Monthly Archives: August 2013

What do you expect them to do?

One of the most-read posts on this blog is What did Jesus say about slavery? People often land there by Googling exactly that question; although biblical slavery ended millenia ago, people are still troubled by it.  So, I am not totally surprised when the series on biblical slavery that I wrote almost two years ago continues to garner the occasional comment.

The latest was from Henry. I had been addressing a passage where God commands Israel to sack distant cities and enslave their populations. Henry said of the captives,

They were prisoners of war, what do you expect them [Israel] to do capture the city and let them regroup for retaliation? (Only Americans and British let their enemies go free so they can come back to fight again.)

Henry asked, “What do you expect them to do?”

I suggest that this is not the most fundamental question. It was supposedly God, not the Israelites, who came up with the idea of enslaving these cities. I suggest a better question would be, “What do you expect God to do?”

Here are some possibilities.

Instead of directing the Israelites to enslave distant cities, God could have told them, “March around the city 7 times, praying for them. Upon completion of the seventh circuit, I will send my Holy Spirit upon them. They will welcome you into their city and you are to teach them my ways.”

If that would be just too easy, God could have said, “You are to be missionaries to the distant cities. Some of you will suffer and even be killed for my Name’s sake, but you must continue to faithfully spread my love.”

If that would be asking too much, God could have just said, “Stay away from them, and I will make sure they stay away from you.”

If God had really wanted those distant cities to be judged, using Israel as his instrument (which I highly doubt), he could at least have said, “You are not to use my solemn judgement as an occasion to gratify your carnal lusts. Keep your hands off the women.” (But of course, he said just the opposite. See the last part of this post.)

…and I’m sure you can think of more ideas.

If I were to steal a loaf of bread to feed my child because I have no food, no job, no friends, no money and no alternative, few people would condemn me.

If I were to do the same thing when I had a refrigerator full of food and all the money in the world, people would think I was compulsively evil.

Of all the characters that have ever been reputed to live, the one with the most embarrassing richness of alternatives for everything he does is God. That’s why his horrible acts in the Bible troubled me enough to finally push me out of the faith.

If he exists, he could have done so much better.

Virtue, Gemstones and Art

I used to read to my children from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. The chapters are sequenced like gemstones on a bracelet: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

That’s a pretty good list. I especially like the way he leads off. Without self-discipline, compassion and responsibility you won’t get very far with the others.

As inspirational as William Bennett’s collected tales are (and my kids did love them), our understanding of virtue can grow deeper than mere lists of what it means to be good. I love this passage from Ethical Empowerment, by Arthur Schwartz.

Lists of the virtues are not difficult to find.  … Courage, Honesty, Trustworthiness, Resilience, Loyalty, Independence, Selflessness, Perseverance, Wisdom, Compassion. However, is courage or loyalty in support of a brutal, despotic regime a virtue? …   Is honesty a virtue when, in order to be honest, a promise must be broken? Is selflessness a virtue when the devotion to others is so strong that self-sacrifice leads to illness or personal ruination? … And compassion is surely a core principle of morality, but even compassion can turn sour if it is blind to issues of justice or other moral imperatives.

Specific virtues are not autonomous gems but, rather, are expressions of a deeper morality to which they owe their truth. (Kindle location 328, emphasis mine.)

Many of us wish virtues were like gems. Making a difficult moral decision would then be as easy as choosing the shiny pebble from among the dull. Alas; it’s not that simple.

Or maybe it is, but we need more sophistication. While a child may think that the biggest diamond is always the best, a professional diamond cutter balances carat, color, cut, and clarity to produce the most valuable finished product(s) from whatever hunk of compressed carbon was found in the mine.

We all know it’s the same with moral decisions. There are always competing considerations and we must make our best judgment.

As Schwartz says,

Conformity to virtue is by no means a black and white affair and it is, perhaps, more like an aesthetic judgment than it is a calculation, or perhaps it is a bit of both. (Kindle location 326, emphasis mine.)

An aesthetic judgment: life as art.

Art is even more difficult to judge than gemstones. What makes good art? In any medium, there are certain rules: symmetry, variety, novelty, and so on. Yet, art that is perfectly symmetrical is generally bad, unless other virtues such as novelty carry the day. Too much variety can be bewildering. Art that is so utterly novel that it does not connect with anything is not usually successful.

To enjoy art, it helps to be trained to recognize specific virtues in it, but that can’t be the end of the story.

Perhaps it’s the same with moral virtues. If we’re honest or compassionate, chances are good that we’re on the right track, but if we fixate on just a few virtues, we’ll probably miss others.

Virtuous living takes skill, balance and alertness to all the artistic possibilities. It’s hard. Here’s hoping that you become a virtuoso.