One of the things we have learned in the modern era is that whether something is right or wrong depends on the situation you are in, the culture that shaped you, or perhaps both. Our understanding of moral behavior now includes phrases like "situation eth-ics" and "cultural relativity." It's a good lesson to learn, but I wonder sometimes if perhaps we have not become over-trained. We can hardly talk about right and wrong any more, but instead discuss only our personal values. If we do find ourselves discussing moral issues, we're almost apologetic about even having ideas of right and wrong and say things like, "That's only my opinion, of course." The dictionary still talks about righteousness as a virtue, but we hardly ever hear the word except in a sense in which it means self-righteousness. At least most of us can agree that that is wrong. I certainly think that it is wrong. It is included in my list of the deadly sins.
There's an exercise I enjoy using in leadership training, which I sometimes find myself involved in, the purpose of which is to show how difficult it is to reach agreement when we differ in moral priorities. The exercise is to try to reach consensus on a list of characters ranked from absolutely the most dreadful to merely despicable. The characters are in a story, which many of you probably have heard, called the Alligator River story. Here's the story: A woman named Abigail was engaged to a man named Gregory who lived on the other side of an alligator-infested river. Abigail wanted to go across the river to see Gregory - was, in fact, desperate to go - but she had no boat, and because of the alligators could not swim. There was only one boat available which belonged to Sinbad. She went to Sinbad to ask him to ferry her across, but he refused any other payment than to have sex with her. She argued and cried, but he was adamant. She left to find her friend Ivan to see if he could help her to deal with Sinbad, but he refused. "I just don't want to get involved," he said. Abigail went back to Sinbad and agreed reluctantly to the price. After payment, Sinbad rowed her across the river, and she got to her lover's house. Shattered by the experience, she told Gregory what had occurred. Furious with her for her immoral action, he spurned her from his door. Well, Abigail had another friend on that side of the river, and she went to see Slug who, hearing her story, immediately went to Gregory's house and decked him. As the sun sets across the Alligator River, you can hear Abigail laughing.
Usually when people have made their list ranking from nastiest to nasty they can hard-ly realize that anyone else whom they respect could possibly rank them differently. They may concede one or two of them, switching numbers three and four, for example, but there is little compromise possible if your last is another's first and vice versa. People get very heated about it too. There it is, a trivial little bit of fiction, filled with people that none of you would even wish to have a nodding acquaintance with, and in the discussion you will accuse and defend as if it really mattered. It does matter, too. Our priorities in matters of right and wrong are very important to us, and rightly so. In more important matters, however, things that are part of our real lives, our defense of our moral values is frequently quite feeble.
In considering that story I never have any problem deciding who is the nastiest, the worst, the one who should be boiled in oil after first having been punished in a fashion that cannot be mentioned in polite conversation. If I didn't know better I'd be sure you'd all agree with my choice. There is no doubt in my mind that any reasonably ethi-cal person would have to choose Gregory to top the list. Yes, I know Abigail was mani-pulative and spiteful, and I understand that Sinbad was inhumanly cruel and indiffe-rent to other people's feelings so long as he got what he wanted. I realize that a refusal to get involved is a primary cause of the horrors of our cities, and I hate the violence of Slug as much as anyone. But Gregory was a self-righteous... person of doubtful ance-stry! He was so smug! So holier-than-thou! so...so...self-righteous!
When two of the self-appointed icons of virtue fell from grace a few years ago, people's glee was unrestrained. Their pleasure at learning of William Bennett's gambling addic-tion and Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction was a response to their perceived self-righteousness rather than simply satisfaction at the exposure of hypocrisy. I am not sure they are hypocrites, though I am certain they are self-righteous, but I would suggest that there are many among those who hate them who may have a touch of it themselves. I was given a copy of Bennett's Book of Virtues, and I found it an excellent anthology of children's stories with a moral base. I was shocked at the self-righteousness of those who could not believe that anything good could come from someone with whom they profoundly disagreed. I cannot listen to or watch Rush Limbaugh, despite my continuing efforts to listen to those with whom I disagree, because his self-righteousness is so overwhelming, but I suspect that occasionally he points to real weaknesses among his opponents - even sometimes the weakness of self-righteousness.
Because of the unattractiveness of self-righteousness and our understanding that right is not always right and when it is does not always have unmixed consequences, it is hard for us to stand up for righteousness. I believe in situation ethics under most conditions, and I understand and promote ideas of cultural relativity. At the same time, and in keeping with my unceasing attempt to be inconsistent, I believe that right and wrong exist and are discoverable and that righteousness is a goal that we should try to achieve for ourselves and even that we should expect from others. I quote Amos: "Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." The problem is that it is so easy for us to tip over into self-righteousness and judge others without compassion and humility.
In every generation those of the preceding one bemoan the breakdown of morality as it evolves into something new and strange. Right is not always right and wrong is not always wrong. They change as the world changes. There are times that I wonder if I have not gotten to that point, that I am just unable to see the existing morality which simply differs from mine. At the same time I look at the poverty and ignorance in our cities, the loneliness and fear of so many of the middle-class, the self-absorbed greed of so many of the affluent, and I think that my sense that there is no longer a real under-standing of right and wrong may be based on objective reality rather than that life has simply passed me by.
