the draft. Some, however, paid substitutes to go in their place, a practice which their fellow Quakers generally condemned as inconsistent with the gospel. How could one dodge complicity in what one pays to have done? Were these Friends under arms more morally aligned with those who did take up arms, or with those who paid the required fine to demur, or with those who were convicted and punished?
A Special Committee on Human Sexuality appointed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to propose an appropriately revised policy in the early 1990s found that the traditional doctrine ¾ that sexual intercourse is authentic only within marriage ¾ worked considerable hardship on adolescents, homosexuals, the widowed elderly and persons with certain disabilities. It was therefore oppressive. To restore moral credibility, the Committee proposed that sex between genuinely consenting adults should no longer be discouraged.
The Church will offer much needed moral leadership if it gives people a positive, constructive and hopeful word about sex. What is that positive, constructive and hopeful word? It may be said simply: Where there is justice-love, sexual expression has ethical integrity.
In the firestorm of controversy that ensued, few noticed how radically discontinuous it would be to construe intercourse as an act of general benevolence rather than an act of committed fidelity. At what price to their moral integrity did the Presbyterians thus imagine they could redefine the meaning of sexual intercourse?
Consistency of judgment and action within the moral community
For some years now, homosexual activists have claimed for their partnerships civil recognition equitable with that accorded to marriage. In 1991 a local ordinance in San Francisco allowed unmarried couples of whatever gender formally to "register" their relationships: not really what they had been asking for, but not to be despised. The following was reported from San Francisco, translated for New York readers:
On the first day unmarried couples here were allowed to formally register their partnerships with the city, Anita M. Six stood blushing on the steps of City Hall in a lovely dress patterned with pink and rose-colored flowers. Beside her, her partner of three and a half years, Lori Stonebreaker, stood grinning in jeans and reptile cowboy boots holding their new official certificate of domestic partnership.
"It feels good," said Ms. Six, a 35-year-old sales supervisor of a department store. Ms. Stonebreaker, a 27-year-old waitress, smiled in agreement. "It's really nice to see this happen," she said [with no less profundity]. After eight years of efforts, voters here passed into law last November a local ordinance giving legal recognition to the "domestic partnership" of homosexuals and unmarried heterosexual couples. . . .
"We're here because we're in love," said James McMullen, 39, a self-described computer nerd. Mr. McMullen has been seeing his partner, Eleesa Hager, a 37-year-old landscape architect, for six months and the two said they had been living together for one week. "We like the idea because it's a way all San Franciscans can declare their love. No one is excluded because of who [whom!] they love," Mr. McMullen said. Asked why they had chosen to register as domestic partners rather than to get married, Ms. Hager explained, "This is a simple statement of love. It's not about property."
Thus far San Francisco in 1991. The reluctance of mainline religion to affirm homosexual marriage can be measured by studying the RainbowWeddingNetwork in the Internet. Welcoming denominations in the California epicenter include only the Swedenborgian, Unitarian, "Unity" and, of course, the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco (which advertises itself as "a home for queer spirituality". Personalized ministry from Rev. Angel Stork and Incredible Weddings with Rev. Irene Silvey is advertised (listed appropriately as "vendors"), and there surely one gets what one gets. Next month Minneapolis will host the Gay and Lesbian Wedding Expo under the promising motto: "Not Just Another Storybook Wedding." God forbid. But San Francisco in 2003 now seems not quite to have taken the Great Marital Leap Forward. And if not San Francisco, then surely not the World.
To return, however, to Ms. Hager's concern: Property remains very much a part of the larger agenda of the interest group. A Bronx hospital agreed to provide the same health insurance benefits for homosexual workers and their partners as for heterosexual workers and their spouses. Such normal employee benefits as bereavement leave have also been claimed. And the legal definition of "family member" is in controversy in the inheritance of leases to rent-controlled apartments when one member of a homosexual partnership dies.
