A couple of weeks ago a particularly perceptive "I Believe" statement mentioned the speaker's conception of the nuanced morality that he noted that I preached. As you can see by the title of this sermon I was quite taken by this description and thoroughly in accord with it. I would argue that not only our morality but all our thinking must be somewhat nuanced nowadays with the paradigm shift that sees the universe not as a matter of cause and effect but of probable effects and statistics. There was a lot of think-ing that went into those ideas, but they became formalized first in the science of meteor-ology. Meteorologists tried to set up an experiment in which all of the factors were com-pletely controlled so that they could predict weather conditions with utter precision. After the experiment had been running for some weeks they found that their predictions could have only an 80% accuracy - the same that they were getting in predicting natu-ral weather patterns. No matter how carefully controlled the cause, only a probable ef-fect could be forecast, and that at only 80%. The same kind of reality emerged in the physics of the universe and of subatomic particles. So also does it show itself in the complexities of human relationships. After taking a huge number of factors into account, the consequences of our actions can only be predicted with a level of probability, never complete certainty. All we can do is the best we can with the information we have, and the result of that inevitably is a nuanced morality.
I've talked to you before about the psychological theory of the development of moral discernment postulated by Lawrence Kohlberg, one of the most interesting, and to me most convincing, of the outcomes of our fascination with stage theory in regard to hu-man development. The problem with most stage theories is that at least in the explana-tion they are too simplistic - I might say too dogmatic - to be very useful to the lay mind. The researchers' work is more subtle. The stage theory of moral development is no exception. The early stages are not really about moral discernment at all. They are simply about attraction and avoidance. Does it hurt? Does it feel good? Am I likely to be rewarded or punished? Will other people like me better or hate me if I do this? No mat-ter how thoroughly your moral sense is developed, however, all those factors will still be taken into account. It may not be moral discernment in itself, but it will still influence our thinking, and should, it seems to me. Those things are still important even to the saints, though they may not be final determining factors in what we may decide to do.
It is at the next stage that true moral discernment begins. This is the stage that Kohlberg says is the one in which the majority of the American people find themselves. It is the rule of law or of authority. For these people if the duly constituted authority says some-thing that decides the question of right and wrong. The discernment comes in in decid-ing which authority to follow and what its pronouncements actually mean. There are many people these days who say that the final authority is the Ten Commandments from the Bible. You remember the judge in - was it Tennessee? - who was convinced of this and had a huge sculpture of them placed in his courtroom, only to have it re-moved by the civil authority and himself removed from the bench. One of the jokes about Unitarian Universalists is that they consider the Ten Commandments the ten sug-gestions. There is also the civil law, and it is my own opinion, questions of getting caught and punished aside, that, all things being equal, and no other factors under con-sideration, following the law is one's best practice. We live in a society of law, and living together we must follow mutually agreed upon rules. We know what happens, for example, when large numbers of people regularly flout the traffic laws. Our lives are endangered. Agreeing to follow the laws enables us to live together in amity and safety.
You may notice, however, that I have a reason beyond mere submission to duly consti-tuted authority on which I base this opinion. It is the consequences of either following or breaking the law that matters to me most, rather than reverence for the law itself. I have some of that, too, but not enough to keep me from practicing civil disobedience should I find it necessary. Civil disobedience should also be based on outcomes, though. One should not break the law simply because one doesn't like it, but rather to attempt, how-ever hopelessly, to have the law changed. That was the reason for Susan B. Anthony's illegal vote and the sit-ins in segregated establishments during the civil rights' glory years. To break a law simply because you don't like it, or for your own perceived advantage, is an invitation to anarchy, unrest, and ultimately revolution, since we cannot live together without laws.
Members of a free faith have to look beyond authority, however. Just as we cannot simp-ly accept religious teachings based on authority, the teachings of any person or tradition, without testing them for ourselves and finding them to be true, so must we take responsibility for our own moral lives, the promptings of our own consciences. That's even harder than it sounds. We may decide to live justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with the eternal, to follow truth, to fight oppression, to do only good and not evil, but not only is that difficult because of our own moral flaws, our greed and selfishness that are built in to the human character, but it's not that easy always to decide where justice lies, what will bring peace, how we understand the truth, what is true compassion. We can't be absolutely sure of all the consequences of our actions. Some of them, even of our most high-minded, virtuous behavior might be disastrous. This is a world of probabilities, not promises.
