be good for goodness’ sake

Happy new year, folks.

I once wrote a long thesis on virtue ethics. I’ve thought about morality a lot over the years. But it has taken working in a prison to change my perspective on the topic. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking up moral relativism. In fact, my stance that there is an absolute moral standard toward which all human beings are drawn and further, by which they will be held accountable, hasn’t really shifted.

But morality, for morality’s sake, means less and less to me. Being good for goodness’ sake no longer seems to hold any authority. As I journey deeper into my faith the reality of the Christian journey as an invitation into relationship with the divine relationship is slowly seeping into all areas of my thought. Let me try to explain.

This struck me when I was chatting with a prisoner friend of mine last week. He was regaling me with tales of his youth, out robbing stuff from Dunnes Stores, with his girlfriend. This guy is an animated storyteller and the stories were very funny – classic “ordinary decent criminal” fodder, full of high jinx, and we were laughing. He stopped suddenly and said, “It’s bad though, isn’t it? If you read this in a book – you’d think I was a bad person, wouldn’t you?” The conversation called to mind for me an occasion when my father in law and the rest of his family returned home from a funeral and found the house cleared out by burglars. I was absolutely disgusted at the time and full of what I considered to be righteous anger. My father in law’s only response was to say, “Well…they must have needed that stuff more than we did.” At the time I was horrified with this response – where was the justice?! But over time, my father in law’s response of grace and understanding has had a deep impact on me. I shared this memory with my prisoner friend and said that I am trying to be the kind of person who responds the way in which my father in law did.

I am getting to my point, slowly.

My friend said to me, “I am done robbing. When I get out of here, I’m never robbing again.”

And it was at this moment that I realised that I didn’t care if robbing was right or wrong. I didn’t care that robbing was a sin. I don’t care, in fact, how much my friend has robbed in the past. But I didn’t want my friend to ever rob again because of what it could do to him, to his girlfriend on the outside, to their son. I wasn’t interested in him not stealing because people who do not steal are morally pure, or because stealing is wrong. I was interested in him not stealing because a life that is  not stolen is a life that is closer to flourishing.

So what I mean when I say that I am not interested in goodness for goodness’ sake is that if our virtues are only for the sake of the virtues themselves, then they are for nothing. You are left with legalism and pietism. You are left with “turn or burn” sermons given by right-wing wankers. But if our virtues are for the sake of our flourishing – and furthermore, the flourishing of those around us – then they are for something. I don’t want my friend to sin not only because sinning is in and of itself bad but because I view my friend as called into a relationship with his creator that is one of grace. There is no need for and no space for stealing in a place full of free gifts.

So it isn’t that I have become a moral relativist. It is just that I am beginning to see that all our virtues must be orientated towards relationship and in particular, towards the divine relationship, into which we are invited and from which all virtue flows. It’s a freeing place to be.

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