Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Doing the Right Thing

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet declares to people, "Do this and good things will happen" or, more often, "Don't do this, and not bad things will happen." Time and time again the people won't listen, the king will throw him in a cistern, and the officials will threaten to kill him, and then bad things will happen to the Kingdom of Judah. As a reader the cause of pain seems so obvious, "Just do what the Jeremiah says!" and all shall be well. Of course the people do not do all that Jeremiah exhorts. The king will listen, but he cannot follow through. Too often the choice is between more pain or less pain, and less pain means throwing the gates wide open for their enemies. That type of trust in Jeremiah's words is hard, even if you believe him to be a prophet.

This is a reminder to me that doing the right thing is often not based on knowledge, but moral and social courage. Generally we know what is right, and even in our post-post modern world where many truths are up for grabs, day to day rights and wrongs are clear as day. Kindness does not require epistemological certainty. Doing the right thing is difficult because we know what is right, yet we are not willing to suffer the consequences. If God asked me why I did (or did not do) such and such thing, rarely could I say, "I didn't know what to do." Rather, I'd say, "I am weak and broken." I still remember with shame my experience in middle school. I was a kid who socially skated by, generally liked by all sorts of groups. Not popular, but not disliked. Perhaps my greatest social talent was to avoid ridicule. That led to a failure of moral courage. When kids would be laughed at and made fun of, I would say nothing. My parents raised me right and I knew it was wrong to make fun of people. I knew it was wrong because I didn't want to get made fun of myself. I knew what was right, but I didn't act. I failed.

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