Years ago I got called to participate in a political survey. I had a bit of time and I said I would participate. The interviewer kept giving me either/or options to answer a set of questions, either A or B. I kept refusing. The questions were leading, the options were not equal. The survey was designed to get me to agree to a political stand I didn’t like by presenting no real alternative. I kept questioning the presumptions of the answers I had to choose between… and my interviewer was getting frustrated. Just answer the question sir, A or B. “But B presumes things that are ridiculous and I don’t like A and can see why you want me to say it.” Sir, I’m just asking the questions, and those are the only two options; you can say only A or B.
They were forced-choices questions, like those we might use in any experiment to test ethics or morality or values. Do you let a train hit three kids playing on a train track or do you hit the switch moving the train onto a track that is known to no longer be used but there is one kid playing on it? Choose. No in between. No second scenario—you get either A or B. You have to instantly decide: is it better to let three die who shouldn’t have been there and are dying only because you didn’t choose to kill someone else in their place…or is it better to actively cause the death of only one child in the act of saving three?
I don’t really like such questions.
They might form interesting debates. But the world is rarely a place of forced choices. There are so many more options available; I find the world to be a sea of ambiguity, with very little that is objectively right or wrong. Unless of course I make myself the sole arbiter of right and wrong…. It’s convenient when I make myself god in such a way. But I am not god. On that I wish to be quite clear.
But for a moment I’m going to give you a slight variation of a forced-choice exercise.
When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees to confront the woman caught in adultery (John 8), which response of Jesus comes to mind first?
I will not condemn you.
Go and sin no more.
I know, it’s not a fair question, but play along. Which comes to mind first?
I ask because I think it’s important on two levels. First, I think it’s interesting to test our own “go to move” of whether we want first to hear about Jesus’ grace or Jesus’ judgement. What do you gravitate to? I will tell you that I struggle with the latter and love the former—and that is about to be very clear.
I also think that what is so important about this text in John is that it reminds us that this text can NEVER (authentically at least) be a forced-choice exercise. Because Jesus does both.
For Jesus this test was really about how he was being tested by the Pharisees and how they want to force him to either break the law or break her heart. And Jesus turned it on them… which of you is free from sin… whoever that is, let that one enact the punishment she is due. They do not. Because they know…they aren’t really any better than she is—they have simply hidden it better or done so in more socially acceptable ways. So they disperse. But then the rub. Jesus says, “and I do not condemn you either.” Now Jesus surely fits the bill of one able to do so. Surely he is, as we say, without sin. But he won’t do it. He will not condemn her. But he still tells her, go and sin no more. What? Is that law without accountability? Surely she will never feel the need to obey now that he has absolved her of consequence??? And yet…he didn’t absolve her to behave however she wants. He wants and desires that she sin no more…but he isn’t going to condemn her for her failures.
And this is my rub with the world right now. We condemn everywhere.
We have turned the world into a series of forced-choice exercises. An either/or world in which you are either right or wrong—you have either chosen the exact course I am on, or you are wrong. There is no room in this view for moral ambiguity and shades of grey, and I will confess this: I am not made for such a world. I see far too many shades. And I’m far too tired of blaming the world for being willing to engage in moral ambiguity. There is a time and place for everything under the sun, and I’m grateful to be in a world in which we form a chorus of different voices rather than all singing the same tune.
This came to light for me in a very real-world way when I blogged last April in support of Planned Parenthood (you can find that here). I saw these workers who were willing to engage moral ambiguity for the sake of serving a population of people who felt they had no choices in life. They do not tell these people: either you are are right…or you are wrong. They present options and walk the journey to where that one chooses to go. And this is a journey I appreciate (even, and particularly, if I don’t always agree with the choices the other makes that I would not have made). I’m willing to acknowledge that this means PP leans heavily on the “I do not condemn you either approach” over the “go and sin no more” approach. But I think that is of value. I think that is what it means to when we say “God with us.” God is with us, not separated from us because of our sin. God chose us over purity. And so I said and so I have supported the work of PP to choose people over moral high ground. And I had many many people condemn me for it.
