I ran across this quote in the Washington Post the other day:
“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” [Secretary of State John] Kerry said. “These things we do know.”
Of course, the Secretary of State has very difficult decisions to be a part of, and I don’t envy the weight our governing officials bear in these situations. So I’m not commenting here on the subject [the Syrian conflict] he’s addressing.
What struck me was something in the way he advanced his case, and it’s something I think is helpful for all of us to notice, because it is very much in the air we breath in all of our interactions with people today.
First, there is the strident moral tone he adopts. Mr. Kerry is representative of our entire national dialogue today on everything from the environment to marriage to abortion and on down the line. We are absolutely brimming with moral language and moral positions, but I can’t help but wonder, every time I encounter it, where does it all come from? I think it’s important for us to ask our classmates and co-workers and teachers, and in fact (in love) to hold everyone to this point: where does all this moral passion come from? Why do we feel so strongly about some things, and how can we know so clearly that we hold the right position? For instance, I would be interested to ask our Secretary of State what moral code he ascribes to, and what moral authority gives him the foundation he needs to decide things like whether to go to war? If we’re going to be motivated to do things or think things for moral reasons, shouldn’t we know the authority behind these reasons?
Second, we should see that Mr. Kerry (probably instinctively) does not mention God, and yet he is worried about being judged (morally) at some future date. The judge he’s worried about? History. And he’s not alone. These things get said every day. Though it makes it a little vague to use the impersonal word “history,” what we’re saying as a people is that we worry about what future generations will think about us. How will we be viewed by those humans who will come later? What will they write about us in their books? How will they play us in their movies?
These future generations of people will have access to the moral information they need to appraise us rightly, we seem to think, and they will decide if we were the kind of people they approve of.
Third, we should see that Mr. Kerry gives us the standard which future generations will use to judge us: “common decency.” This seems to be the idea that in the future people will share a general idea of what is “decent”–what should and shouldn’t be done–and they will look to see if we acted in accord with this idea. So the moral law we’re working with here is one shared by a large group of future humans who decide what’s decent.
Lastly, Mr. Kerry ends with the definitive statement, “These things we do know.” How he knows these things would be a very interesting avenue of conversation.
But what should Christians make of all this, and of the many similar conversations we find ourselves in on a whole host of issues?
We should affirm that there is a future judgment all human beings face, and a moral law to which we will all be held accountable. But the judge will not be future generations of humans who are just like us. The judge will be only One–God, in the person of the man Jesus Christ. Which means that his moral law is the only one we need to worry about. It’s not history we need to worry about, it’s the one who rules over history.
We should question this sense of “common decency” we’re constantly being asked to assent to. What is it? Who decides what is commonly decent? What if two people disagree? What if whole cultures disagree? And why should we care what people think about morality anyway? We need to direct people to a point of reference outside of mere humanity.
Finally, we should (as I said above) help people think about why they experience these moral positions. It just doesn’t make sense why we would all be so moral if we’re just accidents of nature. And even if we were accidentally moral, it wouldn’t mean that those morals meant anything.
But we all know, deep in our hearts, that they do mean things. This sense of “that’s right” and “that’s wrong”–even if it’s misguided, and we can’t all agree–the very existence of that moral sense at all testifies to a deeper truth about what we really are. Even if our compass is broken, we need to ask why the compass is there at all.
We are made in the image of God, who is a moral being. And so, we are too. Let’s get those around us thinking about these things, and not let people settle for unreflective herd morality.
History will have nothing to say about it in any way that matters. But God has much to say.