Some of you know that I have the job in the Florida District of the Unitarian Universalist Association of helping churches look for a minister when they need one. I'm presently working with three congregations and am expecting a couple of others to begin their process quite soon. That has given me a bit of a moral problem over one issue. We as a movement have a pretty pitiful record in settling ministers of diverse ethnic back-grounds. We don't have many. After all, we don't have many members of our congrega-tions who aren't pretty WASPish, but those we have have found it difficult to be called to pulpits, and if they are called to stay in them. There are exceptions. I can think of three. Because of this there is a new program in the administration of the Unitarian Un-iversalist Association called the Diversity of Ministry Program, DOM for short. Its pur-pose is to increase the numbers of ministers from non-northern European background is our churches. This is certainly a worthy goal. On the other hand, what I tell the congre-gations and search committees I counsel is that their first consideration should be to find a good match. No minister, however excellent, is perfect, having every skill, boundless energy, and a helpful spouse. What they need is one whose strengths complement their weaknesses and whose weaknesses can be compensated for by the congregation's strengths. They need a minister who shares their vision and can help them achieve it. A minister who is not a good match is guaranteed a short tenure, no matter how well-intentioned both the minister and the congregation may be. Diversity of Ministry then, is low on my list of priorities. I would, if I had found two excellent matches in the minis-ters I were looking at as a search committee, and one was from a minority population, choose that one. Other than that, it seems to me that we are choosing to have another failed ministry, another horror story of the way we have failed to support ministers from minority backgrounds. We are hurting the minister and hurting the congregation and hurting the association if we put diversity first. Or so I think. On the other hand, how do we redress historic injustice? And maybe, this time, if we are committed enough we can make it work. After all, we're not promised failure any more than we are promised suc-cess. Do we go with the probabilities, or do we follow our vision of justice without con-cern for the outcome? Or how much hurt will we cause by doing justly?
The best-known consequence based moral discernment process is situation ethics where in any given situation we try to discover the greatest good for the greatest number. That's the theory, but what unbearable injustice might that cause? That's why I love that story by Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". It is, of course, a fantasy. Only through magic could a whole town's wellbeing, by far the greatest good for the greatest number, be achieved through the utter degradation and suffering of one indi-vidual. Except we do it all the time. We buy clothes that if we think about it we can be morally certain were made in sweatshops, quite likely by enslaved children. Buying American isn't much help either, if you can find it, because we have some pretty oppres-sive employment situations here as well. Immokalee really is one of the centers of mod-ern slavery. That's food rather than clothes, but the point is that exploitation can happen as readily in our backyard as in foreign countries, and does. We do our best here. We use Equal Exchange Coffee and have our fair trade bazaar, and are studying ethical eating, but it is a tiny drop in the bucket of global economic injustice.
But what can we do? So often, nearly always, it seems, we do good and the conse-quences, unforeseen, unintended, come back to haunt us. We ban DDT and children die of malaria because we haven't found something adequate to replace it. We close a sweatshop and a family starves because it was their only income. When they happen the consequences seem obvious, inevitable, so why don't we foresee them?
Even in what is obviously right and just, our whole society's recognition that the way we treated our brothers and sisters, those citizens whose ancestors came from western Africa, and its commitment to change those things also had unexpected and not always positive consequences. Contemporary thinkers point out the often negative results of the kind of affirmative action that we deny is quotas but looks very much like it, the too ready assumption that people got their jobs because of skin color rather than ability, the huge dropout rate of students of African ancestry, the smoldering resentment that our president-elect recognized in his speech on race during the campaign.
But we're not guaranteed failure either. It is entirely fitting that the inauguration of our first black president should be scheduled for the day after Martin Luther King Day. It's pure chance, since MLK day is a movable feast occurring on the Monday nearest to his birthday and the inauguration mandated for the 20th of January, but its appropriateness is clear. It is not quite forty-one years since Martin Luther King was assassinated because he had become the leader, the hero, of the civil rights movement. It has always seemed to me a terrible pity that it is mostly seen as a day belonging primarily to black Americans, who with few exceptions (Unitarian Universalists being one of them) are the only celebrants of that day. He was a hero for us all. The shame of Jim Crow and of all racial oppression was in some sense as harmful to the oppressors as to the oppressed. It was his leadership that ultimately brought us to the redemptive moment of electing a black man. His ancestry is not that of the Africans who were brought here as slaves, but it makes no difference to the reality - the almost unbelievable reality - that enough of us were able to see beyond race to vote for him for the qualities of leadership that we saw in him. Whether you agree with his policies or not, whether you think he will be a good president or not, whether you voted for him or not, makes no difference. It is not that racial prejudice and oppression are over. They are not. Nevertheless, there is a new day dawning in this country for our hopes and vision of racial justice. The conversation must change, and through that in itself surely the place that we have been stuck, must shift. The probabilities are really high.
This is, I think, an unmitigated good, but we can never surely know. This is no longer a world where we can be absolutely certain of our rightness, of the probable consequences of our actions. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed, to refrain from decision, from action, from responsibility. Too much is at stake - in brief the future of all humankind, as we are no longer isolated from one another. And so our morality must be nuanced, taking into account the consequences, the evil that my come from our best actions, the good that sometimes, somehow can arise even from our evil ones. We cannot shirk our responsibility, but we must meet it with humility.