Is Morality a Dirty Word?

Subtitled: Has our culture lost its moral compass?

There was a time, still relatively easy to access in our collective memory, when morality was very black and white and, more importantly, the same for everyone.

You could appeal to this collective morality about anything, because we all agreed about what was right or wrong. We all went to church every Sunday. We all banded together to fight threats like WWII or the Depression. We all believed in God as He is depicted in the Bible. If you and another person had a disagreement about what was right or wrong, it was fairly easy to resolve, because we all believed the same things.

So simple. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to that?

Except it wasn’t that great for everyone. We mistrusted anyone who was different. As a society, we punished or ostracized people who didn’t believe as we did, were raised with different values, or who stood out in any way. (Immigrants, racial minorities, LBGT people, and women who wanted to have more rights come to mind.)

Because of these oppressions, our society went all the way in the opposite direction. Any kind of universal morality was abandoned as if it it were a gross and offensive hot potato. Mentioning God in certain circles is like dropping the naughtiest of swear words. And when we try to appeal to others on the basis of any kind of moral high ground, it soon feels like we’re speaking a foreign language that our hearers can’t understand.

The older generations (people my age and older) feel understandably lost and frightened in this bizarre landscape. We had certain moral values instilled in us by our parents. We wonder, why aren’t parents today teaching their children those same moral values? Surely everything that’s wrong in our world is because our children aren’t saying prayers publicly in school anymore, because they’re not saying the pledge (which most schools still do, by the way), because they’re not learning all the subtle nuances of behavior in a morally black-and-white world. We throw up our hands in dismay. WHAT is going to happen to these future generations who were never given a proper moral compass, as we were?

And yet, that desire within us for a universal morality still exists. You see it in almost every argument or debate, in every setting. One person has a strong inner sense of morality. The other person has an equally strong sense of morality; however, because we are so individualistic, their beliefs about the moral high road are quite different. This has the effect of making us feel like we are speaking different languages, in which it’s impossible to understand others’ point-of-view or to make ourselves understood. We are united in our desire for a moral universe, but deeply divided on what that moral universe should look like.

At some point during my career as public school teacher, we became aware that schools needed some kind of universal morality. Children and teens all learned a very different set of morals from their families, mostly taught by example rather than explicitly stated. Hence we couldn’t appeal to our students on any moral ground because everyone’s morals were so different. A number of initiatives cropped up over the years to try to give the students some kind of universal morality. We usually gave it a name like Citizenship or Leadership or Character. Yet it always seemed to me that these were too vague. Good citizenship for one person looks different from good citizenship for someone else. The same with character; what does that even mean? I could tell you what it means to me, but your perception of it might be very different.

I think these efforts by the public schools reveal something important about our society. Despite our individualism, we yearn to share some kind of universal morality, something we can all appeal to, a set of agreements about the way people are supposed to treat one another in this world. But how can we get there? Is it possible to create a set of agreements like this without punishing or ostracizing those who are different?

I believe that Jesus had the best answers to these questions. The ancient Hebrew people had universal morality in spades, with an elaborate set of rules for every occasion. Stories from Jesus’ ministry reveal the ways certain groups were hurt or oppressed by the system: women, Samaritans, the poor. When Jesus was asked which of their hundreds of rules was the most important, he responded: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Jesus’ view, a love for God spills out naturally into a love for others. A respect for a higher power in the universe who created each one of and gave us our sense of purpose leads us to recognize the sacred purpose of our neighbors too. A neighbor is anyone with whom we share a sense of community either because we inhabit the same street, the same town, the same country, or the same world.

An elaborate system of rules about things like prayer in school, saying the pledge, or even going to church every Sunday won’t get us anywhere in finding a set of moral values we can all share. In some ways, it just creates more division. But imagine if every person in our world could agree on the sacredness of every individual as created in God’s image? What if every person loved their neighbor as themselves?

Some version of this kind of morality forms the foundation of every major religion of the world. That alone really tells you something about how universal this code of ethics is. It’s almost as if this moral code exists already within our DNA, but because we don’t articulate it or discuss it, we often forget about it.

One of the functions of the new covenant with Jesus was a “law that is written on our hearts.” Because of this new covenant, we no longer need an elaborate set of rules explaining how to be good, moral people. And we no longer have to learn a specific belief system from our parents or our teachers. Because everything we need for morality already exists within us.

Let’s start by acknowledging the sacredness of every individual person, their unique role in God’s creation. If we all start there, we could soon be speaking the same moral language again.

And what a relief that would be.

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