There is little disposition on anyone's part to claim that these new civilities cohere with those of the past. Nor is there yet much disposition to inquire how the asserted claims of parity between the traditional commitments and those claimed to be their equivalents may have denatured the meaning of the tradition by maladroit enlargement.
But the question of moral consistency arises in yet another way. That Presbyterian committee decided back in 1991 that it should simply be genuine goodwill, not marital commitment, which gives sex its authentic meaning. This encountered no hostile opposition, mostly because the larger culture was deciding simultaneously that marital commitment itself entailed no more than genuine, if tenuous, goodwill. Few observers raised their voices to point out that retractable commitments tend to be perilous because people so frequently if foolishly hope they mean something more, and actually rely upon them.
The homosexual movement has been arguing that it is sex which defines marriage rather than marriage which defines sex, and thus any sexual partnership, homosexual or heterosexual, is already the equivalent of marriage. If "love" had so easily replaced "fidelity" as the substance of what married people promised, it was a swift if not sober follow-through when "sex" emerged as what was really meant by "love." But a sexual companionship, for want of any communally protected norms, may be alarmingly possessive, as parenthood, when reduced from obligation to whim, can be lethally possessive.
For instance, in Channelview, Texas two eighth-graders, Shanna Harper and Amber Heath, were close friends and ardent cheerleaders due to compete for the few vacancies on the cheerleading squad. Shanna's mother, according to local police, was so anxious for her daughter to succeed that she tried to hire a hit man for $2,500 to kill Amber's mother, so that Amber would be too grief-stricken to compete. She had originally intended to have both Amber and her mother killed, but decided that the double murder for $7,500 would be beyond her means. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Shana's attentive mother had been divorced for 11 years, and in that time virtually her only activities had been raising her children and going to church, which she did several times a week, the police and others familiar with her habits said. "She was living her life through Shanna," [her former husband's lawyer] said. "Shanna's achievements were all she had, and it had become an obsession." (No one seems to have raised the possible claim of alienation of affection by whomever she was addressing in church.)
Almost all murders for hire fall into one of two categories, an officer explained. "It's usually either money or love when someone goes out and solicits a murder," he said. "This case has its bizarre twists, but it basically fits the pattern. The motive here was love, a mother's love for a daughter." But we might well doubt that such action is claimable as an expression of love.
Meanwhile, over in Walnut, California, Abe and Mary Ayala, very much in love with their 17-year-old daughter Anissa, and desperate because she was dying of leukemia, conceived another child in the hope that he or she would prove able to provide bone marrow able to cure Anissa. Marissa Eve was duly born in 1990, and plans were made to draw out her bone marrow at the age of 14 months. Some ethicists criticized the production of a child in order to serve another's purposes. Mrs. Ayala, "sort of upset," replied: "We're going to love our baby. Our baby is going to have more love than she probably can put up with. . . . We can't just stand idly by and wait for Anissa to die."
The production of new children to serve as tissue donors is, in fact, not uncommon. When they are tested as embryos and fetuses and prove not to be matched for this use, they are then commonly discarded or aborted. Dr. Norman Fost, an ethicist from the University of Wisconsin, commented: "The family believed God had given them this gift. They believed the younger child had been created to save the older one. Of all the reasons people have children, I think this is one of the better ones ¾ to save a life. . . ." He thought it was acceptable to abort fetuses not of the useful tissue type. . . . "Since women did not have to give any particular reason for having an abortion, there was no justification for denying them abortions if they gave that reason."
Are these actions consistent with love, the protective benevolence we associate with parental care? Or do they appear to be grounded on other predilections, other moral commitments? What consistency, one is bound to ask, will there be in a parental "love" if it be thus possessive, proprietary, selective, and lethal?
