Paul Griffin on Christian morals and where they stand in relation to ordinary human morality and common sense
What are specifically Christian morals? If we can decide that, it may help us find our way through the problems that beset us. Our main problem seems to be that every other instruction of Our Lord seems to conflict with common sense. If someone takes my mackintosh, I am to give the thief my overcoat. If someone punches me, I am to encourage him to have another go.
The first thing to say is that just as Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it, we do not have to deny ordinary human morality and common sense, which are gifts of God anyway. Specifically Christian morals are an extra, not a substitute.
Society offers ordinary remedies like counselling, probation and psychotherapy. If these are too formal for us, problems may still be solved by suspending punishment, offering to excuse an offence on condition the offender attends Alcoholics Anonymous, or Anger Control, or whatever. Sadly for our inner urges, a clip on the ear is rarely a solution, for there are other courses consistent with kindness.
One does not want to encourage people in violence or dishonesty, and both we and the ancient Jews have a law spelling out how we are to correct them. Would Our Lord disapprove of all this, when it has roots in what we understand of biblical teaching?
So we turn back to the New Testament, and find parables that seem to suggest impossibilities. Is it so wicked or natural for the labourers in the vineyard to be ruffled when the late arrivals are rewarded, or for the Prodigal Son’s brother to feel miffed at his sibling’s treatment? I suppose it can be said that it is a question of being tempted, which is not a sin.
We may long to do the wrong thing, but the essence of any morality, Christian or other, is not to give way. Fair enough; but that is still not a specifically Christian way. If we should resist temptation, what else is left to do?
Like Alice, I suddenly find myself walking back towards my original concern, our current church organization. There are so many moral dilemmas over that. A gleam of light exists there, in that the Archbishop has been right to refrain from the entirely reasonable punishment TEC has otherwise earned for itself, by combining larceny of our name with violence to our principles. His forbearance seems somehow in a line with those strange examples of Our Lord’s. Can we show a similar forbearance in the irritation we feel towards others closer to home, and can they with the resentment they feel towards us? By human logic, one side is presumably right and the other wrong.
The extra mile
In our puzzlement, we turn to the masterly C.S. Lewis, and read: ‘I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare’ [Mere Christianity, based on his wartime broadcasts]. When we relate this to Our Lord’s words, perhaps we may begin to see a difference between Christian and human morals.
In all our troubles, it is the extra mile that is the Christian mile. Our human laws, like the Jewish Law, can cope with most eventualities. Specifically Christian morals are the extra bit, and cannot be subject to any law. They operate in each separate situation; so the curious actions recommended by Jesus are not to be codified, because each one is unique. In that sense, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to help.