Since that time I have learned a lot about the consequences of supporting Planned Parenthood. I sat with a wonderful clergy member who works for them, and he shared the ways he has been targeted by campaigns filled with condemnation, not just of his support but of his very person. I felt, in just a small way, some of that same attack. And I heard again about a month ago of other pastors who have been targeted, quite literally, for attack by groups that stand strongly opposed to the work of Planned Parenthood.
I respect the moral conviction of these people. I really do. But I cannot condone their condemnation and stone throwing. I won’t name anyone in particular because…well then I’m doing the same thing, aren’t I? And I’d rather move us forward by building people up than tearing others down. And I cannot condone the tasks of condemning others because it isn’t productive. When we go on the attack, we do not give the conversation a chance. No one can be changed by it. And maybe that is the point: we don’t want to change either, so it’s easier to choose a tactic that will result in no change than to admit you might not be all right.
I do not believe I am all right. I do think I’m a little right. And I do wish to have a productive conversation about how we are called to discern what is good and proceed in that way. And in order to do that we have to take the condemnation out of the conversation.
I don’t just feel that way about my experience with Planned Parenthood. I feel that way about the conversation we need to have about law enforcement in our country. I want to acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude I feel towards those who take on the hard (impossible) task of serving in law enforcement. Who willfully walk into moral ambiguity every day and have to be willing every day to be killed…and to kill. And doing so every moment of every day means that they start out from the beginning knowing that sooner or later they will screw up…and it will have heavy consequences. But they do it anyway. And because of them I sleep safer at night. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t abuses of power. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t power-hungry and power-abusive law enforcement officers. This doesn’t mean there aren’t racial injustices sewn into the systems of law enforcement. I think all those things are true—just as they are also all true in my chosen profession. The church has poor racial history. The church has poorly addressed abuses of power and station. The church has to name and confront those realities. We need to be able to hold these two truths at the same time – they aren’t a forced choice either/or. I can affirm and call to account a person at SAME time.
My problem? We treat this, and many other issues, as a forced-choice, either/or question. You are either in favor of all law enforcement officers as good, or against all as corrupt racists. We leave little in between in our rhetoric. Our conversation is dripping with condemnation.
I could go on and on. I see the same in the ways we name white privilege and patriarchy. We represent an organization like Planned Parenthood as a monolithic institution whose only work is their most challenging work. They are far more than that – but to acknowledge that reality is to dismantle our own forced choice exercise. We choose confrontational language that backs ourselves into corners. Our prophetic words are fraught with unproductive condemnation…and we set up our world to guarantee that no transformational change can happen here.
The impact Jesus had on that woman caught in an adulterous life? I don’t know. The story doesn’t go there. But a whole world of possibilities was opened up for the way he could change her life the moment he said, “And I do not condemn you either.” Now go…and sin no more. Maybe nothing changed. Maybe she rejected his mercy and advocated for hedonism…maybe she opened a shelter for women seeking to find a life free from oppression. Maybe she became a deacon in the church. I don’t know…but that is part of the joy. Because anything is possible. But had he condemned her? The world would have been small and narrow indeed.
I do not know what is good, and what is right. But Micah tells me it is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.
The trick here is to know that the words we often translate “love kindness” are more accurately translated “love (pursue with passion) covenantal-faithfulness (life bound together as co-workers (of justice)).” And this perhaps reminds us of exactly what Jesus did…to do our justice in way that builds up the one we are calling on to act justly—to remember that we are staying together bound by love of one another, and we are not to do our justice in a way that breaks that down. And to remember that through it all we are walking humbly with God…which means we recognize our own fallibility to such an extent that we cannot be sure we are right all the time. God is God, and we are not.
Walk together—not condemning, but co-operating toward a more just and loving world. Teaching and learning from each other, dialoguing and working out with fear and trembling and loving-kindness our shared life together.
There is no forced choice here. There is a field of possibility where the only given is togetherness. It is you and me, working our way to tomorrow in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.
Thanks be to God.