By now I hope you will appreciate ¾ or at least realize ¾ that in my musings begun with King Claudius, who could find no peace because his unrepentant viciousness would not allow him to throw off the terrible crime that brought him his power, wealth and comfort, I have wandered at will among stories and anecdotes that with many slanting rays of light I hoped would give various glimmers of what is at stake in our living a life that is morally consistent through and through.
I want to speak now in another vein, if not another persona , one which obliges me to alert you from the start that I shall clear my throat somewhat and speak in the only voice I have at my command to burrow further into this mystery of human authenticity ¾ for that is what I am talking and you have been thinking about. From, this point on I have to speak as an overt Catholic. Not that it would pass without notice. But I believe you will understand, as I head back to the stable, why my illustrations and anecdotes will now be drawn from another literature. I hope you will not think that I have merely lost my way.
Consistency of moral judgment
To draw upon the biblical texts as classical and normative, one notices various depictions of the righteous servant of God: characterizations that make sense of a program of congruent moral injunctions. Ezekiel, for example, in a passage of pivotal significance because it represents a rethinking of older Jewish morality, gives an account of the blameless Hebrew:
But if a man is upright, his actions are law-abiding and upright, and he does not eat on the mountains or raise his eyes to the foul idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour's wife or touch a woman during her periods, oppresses no one, returns the pledge on a debt, does not rob, gives his own food to the hungry, his clothes to those who lack clothing, does not lend for profit, does not charge interest, abstains from evil, gives honest judgment between one person and another, keeps my laws and sincerely respects my judgments ¾ someone like this is truly upright and will live ¾ declares the Lord Yahweh.
This personality profile of the upright Hebrew is a composite of ritual purity and fraternal justice. To "eat on the mountains" meant to worship at the rival hilltop shrines; the "foul idols" of Israel were the gods imported by the foreign colonists settled in the nearby northern kingdom by Assyria, its vanquisher, and despised by Ezekiel and his fellow-prophets from Judah to the south. Adultery was reviled, not primarily as an act of infidelity to one's spouse, but as a ritually impure act like intercourse during menstruation ¾ an act of infidelity to the Lord. The just man would not seize a poor man's only possessions as collateral, would charge no interest on loans, would give rather than sell or lend necessities to a destitute fellow Hebrew, and would not perjure himself for a bribe. This is a carefully composed account of an integrated moral (and civic) life. There are clear allusions to the traditional Decalogue, which also combined ritual and social obligations. Manifest here is the conviction that an integrated moral life simultaneously enacted fellowship with the national God and with one's national kinfolk. Both obligations had to be fulfilled in a way that was internally and mutually consistent.
This same consistency emerges in an account of the faithful Jew published as long as four centuries later. The Jewish writer casts his story far back into the Hebrew past. Tobit, living as a young man in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, had stubbornly refused to conform to local worship, and journeyed as a pilgrim across the national frontier to the temple in Jerusalem each year. Some years he brought triple tithes on his produce (one for the priests, one for the Levites, and one for the orphans, widows and resident aliens: the groups that depended on the entire people for their support). Exiled to Assyria, he refused local food forbidden in the Torah. Favored by royal employment as a scribe, he gave of his influence and affluence to down-and-out fellow-Jews. He devoutly buried the corpses of his countrymen, at great personal risk when they had been the victims of the rampaging Assyrian army. He sent out onto the streets to find homeless fellow-exiles to join his family at table, and was fastidious about avoiding even the suggestion of ill-gotten gain. This is obviously a post-exilic account of the moral life, where resistance to assimilation is conjoined with a steadfast philanthropy to fellow Jews.
Another consistent moral agenda emerges with Christianity. Jewish morality had traditionally imposed on the entire community a direct personal responsibility for four classes of people who were helpless and therefore at mortal risk: the widow, the orphan, the resident alien and the pauper. By this is understood the derelict widows and orphans who had no kinfolk to absorb them into their households; the foreigners who lived at such a distance from their own people that they had no one to threaten reprisal if they were abused; and the destitute, landless poor.
