The Myth of Legislated Morality

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In my ten or so years as a Project Manager and Software Developer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, I was frequently involved in discussions with physicians about what limits to incorporate into system designs.

Software development, and any sort of engineering or design for that matter, focuses to a large extent on limits.  We often needed to address questions like:

  • How large a number does this data field need to be able to store?
  • How wide should this column be on this report?
  • How flexible does this screen’s functionality need to be?

At Mayo, the underlying attitude was always “Limit our options and flexibility as little as possible.”  This was because physicians are dealing with people’s lives.  They absolutely do not want anything getting in the way of their ability to provide the best possible care for their patients. Is our “Great Physician,” Jesus, any different?

People constantly come to Doctors with all sorts of symptoms and issues that were well outside of what is expected, and so the tools they use in caring for those patients cannot limit their ability to provide the care that is needed.  Since we cannot accurately predict what situations the future will hold, we must provide tools that “flex” well in unexpected situations, and that do not needlessly place restraints on what can be done.

This same logic applies when talking about moral issues in everyday life, things like abortion, or gay marriage, or adoption across cultural or ethnic boundaries.  In all of these situations, people are involved.  Therefore, each such situation has its own unique circumstances.  Each one involves difficult, sometimes painful choices and adjustments.  Like a physician’s care of a patient, all of these situations involve decisions that these people will have to live with for the rest of their lives.  They are not choices that are made lightly.  Further, they are not choices made in isolation: the choice that is made impacts not only the person making it, but others as well, whether that is an unborn infant, or a same-sex partner, or a child who needs a family.  Their choices also impact and involve the “community” of which they are a part – family, friends, co-workers, and so on.

Continue reading “The Myth of Legislated Morality”

When O When…

A good friend of mine who was on recent a “class field trip” with me to visit an Islamic center here in Boston wrote a blog posting of her thoughts regarding that experience, particularly her feelings of anger and violation because of how women are treated differently than men in this particular congregation, and in the Islamic faith as a whole.  I understand, sympathize and agree with her thoughts, So, I guess I’m stuck on how we should respond on both an individual basis, and as a class, to what she says…

My own guiding principle is that no matter what the accepted conventions of the society at large are, one’s first goal must be to do that which is true to one’s own values; though you can’t push this too far without becoming arrogant and self-righteous.  In this case, we were students of faith visiting the place of worship of another great religion, a faith that is admirable in most respects and which has made magnificent and beautiful contributions to the world in which we live; a faith which is vital, living and provides a great deal of value, purpose and comfort to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  So, balance is needed.  As human beings, we must respect the “otherness” of others, but we must also sometimes stand up for what we know within ourselves is right when the social conventions of others create injustice or oppression – and we must be willing to accept the costs of doing so.

I don’t think guidelines can easily be predetermined along the continuum of endorsement vs. acceptance vs resistance vs protest. What to do is a multidimensional and intensely personal decision in many cases, as it was for my friend (and others) here. But, on the whole, I think it is better to be true to one’s “internal compass”, especially when one has taken the time to discern, think through and systematize one’s values (as I and others are learning to do at ANTS).  Protesting the wearing of head scarves and other measures that (in American eyes) demean or oppress the status of women is often warranted, but was this a time to do so, when we were guests, guests trying to learn more about an often misunderstood and unjustly vilified faith?  I think that is a very, very hard question to answer.

I believe, that as a community of faith, the trials of one affect us all. In that light, I apologize to my friend – there is no reason why I couldn’t have worn a head scarf myself while there, other than I didn’t think of doing so at the time. But then I need to ask myself, was this the proper time and place for me to be in solidarity with others in an act of protest? — Leaving us right back where we started.  In the end, I think she made the right choice: if we had been known to this congregation, respectful protest and seeking of a mutually acceptable resolution would have been seen in a much different light then if we’d simply swooped in on this, the first time they met us, and done something that would have been seen as an unreasoning condemnation or lack of toleration for beliefs that are important to this community as part of their identity as a people of faith.


Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

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