I do not think that anyone would disagree that a just society is one in which all people are both safe and free, that everyone is entitled to equal access to the good things of life, to fulfilling work, to creative play, to education, to worthwhile relationships, to all the things that make life worth living. I think that we would all agree that there should be no barriers to keep any one of us from an equal stake in our society, that good work should be rewarded wherever it is found, and the only thing to keep us from a good life would be an unwillingness to do what is necessary to achieve it. Of course, it doesn't work that way and it never has, but at least in the old days we believed that it would if we tried hard enough to do the right and abjure the wrong, and those who could be called righteous made constant efforts to make it work. Believing in it, I think, did work better than not believing. It didn't make everything right, but at least it created an atmosphere that celebrated the right and despised the wrong. There have always been incredible injustices, but we have sometimes been able to discover what they were and have sometimes been able to work to get rid of them. We no longer seem to know what to do or how to do it, and we no longer seem able to teach our children the values of a just society. We may not know them ourselves.
Part of the problem is our realization of the contingency of right and wrong and the tendency even of righteousness to cause some harm and even of evil action to have some good consequences. There is the reality that what is right sometimes conflicts with another thing that is right, and it is hard to say with absolute conviction that one is more right than the other. It is hard to say to those who are excluded from the rewards of right action that ethical and moral requirements apply to them as well. It is hard to say, when we are no longer sure that right makes might or that good actions bring their reward, that we have a duty to be righteous rather than to get what we can while it's available. In fact, to talk in such a way almost embarrasses us. Why should anyone be good for nothing, particularly when we can't be absolutely sure what the good is? Nevertheless, without that shared understanding of right and wrong and a widespread commitment to righteousness, we must continue to witness the deterioration of our so-ciety.
On a pragmatic level we can say that right action is what produces a just society. Right action, pragmatically too, must be rewarded almost universally and within a reason-able time period. Part of the problem we are facing, I think, is that we can tell people that education and obedience to societal notions of right and wrong will produce the expected rewards, but if we do not assure that they in fact will, many if not most people will not be willing to refuse temporary and immediate gratification. We must somehow set up the parameters that will make righteousness pay.
We cannot do any of that while wallowing in self-righteousness, however, which is what seems to be a widespread response to behavior that we disapprove. The funda-mentalist churches which seem to think that they can make people righteous according to their own definition by fiat do not have a lock on that sin. On the contrary, we liber-als are equally guilty of it. We recognize the smug self-righteousness of those who say that women who have committed the sin of having sex without wanting to produce a baby, must do so however horrendous the consequences either to the woman or the child, but we do not see our own self-righteousness when we say that those people are only concerned with controlling women's behavior without seeing that many of them indeed feel that abortion is murder.
Self-righteousness decides that it knows what is right and that other points of view have no importance and no validity. It does not concern itself with the consequences of actions based on whatever principle it espouses because nothing is important, neither suffering nor destruction nor unhappiness, in the face of its overriding rightness. It may even be right that it is right, but if there is no recognition or concern for the pain of others, no humility in the realization that even it can, in however remote a possibility, be wrong or flawed, it is still self-righteousness.
There is a little piece of doggerel that I am sure you have heard that perfectly describes the danger of self-righteousness:
Here lies the body of Farmer Grey,
Who died defending his right-of-way.
He was right, dead right, as he drove along,
But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.
We don't hear about what happened to the one who was wrong, but we can only as-sume that he too was a victim of Farmer Grey's righteousness. When we, in our deter-mination to be right and to defend the right cannot bend, cannot change direction, can-not even see the possible unhappy consequences of our rightness we have gone from righteousness to self-righteousness.
There is a young woman I know who is not only always right but cannot imagine either that others could disagree with her attitudes or not be utterly condemned if they act contrary to them. She really is usually right about most things, I believe, being intelli-gent and moral and compassionate to those who don't disagree with her, but whenever she speaks I find myself wishing that she would sin. Not, of course, that she does not, as do we all, but she is clearly unaware either that she does or that it would be remotely possible for her to. She must easily be able to rationalize her lack of compassion and her lack of humility. What I would wish for her, and it is the kindest possible wish, is that she would somehow be impelled to do something that she recognized to be wrong and was unable to find some way to believe to be right or excusable. It is the main characteristic of the greatest saints that they have a deep recognition of their own imperfection. That does not mean that they have to wallow in guilt, but without a conviction of sin there can be no salvation. Those are hard words for religious liberals, for whom both sin and salvation seem irrelevant, but it is the meaning of what I say this morning, and why our closing hymn was chosen. It is only a conviction of sin, of an understanding that we ourselves can be culpably wrong, that can save us from self-righteousness and in the truly righteous can engender the great virtues of compassion and humility, can enable forgiveness of others and of the self, and work for the redemption of oneself, of others, and of the world.