But at the very time when some Jews were beginning to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, this new community took up a broader doctrine that had just begun among Greek-speaking Jewry. They discerned new cohorts of people at risk: four potential victim-groups who stood beyond the traditional beneficiaries of national protection.
Beyond the widow stood the wife, who by Jewish law could be divorced by her husband at will: abandoned as absolutely as if by adultery and widowhood, and left as helpless. One of Jesus' most radical innovations was his rejection of the male right to divorce. Beyond the abandoned orphan they moved to protect the unborn and the newborn from abortion and infanticide. Beyond the helpless foreigner sojourning in their midst was the foreigner dwelling among his own, and at risk of being viewed at a distance as an enemy to the resident Jews. In another radical innovation Jesus abrogates the old rule that a Jew must love his (Jewish) neighbor and hate his (foreign) enemy, and replaces it with a startling new injunction to love the enemy. And beyond the resourceless pauper they noticed the unprotected slave, whom Paul insisted was now a brother (or sister) in faith. The integrated consistency of this enlarged moral program implied that if one were heartless to any one of these helpless classes, one would likely ignore the others too.
Consistency of judgment and action
The Sermon on the Mount, in its powerful enactments explicitly upgrades the rigor of the Torah, thus developed, by itemizing ancient injunctions that did not go far enough in their demands. "You have heard how it was said to your ancestors . . . but I say this to you . . . " The prohibition of murder, if meant to embody a restraint of anger towards one's kinsfolk, implies that this same obligation has further duties: to refrain from invective, grudge and vendetta too. If there is a reason for forbidding adultery, that same reason would embargo lust and seduction as well. If there were legal protections for a divorced wife, then that same concern for her ought go further and protect her from divorce itself. If it was perjury to lie on oath, then don't excuse lying without oaths: forget oaths and simply tell the truth at all times. The ancient restraint on revenge ¾ no more than an eye taken for an eye destroyed ¾ went only halfway: rather than retaliation for injury, why not give the predatory fellow what he needs in the first place, and see what happens? The entire passage finds beneath the traditional rules principles of conduct that call for observance with a further measure of consistency.
Consistency in action
There was a whole literature of oracles in Israel which inveighed against worship as an anodyne for injustice towards the poor by the powerful. One of the earliest and most typical comes from Amos:
Although you have made houses of dressed stone,
you will not live in them;
although you have planted pleasant vineyards,
you will not drink wine from them:
for I know how many your crimes are
and how outrageous your sins,
you oppressors of the upright, who hold people to ransom
and thrust the poor aside at the gates. . . .
I hate, I scorn your festivals,
I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies.
When you bring me burnt offerings . . .
your oblations, I do not accept them
and I do not look at your communion sacrifices of fat cattle.
Spare me the din of your chanting,
let me hear none of your strumming on lyres,
but let justice flow like water,
and uprightness like a never-failing stream!
This is an antecedent of Jesus' sevenfold oracle, from which a single verse conveys the entire message:
Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay your tithe of mint and dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law ¾ justice, mercy, good faith! These you should have practised, those not neglected. You blind guides, straining out gnats and swallowing camels!
In that same tradition James rebukes the Christian communities for using a double standard:
My brothers, do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord. Now suppose a man enters into your synagogue, well-dressed and with a gold ring on, and at the same time a poor man comes in, in shabby clothes, and you take notice of the well-dressed man, and say, "Come this way to the best seats"; then you tell the poor man, "Stand over there" or "You can sit on the floor by my foot-rest." In making this distinction among yourselves have you not used a corrupt standard?
Consistency with constancy
The most startling rupture of consistency with the Christian moral past was the decision to initiate Gentile members without circumcision . . . and therefore without obligations towards the Torah. How so?
