Why do moral revolutions happen?

Rev'd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 27th July, 2014

Trinity 6A: Genesis 29: 15-28; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Why do moral revolutions happen?

This is the sub-title of a fascinating book by the Ghanaian-born historian Kwami Anthony Appiah called The Honour Code. In it, he discusses three historical episodes in which there has occurred a dramatic reversal in moral practices: duelling, the foot binding of well-born Chinese girls, and transatlantic slavery. In each case, argues Appiah, change came about not so much because of specifically moral argument, but because these practices came to be regarded as “dishonourable” by society-at-large. Thus, in the early 19th century respect for the duel declined as people lost respect for the aristocracy. Foot binding died out at the when it became apparent to the Chinese that the practice was incurring the disrespect of the international community of which at the cusp of the 20th century they were increasingly becoming a part. The 19th century abolitionist movement gained insuperable strength when reformers began to persuade the working classes that slavery epitomised the indignity of their own labour. Although, people were pallidly aware of moral arguments against these conventions, real change only came about - and Appiah points out that when change came about it came about very quickly - when the perpetrators of these practices began to experience real social ostracism. Appiah also presents a fourth case – the “honour” killing in modern Pakistan of girls and young women who are thought by their male relatives to have had sex outside marriage, including rape, thus bringing family honour into disrepute. The moral revolution has not yet happened here but he shows how it might come about.

We should take an interest in this because I think it is highly relevant to many of the moral debates we are currently having in the Church of England and in wider society. In the past few weeks, the Church has passed legislation allowing women to become bishops thus smashing the glass ceiling that previously obstructed women from the highest leadership positions. Clergy have controversially started to take advantage of new laws allowing members of the same sex to marry each other, much to the chagrin of their bishops. Only last week the House of Lords debated a controversial bill proposing a change in the law to allow assistance to mentally capable terminally ill patients with a settled, informed, and voluntary wish to commit suicide. Each of these changes constitutes, or would constitute, a moral revolution, overturning centuries-old assumptions and practices.

Why are these particular moral revolutions happening? How is it that practices considered morally wrong for centuries are now perfectly acceptable to majority of people in society?

I doubt it is because there are new arguments of which we were previously unaware. Perhaps we have reached a point in our society’s moral evolution where the public-at-large regard traditional attitudes to women and same-sex couples as dishonourable, if not unintelligible. That’s why the current Archbishop of Canterbury who actually holds conservative views on same-sex marriage has cannily confessed that the culture war over homosexuality is well and truly lost. He has very quickly recognised that the Church’s stance on this issue has utterly bewildered the under-40. He knows that it will cause the Church a great deal of reputational damage if it continues to bang the drum.

Can we say the same of assisted suicide?

It is still the case that very few countries have liberal laws on assisted suicide. In the UK, the jury is still out. That much is clear from the very impressive recent debate in the House of Lords with strong arguments emanating from both supporters and opponents of the draft bill. However, will the day come when to hold conservative views on assisted suicide will attract general opprobrium and dishonour? Moreover, if that day comes, how should the Church respond, especially, given that there is great diversity of opinion within the Church already?

However, just because the majority of the population believe that a particular practice is acceptable does not necessarily make it right. There have been times in Christian history when the Church has taken a stand against conventional wisdom. For example, pagan society noted the early Christians for their bias towards the poor and vulnerable. The early Christians did not expose their newborn infants on hillsides, and often took care of those that were by others. In the fourth century, the pagan Emperor, Julian the Apostate, complained that “the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” The example of Jesus’ compassion for the sick was the primary motivation for the eventual emergence of hospices and hospitals. People came to recognise these as peculiarly Christian institutions. Christianity introduced an unprecedented note of compassion into a hard and barbarous pagan world. At the level of imperial policy, Christian practices were regarded initially as dishonourable, but even among the pagans the more discerning recognised that a new spirit was being infused into society.

At the end of our gospel reading, there is a curious verse, which reads: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”. To be honest, nobody really knows quite what it means. But I will have a go. The scribe was a person learned in the Jewish scriptures and tradition – the Old Covenant. Although Jesus had his run-ins with learned Jewish teachers – the scribes and the Pharisees – some of them became Christian. For example, Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul, was a Pharisee, unsurpassed in his mastery of the Jewish Law. When they received the Gospel, they did not jettison the tradition into which they had been immersed. Rather, they used the Gospel as a prism through which they could discern and preserve within the treasury the elements of enduring value.

This verse comes at the end of a catalogue of parables attempting to convey what the Kingdom of God is like, doing so by comparing it to realities with which his listeners were familiar. The Kingdom of God, whatever it is, is greater than the reality with which we are familiar. It is infinitely precious. It is invisibly growing amongst us. It offers security in a dark and cruel world. Moreover, these parables appear in a Gospel in which Jesus enjoins us to seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness first. Our morality is to be shaped by the values of the Kingdom and the demands of God’s righteousness, rather than the particular honour codes that happen to prevail in society.

However, this begs the $64 k question. What have these to say about the vexed issues of our day, women bishops, same-sex marriage and assisted suicide? Has the Church, or is the Church, simply caving in to modern secular values, in order to remain ‘relevant’, and in so doing, subverting, the kind of community we are called to be, and the society we are called to help shape?

We affirm a God who Jesus says provides for us and knows every hair on our head, and the Son of God who is meek and gentle in spirit. On the vexed question of assisted suicide, on which there is a wide variety of opinion even in this congregation, my concern relates to the kind of culture in which this debate is taking place. In the West, we live in a highly consumerist culture, where individualist values reign supreme, where family networks are loose and disparate. Society does not afford the elderly the respect they can take for granted elsewhere. Indeed, we have recently learned that elder abuse is widespread, both in the domestic and clinical settings. Moreover, an intense fear of dependency and being a burden of others matches our rising culture of human rights. For my part, I believe we now live in a hard and severe age symptomatic of a creeping neo-paganism, impatient with weakness and vulnerability and economic non-productivity.

Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of it. However, Jesus does not call us to retreat into fortress evangelica. Rather, he calls us to exercise critical distance from the world. We are to affirm the world’s values where they are in alignment with those of the kingdom, and to question the status quo when they do not. The requirement of what is good and true binds us, rather than prevailing honour code. Amen.

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