Many years ago, my wife and I were having a marital "moral discourse," and I was becoming increasingly agitated. In my fury, I yelled at her and aimed my fist at a section of the dining room wall. Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit failed to guide my hand between the studs, as he usually had done, and instead I hit a stud right on. I broke a knuckle.
A deathly silence settled in the room. While I came from a family in which nothing got done until someone yelled, Barb came from a family in which yelling brought things to a standstill. She was not going to speak to me for weeks. As I writhed in physical pain, I also writhed in emotional pain. I was a moral failure of a husband.
Recently, the front page of the Chicago Tribune showed Al Gore testifying before Congress about global warming. The accompanying article said, "Gore was at his most passionate when he spoke of a 'moral imperative' that members of Congress have to act in light of new evidence that global warming is getting worse."
This strong language was surely chosen deliberately by Gore. A moral imperative is a command from a higher authoritypresumably God, the architect of all moralityand leaves little wiggle room. If we fail to obey a moral imperative, then, logically and naturally, we are guilty of immorality, or sin.
There was similar story on that same front page. Gay activists were dismayed by Senator Barak Obama's initial hesitancy to distance himself from the comments of Peter Pace, who had said, "Homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral." In the days following, the general was called everything from "insensitive" to "bigoted."
One Obama supporter said, "[Obama's] inability to make strong, declarative sentences in support of our issues is disheartening . I hope he shows a little bit more moral courage for his friends." Eventually, Obama announced he found nothing immoral about homosexuals, and thus he was temporarily rehabilitatedredeemed politically by distancing himself from an immoral general.
The ironieswhich are legion hereare not my point as much as how we use the word moral in the public square. That day, the morality card was mostly played by liberals, but on other days, it's conservatives who pull it out to intimidate the opposition or to cajole allies into line. It is practiced within parties, across parties, and across nations.
Christian activists, as we might expect, often pull this card out of their tunics, especially when they get in a prophetic mood. They are getting in this mood more and more lately, making everything and anything a great moral issue. The budget has become a "moral document" to some, as the Federal Marriage Amendment is to others. For many Christian activists, Left and Right, moral posturing has become politics as usual.
This is surprising considering how biblical teaching runs in precisely the opposite direction. For the Christian, moral discourse begins by focusing not on the sins of the other but on one's own failures. "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." It is the publican's humble prayer that is accepted by God, and it is the Phariseewho is confident of his morality and the other's immoralitywho is condemned. Moral discourse begins, as Jesus said, by taking the log out of our own eye.
Rarely do we hear a politician publicly concede wrongdoing. A stunning exception to this was demonstrated to me last year in Vietnam. I was part of a delegation that was pressing the government to grant more religious freedom. One official in the ministry of foreign affairs startled me when he said, "On our part, we're not saying that we are error- or mistake- free. That is why we very much want to improve things."
Would that more Christian activistseven behind closed doorsframed their public denunciations by admitting their own political shortcomings first.
A Christian account of the world, though, goes even deeper. For the politician, immorality is "redeemed" by public condemnation and by distancing oneself from the immoral. The disciple of Jesus, however, embraces the immoral and opens the door of redemption by that very embrace.
As I tried awkwardly, with one hand, to sweep up the bits of sheetrock strewn on the floor, I felt a hand on my arm. I turned around, and it was Barb. She said something apologetic. I said something apologetic. And then she embraced me for a long time.
She had every right to pronounce a grand moral imperative, condemn my behavior, and distance herself from me. That surely would have taught me a lesson. Instead, she embraced the angry sinner, and rather than teaching me a lesson, she helped heal me.
This Friday we Christians celebrate a similar event, albeit one of cosmic proportions. In his life, Jesus so identified with the immoral, spent so much time with them, that the good people of his day mistook him for a sinner. On Good Friday, Jesus continued the story. He did not distance himself from sin as much as embrace it in himself. And by this embrace, he made redemption possible.
How Christian activists combine public moral pronouncements with personal humilitywell, that's something with which they are called to wrestle. To be sure, some historical moments demand the moral imperative. Martin Luther King Jr. used it magnificently in the civil rights movement. But for him, it wasn't so much a political tactic as it was the plain truth. Our problem today is that we pull out the moral imperative card so often, we risk taking the Lord's name in vain.
More to the point for the rest of us: I sometimes wonder if we are starting to let our Republic's moral political discourse shape our private discourse. We see so much moral posturing in the news, we're tempted to address disputes in the family, in the neighborhood, and in the church in the same way. You should hear the moral imperatives I pronounce in my mind when I'm angry at another!
But there is another imperative, that transcends morality and has little to do with obeying commands. It is that publican impulse to confess one's own sin first and the Jesusy desire to embrace the immoral one, even the one who has done us wrong. It is called the Good Friday life.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. To comment on this column, go to www.markgalli.com/galliblog.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Al Gore testified before congress about global warming.
Obama and Clinton clarified their beliefs about homosexuality in response to pressure.
General Pace now says he regrets his remarks about gays, but has not retracted them.