The Church's understanding of Jesus and his lifework had been composed of identification with Israel's great figures. Jesus was the greatest of the prophets, the new Elijah; the anointed king, the new David; the ultimate lawgiver, the new Moses; the founder of a new race, the new Abraham; one like Ezekiel's Son of Man sent from the heavenly court to rule all nations. But at the same time that the Christian discipleship came to understand themselves as beneficiaries of the surprise fulfillment of all of Israel's hopes, Paul and his party were arguing that the Torah of Israel was being superseded and their communion with the Jewish people sundered. Yet in his very defense of this break with the past, Paul portrays it as justified by a more ancient precedent. The Law, he said, was never ultimate, for the Promise had priority; it had been given four centuries earlier, and unconditionally.
The Law, then, could now be seen as a transitional step to make a compulsively sinful people explicitly aware of their offenses and thereby aware of their own helplessness. Thus it was an institution that would be temporary. The Law was like a pedagogue, the slave who beat the children to make them study, but was eventually appreciated in their majority and his retirement, for having served them well in their immaturity. Israel under the Law had been like a wealthy orphan subject to guardians: owning much yet able to dispose of none of the patrimony. It was also like Hagar, who bore Abraham his firstborn son. But Ishmael proved eventually and unexpectedly to be only the heir-apparent, for when Sarah later bore Abraham a son in wedlock the elder son was superseded, just as the younger Gospel would supersede the elder Law. All of these rabbinical analogies are set forth to argue that even when breaking with their immediate past, Christians saw themselves as acting consistently with their ancient tradition. It was they, not their rejecting Jewish brethren, who should be seen as constant and faithful to God's way of working.
Consistency within the moral community
Even Israel's ancient documents show an awareness of the give-and-take of moral duty between the community and the individual. A Hebrew child was schooled in Torah by parents, and so initiated into the community:
Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let the words I enjoin on you today stay in your heart. You shall tell them to your children, and keep on telling them, when you are sitting at home, when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are standing up; you must fasten them on your hand as a sign and on your forehead as a head-band; you must write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
But there had been a counter-understanding of the moral tradition as well, expressed in the Book of Judges. In each of twelve generations there was a war that threatened some tribes of Israel with destruction at the hands of their more numerous and established rivals, the resident tribes of Canaan. And in every instance, the survivors came home to their children with passionate accounts of having been saved against all odds. As a result, they energetically enjoined fidelity to the ancient God and his laws upon their children, who were duly impressed and accepting. But when each generation aged and disappeared, the children were left with more stories than convictions. It took another cycle of mortal threat, a sudden muster for battle and another incredible survival to make fidelity for the new adult generation a matter of conviction, not just handed-down hearsay. And then they went home and called their children to them, and . . . the same education was repeated for another generation.
The implication? That moral commitment was transmitted by the community through parents to children; but that it was never really tempered in their consciences until they could succeed to their own adult experience of Yahweh's improbable predilection for them.
The community initiated the newcomer into its moral wisdom and commitments. Yet the process also required the individual to appropriate the wisdom through personal experience that then empowered him or her to vouch for it in his or her own name. This was the paradox: that the Jew was able definitively to receive and take to heart the community wisdom only when he or she finally became able to teach the wisdom for and to the community.
A reasoned search for consistency
These excerpts from the normative Jewish and Christian documents suggest illustrate the presence and function of a moral consistency explicit in their continuity of inheritance and consciousness.
Yet I realize that in presenting this perhaps tangled miscellany of examples of how moral consistency can be both a haunting responsibility and a disputed issue, I can hope only to evoke., to suggest, how commonly we sense ourselves beholden to it in our common experience. This then leaves us with a progression of questions:
In what does moral consistency consist?
How has it been developed and handed on through the Hebrew to our Jewish and Christian traditions?
Is it experienced as an authentic element in the rational business of our consciences?
Is moral consistency to be found symmetrically in both very good and very evil persons, or as what distinguishes the good from the evil? If moral consistency is a perfection, an attainment of habitually generous character, then is moral failure more accurately seen as an incoherent, helter-skelter lack of character, or as a resolute pursuit of selfishness?Those are questions we would do well to pursue, in ever more systematic fashion.
