I write this article from the 11th floor of the King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem during the final days of the K-House/B.A.S.E. Tour of Israel. Earlier this month, my hometown barber stated, “What we need is a shared morality.” The word immoral is used ubiquitously and improperly by so many today. Too often, some policy or situation is described as immoral to show the disdain the speaker has for it. With this article, I hope to stir a conversation in your head or at your dinner table about the emerging modern morality.
Presentism is “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Bill Maher gives an irreverent and sometimes crude monologue which delves into the implications of presentism.
He describes presentism as the “belief that people who lived one hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago really should have known better.” If this be presentism, then I say a hearty YES! I have lived for parts of seven decades, and I certainly know today better than I did yesterday about how to behave and how to engage in a challenging society. However, presentism goes much further than maturing into a better decision-maker. It insists on ascribing horrible and creepy motives to the decisions of yesteryear. Under presentism, all the women and men of history are evil, not merely wrong. And presentism allows us to congratulate ourselves for living today rather than so long ago since we are so much more aware and decent and “moral.” Our eyes are opened, and with this improved vision, we avoid making the horrible and abhorrent choices of our parents and their parents.
My heart is moved by the story of Mimi Groves, who used a racial slur four years ago in a now-viral Tik Tok video. I am sure her 20-year-old self regrets the words spoken by her 16-year-old self. She was forced to relinquish her admission to the university of her dreams, along with her position on its cheerleading squad. The Netflix series Stranger Things in Season 4 introduces viewers to Vecna, the villain behind the suffering of so many characters. His punishment is imposed on his victims as he judges each according to the worst moment of his victims and allows no room for remorse or repentance, let alone growth.
The Holy Bible tells its readers that “(God) has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
Along with this harsh judgment of our historical morality comes a corresponding and necessary rejection of it. As the reasoning goes, whatever precepts and principles supported the evil choices must themselves be rejected. The Judeo-Christian morality – let’s call it the Ten Commandments – was inadequate to stop the horrors and mistakes of the past. Even the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” becomes suspect under our modern morality. Insufficient is treating others how you want them to treat you; we must anticipate how they want to be treated or addressed and prepare to face the consequences if we fail to meet their standards. Cancel culture thrives under this dynamic.
My premise is that the Modern Morality is summarized in the phrase “do no harm.” We have all heard, “if I am not hurting anybody, why should it matter to you.” I have watched enough western movies to understand that the gang of outlaws terrorizes the town without doing anything illegal (at least at first.) Recent news reports tell of Compton, California, which suffered from street takeovers by large groups of cars and crowds doing burnouts and doughnuts on the public streets. Local officials installed Bott’s Dots to discourage this activity. I can imagine the participants of this activity defending it by saying, “we are not hurting anybody.”
Have you, Gracious Reader, said these words to justify your actions? Years ago, I gave a teaching during which I said, “When I find money on the ground, the one person I know it does not belong to is me.” I usually look around for its owner, and I have no doubt I have been duped on more than one occasion. One of the members of the church served as a waiter at a national chain restaurant, and he took these words to heart. He found a misplaced gift card with a significant balance on it. Instead of pocketing it, which was a common practice among the staff of the restaurant, he did his best to find its rightful owner. He was successful, and it turned out to be a lovely elderly couple who regularly frequented his location. They were touched by his integrity and impressed that he put into action the words of a Sunday sermon! What a testimony to all involved and all who hear the story.
We live by a moral code whose genesis comes from one of three paths:
- decreed by an authority;
- agreed upon by a majority; or
- decided based on the individual’s autonomy.
With the dismissal of any transcendent or traditional authority – either God’s or government – we are left with rule by the majority or by the individual. We see the outcome of mob rule in the many protests and riots of the past few years. And nobody can characterize these as “doing no harm.” Rarely has the mob or rule led to a peaceful and benign coexistence. It establishes an “us versus them” struggle where the stronger wins – truly the worst of what democracy promises.
This mantra, “do no harm,” is linked most closely to autonomy. It insists on freedom to “do what I want” as long as I “do no harm.” The book of Judges, with its several very disturbing and disgusting accounts, closes in its final verse with the phrase, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And now we get to it – how can the individual decide whether a given action harms nobody? We are told that “silence is violence,” and we are told that “words are violence.” This contradiction cannot endure. The list of microaggressions grows daily, and anybody can add to it. I grew up in a time when we chanted, ”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am so glad my kids did not grow up with this, and yet each has been the subject of cruel and hurtful words. Now, the casual use of a racial slur can derail a promising and hopeful college and cheerleading path. If the standard is to do no harm, who decides what is harmful? In protecting the person subjected to one uncomfortable or unacceptable act, we risk harming somebody else. And we sort this out by establishing classes of persons and ascribe goodness to one group while demanding the other group be deemed evil.
I try to include in my articles an explicit or implicit “ask” of the reader. I shared my draft article with a fellow tour member named Erika. She wrote to me in an email. “The best education we can give ourselves is the Word of God. In order to try to be like our Savior, we have to really get to know the Author by His book. It’s really the only gauge we have to attempt to do no harm unto others and be the best ambassadors we can possibly be. Unfortunately, while being in this world, we might not escape hurting others. The only thing we have as Christians is that by His Grace, no matter how bad we are, He still calls us His Beloved.” Thank you, Erika. And one last quote from the aforementioned Bill Mahar video, “In today’s world, when truth conflicts with narrative, it’s the truth that has to apologize.” That sounds like the tagline for another article.