Moral witness involves risk. When we reexamine inherited morals, when we question social structures, and when we attempt to make things right, we risk being wrong. Nevertheless, we must make an attempt, coming together as a community full of differing opinions theologies and experience, to discern the will of God.
From our first thinking moments, we have seen ourselves within the natural world as part of God’s good creation. We recognize our equality with all of humanity; we are siblings in the Kingdom of God. This kinship includes family, friends, strangers, and enemies. We are in relationship not because we like each other, not because we are always in agreement, and not because one of us controls the other, but because we are equally loved by God. God’s kin-dom extends beyond family, beyond the church, and beyond Christianity.
Each person is bestowed worth by God’s love. God’s grace enables our recognition of the image of God in each other before we are ever aware of it. In addition to our awareness of the possibilities and limitations, a faithful moral witness requires a reverence for nature and basic political rights. Profoundly, the experience of bearing witness challenges us to consider all of created existence in light of faith.
Etiquette, Morals, and Ethics
Of etiquette, morals and ethics, each level offers opportunity for both justice and injustice. We fail to offer a credible and faithful moral witness when our regard for etiquette leads to apathy and indifference to suffering, when our moral codes are motivated more by social respectability than love of God, and when our ethical justification becomes self-serving rationalizations. It is a messy business.
Etiquette and Civility
We cannot get along in society—or with anyone else—without some practice of etiquette or civility. Words, attire, social customs, and body language are all aspects of etiquette. When we follow proper etiquette, we conform to the social expectations of our culture, context, role, and relationship to other persons. There is usually no moral discernment required when observing proper etiquette; we simply conform to what is expected of us.
For example, in the United States it is typically expected that I shake hands when meeting someone, each of us using our right hand. The ritual does not work if one of us uses the left hand. However, in some organizations, such as Scouts BSA, members will greet each other with a left-handed shake. Neither is wrong; it is only a matter of being appropriate to the circumstance.
There is no transcendent or higher law associated with rules of etiquette, which vary tremendously from culture to culture. This is not to say, however, that etiquette is morally neutral. It typically supports the status quo, just and unjust alike, and provides little traction for imagining a more just world. While adhering to proper etiquette may not require moral discernment, refusal to observe etiquette often does. Etiquette, or civility, can serve both as a guide to healthy relationships and as a means of reinforcing unjust social structures.
Too many people mistakenly believe that being polite is an adequate substitute for recognizing the inherent and equal dignity of all humanity. Appeals to etiquette are not always helpful to the church’s moral witness and can even be harmful without a context of justice.
For example, in 1963, white leaders of Birmingham, Alabama, (USA) believed that African American citizens were not behaving properly as they protested the city’s racial segregation. Proper “racial etiquette” for African Americans in Alabama at that time (often enforced by law) required deference to whites in all aspects of social interaction. Several clergies in Alabama made an “appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense,” on April 12, 1963. The “common sense” part of this appeal could simply refer to white folks’ sense of etiquette. Their request belied the unjust power structure at the time: the laws of Birmingham did not recognize the “Nigro citizenry” as full and equal citizens. The white clergy leaders said that the nonviolent resistance efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. were “unwise and untimely.” Whose timetable and whose interests were they prioritizing?
Moral and Holy Living
Morals, in contrast to etiquette, involve a recognition of what is right and good. Often, morals are ingrained from an early age. When a parent tells a child, “Behave yourself” the child is expected to act in a way that she has been taught is right. This admonition works only with a rightly formed conscience within the context of specific relationships. We learn morals by rote and through practice. Good character, formed overtime through practice conducive to right behavior, will strengthen our ability to act morally. This is the basis of virtues in Christian morality. Morals are handed down through traditions, taught in school, and upheld in law. However, most morals are contextual: they are culturally conditioned and change overtime. Thus, appeals to morals in the church’s witness must be open to testing.
What we consider immoral for one generation at one point in history might be considered morally neutral or even good at another point in time. For example, some Christians of my grandparent’s generation learned that playing cards and billiards were immoral diversions. Remember the song “Ya Got Trouble” from the Music Man? It bemoans a new development right in their idyllic town of River City: “trouble with a capital T/and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!” This musical, set in 1912, depicted the cultural values into which my grandmother was born. The difference in morals across two generations explains why she was puzzled and amazed that our church congregation in the 1980s installed a pool table in the youth lounge.
Because morals can change overtime, rules against certain behaviors are often contested in the church.
When enforcement becomes particularly legalistic, this is an indication that morals are in flux.
Situations of contested morals can serve both to reinforce the church’s moral witness and to expose it as insufficient. The context of Christian understanding is essential for keeping us attuned to the faith behind these moral rules. Ethical discernment is crucial precisely at such times.
Ethics and Public Policy Advocacy
A third level of moral witness is ethics, the intentional practice of examining our morals. Ethical reflection is needed especially when morals change or become contested. Ethics provide tools for seeking validation, explaining reasons, and connecting with logic. This is the task of ethics. Ethics is self-critical reflection on what is right, good, and virtuous. When we try to make sense of what we have been taught about morals, we are engaged in ethics.
Ethics require not only acting in a right or good manner but also for the right reasons. Intent matters. Ethics also involves a consideration of consequences. Ethical behavior is responsible. We can learn to be polite and to act morally without questioning what we have been taught, but we can only claim to act ethically when we have determined its validity for ourselves. The church’s public policy advocacy illustrates intentional efforts of ethical engagement.
Public policy advocacy requires ethical and theological discernment. Fortunately, the core of the gospel is not at stake in most public policy discussions. What is at stake is our witness as Christians in the way in which we treat each other. Too many public debates motivated by religious principles devolve into demonization of those who think, believe, or act differently.
Thus, we must have the humility to be cautious of asserting that God is on our side about specific issues.
An Ambiguous and Necessary Task
The church’s moral witness is more complex and demanding then supporting any single policy proposal. Moral witness is an ambiguous but necessary undertaking. Yet, we must take action motivated by faith even when we cannot have complete certainty. The church’s moral witness is always in process, unfinished, incomplete, and uncertain. We recognize that determining a moral witness on the tough issues facing church and society today is a courageous task. There is risk involved, whether we are bold, timid, or silent. We cannot escape the fact that what we do or do not do, and what we say or do not say, constitutes a witness to our faith—or exposes our lack of faith. This is a daunting and necessary task. However, we are not left morally adrift-listening for the Holy Spirit will help guide us.
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Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)
Bearing Witness to the Kin-dom by Darryl W. Stephens