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark 3,3.
1 Zick Rubin, "A Rose Isn't a Rose, Some Judges Say," New York Times Op-Ed page, 13 July 1990.
Timothy Hartzog, Letter, Raleigh News and Observer , 28 May 1990.
Peter Steinfels, "Beliefs," New York Times , 24 November 1990, A10.
This moral doctrine was propounded in a series of public lectures, published together in Joseph Cardinal Bernardin et al ., Consistent Ethic of Life , ed. Thomas G. Fuechtmann, ed. (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1988).
Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
See Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy (New York: Delacorte, 1980); Helen Keller, Teacher ¾ Anne Sullivan Macy: A Tribute by the Foster-Child of Her Mind (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955).
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Philadelphia: Lippincotts Monthly Magazine, ).
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953) 7:535.
Richard K. McMaster et al., Conscience in Crisis: Mennonites and Other Peace Churches in America, 1739-1789 (Scottdale, PA: Herold Press, 1979) 294-97, 312-15, 331-32, 356, 369, 450-51; Margaret E. Hirst, The Quakers in Peace and War (New York: George H. Doran, ) 419-441; Cornelius J. Dyck, ed., Introduction to Mennonite History (Scottdale, PA: Herold Press, 1981) 404-06.
Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice, A Document Prepared for the 203rd General Assembly (1991), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), by The General Assembly Special Committee on Human Sexuality, 56.
Katherine Bishop, "Not Quite a Wedding, but Quite a Day for Couples by the Bay," New York Times 15 February 1991, A16.
James Barron, "Bronx Hospital Gives Gay Couples Spouse Benefits," Ibid. 27 March 1991, A1.
Robert Bellafiore, "Meaning of `Family' issue in eviction case," AP story in South Bend Tribune , 20 March 1989.
Roberto Suro, "Love, Ambition and the Price for a Child's Success," New York Times 17 March 1991, A20; "Trial to Open in Plot to Make Girl a Cheerleader," Ibid . 25 August, E31; Suro, "Guilty Verdict in Cheerleading Trial," Ibid ., 4 September, B7; Suro, "Texas Mother Gets 15 Years For Murder Plot," Ibid ., 5 September, A18.
"Giving a Baby to Save Daughter," AP story, Ibid . 17 February 1990, A19; "Girl Born to Couple Who Seek Marrow Donor," AP story, Ibid . 7 April 1990, A17; Gina Kolata, "More Babies Being Born To Be Donors of Tissue," Ibid . 4 June 1991, A1.
Ex 20:1-17; Dt 5:6-22. This Decalogue ¾ or these Decalogues, for one account derives from the Elohist tradition and the other from the Deuteronomic ¾ is in contrast with the Yahwist program of moral obligation found Ex 34:20-26, which confines its concern to ritual fidelity.
Mt 5:31-32; 19:1-12; Mk 10:1-12; Lk 16:18.
Didache 2:2-3; 5:2. The Didache , portions of which are likely to be older than some of the late books in the New Testament, offers a consistent moral program inspired by that of the New Testament; it is followed and developed by a succession of Christian documents throughout the second century, which repeat its injunction against abortion and infanticide: the Letter of Barnabas , the Letter to Diognetus , the Octavius of Minucius Felix, the Embassy of Athenagoras, the De Anima and Apologeticum of Tertullian, the Pegagogue of Clement of Alexandia, and the Refutation of Hippolytus.
Mt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-36; Rm 12:20-21.
See Burtchaell, "The Defining Ethic of the Early Church," The Giving and Taking of Life: Essays Ethical (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) 51-68.
Am 5:11-12, 21-24. See also Ho 8; Is 1:10-17.
See Mt 23: 13-32; this is vss. 23-24.