Faithful Ethics and an Ethical Faith

Faithful EthicsAs I write, the television, beaming non-stop coverage of Pope John Paul II’s rapidly deteriorating condition, has just reported his long expected death. All of the major television and cable networks and then some are broadcasting interviews, reflections, commentaries, pontifications and so forth, on the life of this fine man and the impact he has had on the Catholic Church and the world.

Interestingly, it was only the severe downturn of health for the Supreme Pontiff of the Church that took the glaring spotlight off of the Schiavo and Schindler families in my home state of Florida. Throughout most of the month of March 2005 the state and nation were captivated by the legal, religious, relational and ethical struggle concerning a brain-dead woman who had spent 15 years hooked up to a feeding tube. Just days ago Terri Schiavo died, a couple of weeks after the tube was removed.

For me, the entire Schiavo matter was a grueling tragedy. There was the aspect of knowing that a woman was basically starving to death while the nation watched. There was the matter of the proper rule of law, and protecting the rights of a spouse to make certain decisions. There was the larger picture of the endless debate over what constitutes a culture that favors life vs. a culture that emphasizes certain constitutional rights above all. Throughout the entire ordeal, I had no final sense of peace about how things should turn out. It just felt, on the whole, simply tragic.

Photograph by Joe RamosAnd it got me thinking about another macro concern that has stirred in my heart for some time—the unsettling and growing divide, or so it seems, between people of devout faith and the remaining culture of mostly “good” people (as Christians are fond of sadly describing people they know who have everything together except their professions of faith). I am saddened by seeing how continually ineffective higher profile people of strong faith seem to be at being an inspiration and bridge builder to the wider populace. I read in the Book of Acts in the New Testament about how so many persons who were not yet part of the Christian club had nothing but good things to say about the Christ followers, and I wish that could be replicated today.

Part of the problem is that the conservative political right and the evangelical movement have been gradually—and perhaps dangerously—morphing into shadows of one another, to where at times it is hard to distinguish one from the other. I know many Republicans who feel that it is impossible for a registered Democrat to be a person of faith, and I know many Democrats who feel it is impossible for Republicans to truly be compassionate individuals (and therefore not able to be Christ-like, since compassion was one of Jesus’ key fortes).

How has this happened? How have our public policy debates and positions become so mean-spirited, so personal, that we are passionate about ascribing people to heaven or hell? I don’t see this rift healing in any degree across the next four years. Look for a political bloodbath in Florida a year and a half from now in the Governor, Cabinet and U.S. Senate race. On the national scene, expect the 2007-2008 presidential primary and general election campaigns to be similar to the brutal Clone Wars of the “Star Wars” saga, except with fewer spaceships.

Sometimes I wonder if, when it comes to the public arena, there are any “good guys” left. It reminds me of the closing minutes of the 1970s miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Tom, as he lays dying, tells his more distinguished, politically savvy older brother Rudy, “You go get ‘em.” “Who?” Rudy replies. “The bad guys,” says Tom. Rudy begins to sob. “ I don’t who they are anymore,” he bemoans. “I think that maybe I’m one of them.”

When I see conservative politicians who are very vocal about their faith becoming very vicious in how they obliterate their opponents, I’m not sure who the good and bad guys are anymore. When I see liberal politicians who are adamant about policies that seem to threaten true expressions of religious freedom, and yet they freely step into the pulpits of certain churches to deliver sermon-speeches, I wonder who is good and who is bad.

And I look at my own heart, and I often wonder the same thing about myself. How do I find that elusive synthesis between personal faith and a consistent position on certain matters of public policy—and how do I express it in a leadership capacity without alienating gigantic chunks of the populace?

You can’t please everyone, John! I can hear some of your echoes now. Yes, I agree—believe me, life has shown me the enduring truth of that.

But can’t we raise the bar a little higher when it comes to seeking to achieve some measure of consensus and respect in this country, in this state, in this county? Can we not discover the deeper measures of an “ethical faith” and “faithful ethics,” where rather than becoming people of one side or the other we simply become people of character?

You see, I think there are transcending, enduring ethical principles that have much resonance with the particular dogmas of our faith. If we, as people of faith, will focus on those principles rather than bringing specific religion into the public arena, we are likely to be far more effective.

Part of that involves a decision to stop feeling so threatened about seeing the merits of people who stray beyond our particular theological boxes. We must instead see their thirst for God, for justice, for mercy. Broken people, quality people. People like us, if we will only admit it. Fellow journeyers. There certainly will be some bad guys, but for most people the drama subsides if we just seek to take a few steps in their shoes and develop some empathy.

It is ethical to choose good over evil, to care about people. It is also an act of faith to do these same things. When we act ethically in a political sense, we fulfill the demands of our faith!

Pitting Democrats vs. Republicans as an atheists vs. Christians sort of parallel is irresponsible, dangerous and unproductive. In the end, what may suffer the most could be our own faith and ethics. We can become so caught up in worshipping the institution (be it a political party, a candidate, a church, a denomination, a philosophy of belief), that we strip away the integrity of our hearts and souls.

Let’s be people of character instead. It’s our only hope for healing this divided nation.