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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Lesser evils

It certainly wan't my intention; but I seem to have hit a nerve the other day, with a post that turned out to raise more issues than I had imagined it would. At the end of that discussion, Tripp topped things off with one of those questions. You know-- the quick and easy query, for which there is neither quick nor easy answer (yet another moment I'm reminded how much I love that man, and how much he makes me crazy).

What did I mean, he asked, when I made reference to "the lesser of evils?"

A good question indeed, and one which, as Frank might say, holds a lot in tension. On one hand, I do believe that evil is evil. Sin is simply, well, sinful; and despite what intentions may be behind them, wrongs we commit are still wrong.

Ah, but determining exactly what is evil, sinful and wrong is a trickier business. Now, being a Christian, I can't help but state the obvious: we can turn to the Bible for help in this. There's certainly enough teaching about it; one of the overarching themes and purposes of scripture is the discussion of good and evil, and instructions directing us to choose the one and avoid the other. There are the 10 Commandments, of course... murder, theft and adultery are classic no-nos. Heck, the whole Levitical holiness code is focused on teaching what is acceptable and what is abomination. Then there's Paul, with his fondess for making lists (one of the things he and I have in common), who offers several instructions, like the following to the Galatians:
"The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."

So, with all that guidance, this should be easy, right? Follow the rules, and stay out of trouble.

However, as AKMA is famous for reminding people, "It's more complicated than that." When, for example, does holding fast to godly principle against opposition, devolve into the dissention that Paul condemns as an act of a sinful nature? When does enjoyment of good food shift to gluttony, or appreciation of a glass of wine lead to drunkenness? At what point in a relationship might sincere love and admiration, unmonitored, slip over into adulterous contemplation?

Further, how do I cope when faced with a choice between ideas, actions or behaviors, when all the choices appear to be frought with elements that faith and conscience tell me cross the line between right and wrong?

This last arena is where Brother Tripp's question falls, because I don't have the ability to discern the whole of any truth, or to foresee the consequences of my choices. I cannot make them in the full knowledge of good and evil, to be sure that I am acting rightly--only God can do that. With the best will in the world, the most I can do is see through the glass darkly.

And so, within my fallible human nature, I prayerfully try to work through in my mind and heart which path to take. And one of the ways I do that is to try to weigh my options, and what I know of that piece of the truth which I see (or think I see). Which action, or decision, might result in greater good-- not only (or even primarily) for myself, but for the people and the world around me? And which choice might lead to lesser evil?

Lord, I wish I had definitive answers to these questions.

Please pray for me, a sinner.


Blogger Reverend Ref + said...

You and me both.

December 16, 2004 11:28 AM  

Blogger Dawgdays said...

When talking about "greater good" and "lesser evil", it helps to understand what you mean by greater and lesser.

One framework I've read about breaks things into static patterns of inorganic, biological, societal and intellectual value. The value increases as you go through the list, but there is tension between the levels.

Wars are sometimes fought for the preservation of a society, and during the war, biological individuals die. I think this can be seen as greater good/lesser evil. However, in a one on one, individual to individual situation, it is much more difficult to where the greater and lesser lie.

Unfortunately, most wars are not fought to protect a society, at least not the recent ones. I think the last one may have been World War II, though that's probably subject to debate.

I was going to mention the Iraq war here, but I might do that over in the other post. It seems to fit better there.

There is one level in this framework that is above all of these, the "dynamic". That is what drives change within and between levels. It's what we see in evolution. It's what we saw in the rise of technology. I even see it in the church and homosexuality - societally, homosexuality is wrong, but intellectually, homosexuals are people too.

The dynamic is what finally convinced me that the death penalty is wrong. One never knows what ideas and what change could arise from any individual.

This is ethics and metaphysics, and I know I'm not doing it justice. But it is one of the ways that I look at things, however darkly.


December 16, 2004 10:51 PM  

Anonymous Parker Goldbach said...

This is very informative. I hope to see more in the near future

December 12, 2005 10:20 AM  

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