Conscience and Unenforceable Obligations
Recently I read of an ethical dilemma that is much more real than the amazing and amusing “Heavens Above” fictional drama. Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California, proudly proclaims on a marquee outside and a banner inside, “All are welcome.” Its website reads: “An Open and Affirming, Inclusive Church with a Progressive Theology and a Commitment to Social Justice.” It is much like our Unitarian Universalist Welcoming Congregation program. But in January of 2007, Mark Pliska, 53, came to church and told the congregation he had just been released from prison for molesting children, but that he sought a place to worship. He requested membership, thus throwing that liberal congregation into an ethical tailspin. Congregants wondered just how welcoming they really were. By accepting this apparently repentant man, were their children safe? The Pilgrim Church conscience would surely accept this man – “all are welcome.” But the Pilgrim Church sense of responsibility must consider the safety of its children.
A true dilemma.
Pilgrim’s minister, The Rev. Madison Shockley, said: “I think what we have been through is a loss of innocence. . . . The scariest moment was when I got the feeling in the congregation about whether Mark could attend or not, and we needed more time, yet people were saying ‘If he stays, I leave,’ or ‘If he leaves, I leave.’”
A mother in the church who attends with her three sons was conflicted. Her oldest son, Sebastian, 9, reminded her, “I’d feel uncomfortable, but we’re supposed to let everybody come.”
In the meantime, publicity over his arrival at Pilgrim led to Mr. Pliska’s eviction from his apartment and the loss of his job. He was homeless and unemployed. Yet he said he did not regret being open with the church after spending years hiding who he was. As one Unitarian Universalist minister, whose congregation dealt with two known sex offenders, said, “You can’t be all things to all people.”
How would we handle that dilemma, we the people who “covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”? Hopefully, we would struggle with our conscience and share our dreams and doubts with one another. We would experience the tough tension between an ethic of conscience and an ethic of responsibility, and maybe even pray a little.
It is in the utter messiness of the human condition that we discover what our values really are. I won’t presume to resolve the dilemma of Pilgrim Church, and I don’t know how it came out. I merely raise the issue as an example of “no good deed goes unpunished;” to remind us of the strenuous quality of the ethical life. That life is far more complex than simply following any absolutist rules – obeying the Ten Commandments – doing good and automatically prospering.
It is for good reason that we affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Once more we discover the inherent dialogue of individual and community. The right of conscience enables us to decide matters of importance without external coercion. Our inner integrity cannot be violated. At the same time we are always in relationship with our community, which we help shape and which in turn helps shape us.
I recall one summer evening many years ago when a Roman Catholic visitor, learning I was a minister, asked about my religion. When he learned that I neither feared hell nor sought heaven, but believed in "the importance of being good - for nothing," he was incredulous. He said that if he didn't fear eternal
punishment or seek eternal reward there would be no telling what he would do. He was bound to the Great Enforcer, not the moral power of “unenforceable obligations,” those inner tugs of conscience toward doing what we believe is right no matter what the outcome.
Why do we honor our marriage covenant even when we are at times unhappy? Why do we sacrifice to raise children when that seems hopelessly frustrating? Why do we keep promises even when we could get away with breaking them? Why do we obey the law even when there is little danger of being caught? Why do we involve ourselves in community service and social action when no one seems to notice and we often fail? And why have people done these things for centuries?
No external power is forcing us to meet these obligations; we are truly on our own, not coerced by the "cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example," in Boris Pasternak's words. Character is what we are when no one is looking.
Character is when we act though it will not do us any particular good. Character is when we respond to our unenforceable obligations to our neighbors. Character is when we struggle with the creative tension between an ethic of conscience and an ethic of responsibility.
What do I conclude from all this? Of course, not every good deed is punished – the phrase is rhetorical to make a point. Doing good is not about keeping score. I believe our mandate is to do good for its own sake; to learn the importance of being good for nothing. When we are honest with ourselves we know that life is not necessarily fair – there is no eternal law written in the nature of things that renders prosperity for goodness or poverty for evil. This understanding is not really cynicism but simply a frank recognition of the “sheer randomness of our fortunes."
Lest we become discouraged by this hard reality, I think of a man of heroic proportions who illustrates the courage-to-be even knowing that his good deed would be punished – Pastor Martin
Niemoeller, a German U-boat commander in World War I who became a pacifist in World War II.
He led the Confessing Church in its resistance to Nazism while many of his colleagues collaborated.
His death in 1984 was especially poignant to me since I had spent a treasured few hours with him during my 1978 sabbatical in Germany. To him are attributed these familiar, but disturbing words: "In Germany the Nazis first came for the Communists and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me - by that time there was no one to speak up for anyone."
Not all of us are called to be heroes or heroines. Many of our decisions to do good are clear – we know what we need to do. But on another level are actions we must take for which we will not be paid. We may be required by conscience to say and do that for which we may very well be punished. It is a hard truth, but one well worth pondering in an age of ethical weakness and easy morality.