Monday, April 26, 2004

The art of Christian compromise

"Compromise" is a dirty word. It has picked up a host of invidious overtones by the unsavory company it keeps. So the idea of a Christian compromise may strike some readers as oxymoronic.

How did the idea of compromise become so odious? People compromise for two or three reasons:

i) I want something, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

ii) I’m confronted with conflicting moral intuitions and forced options. So I must choose the lesser of two evils.

iii) I’d like to be an idealist, and I try my best, but in an imperfect world, those lofty ideals just don’t mesh with a real world situation.

By way of comment, (i) is immoral; (ii) is well-meaning, but morally muddled, while (iii) is a commoplace dilemma.

Indeed, (iii) points up the need to distinguish between licit and illicit compromise. It’s a cliche to say that young people are idealistic. But somewhere along the way they lose their ideals and become cynical. How does this happen?

When I can’t see how my ideas translate into practical action, a common consequence is to lose all sense of moral restraint and fall back on raw pragmatism. This is how legalism and perfectionism run into hypocrisy. They start out by being very high-minded, but because their rarified ideals are unworkable, because they can’t live up to their own ideals, they live down to their ideals by steadily lowering the bar until it levels out at their own moral plateau.

This is one reason why it’s so important for us to address this issue. If you leave the issue of compromise to its own devices, to the vicissitudes of strark circumstance, if you treat it as an unclean thing, the result is not to maintain high standards, but to subvert them in the long run. When people feel cornered, when you leave them with no way out, they resort to desperate, impulsive, and ruthless measures. Ducking the question of compromise doesn’t make us more scrupulous, but more unscrupulous.

Here I would suggest a few principles to help us distinguish between licit and illicit compromise.

1. Ends over means.

As a rule, we’re freer to compromise over means than ends since, by definition, the means are not an end in themselves, but conducive to the end in view. As such, their value is instrumental rather than intrinsic. They impose no absolute obligations. Process is inherently utilitarian. This is one distinction between a pragmatic and a principled compromise. The former is licit, the latter illicit.

What I’ve said ought to be obvious, yet this is where many men from many walks of life draw the line. Their moral justification for anything is to say, "It’s the law!" or "That’s our policy." But this appeal begs the question because it merely describes the status quo when the status quo may be the problem! Rules and regulations are not what make a thing right or wrong. Rather, we make rules and regulations because certain things are antecedently right or wrong, and we regulate social behavior accordingly.

The reason so many people fall back on this is because it’s the lazy way out. They put a mechanism in place, and then let the machinery make all the judgment calls. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a set of procedures as long as they facilitate a just outcome, but to deify the process without regard to the consequences is sheer, unthinking fanaticism.

This is not to say that the end justifies any means whatsoever. However, it would be just as mistaken to say that the end never justifies the means. Human behavior is goal-oriented, and that is a feature of Biblical ethics.

For the end to justify the means, the end must be a worthy cause, the means must be adapted to the end to facilitate its aim, and the means must not violate any standing moral norm.

2. Self over others

As a rule, I enjoy more freedom over my own actions than over the actions of others. So I’m not normally as responsible for what others do as what I do.

Some over-scrupulous believers not only disassociate themselves from evildoers, but also take the additional step of disassociating themselves from associates of evildoers.

But we need to distinguish between first-degree separatism (2 Cor 6:14-7:1) and second-degree separatism (1 Cor 5:9-10). And this goes back to the above distinction (self over others).

There are exceptions to the above. I’m responsible for the conduct of my subordinates insofar as I’m in a position to know and control their behavior, viz., parent/child, officer/foot-soldier.

I’m guilty of illicit compromise if I fail to do, or have others do, the right thing when it was within my power to do it or have it done. But I’m not necessarily guilty of illicit compromise if I have to settle for less that I would do, if it were up to me alone, when the outcome depends on a collaborative effort, and my colleagues don’t go along with me. I’m not entitled to do less that I could, but I’m entitled to do less than I would, all other things being equal.

In this situation, I’m faced with a couple of choices: (i) I can either limit my objectives, or (ii) I can limit my participation, for I still enjoy freedom of association. Which is the better course of action will turn on other criteria (see below).

Sometimes you win by losing in the short term. At other times you lose by winning in the short term. But you don’t win by losing all the time. This is a prudential question, demanding a degree of moral tact.

3. Prior obligations.

I never have the right to do what is wrong. I never have the right to obey an immoral imperative, or disobey a moral imperative. For the Christian, Scripture precommits him to certain do’s and don'ts. These are the nonnegotiables. These are not subject to compromise.

4. Priority structures.

Not all obligations are equally obligatory. Everyone is not obligated to do everything. There can be a division of labor. Moreover, there are cases in which a lower obligation collides with a higher obligation. In that event, the higher obligation temporarily supersedes the lower obligation. For example, Sabbath-keeping was a general obligation, but it could be suspended in the event of a higher obligation, viz., getting your ox out of the ditch.

Truth-telling is a general obligation, but it can be suspended in the event of a higher obligation, viz., the preservation of innocent life (Exod 2:17-21; Josh 2:4-5; 1 Sam 16:1-5).

Saving life is a general obligation, but saving life sometimes entails the taking of life, viz., a police sharpshooter who kills a sniper. This goes to the distinction between guilt and innocent. Guilt entails the forfeiture of certain rights.

This is what many people mean by choosing the lesser of two evils, but that terminology is misleading insofar as it easily insinuates that there are times when we can’t avoid doing wrong. But that is not the proper way of drawing the distinction.

Rather, it goes back to the distinction between ends and means. The higher obligations are the moral absolutes, of which the lower obligations are the ordinary means of facilitating those ends.

Or as John Frame likes to put it, you must sometimes choose between two "evils" (i.e. harmful, unpleasant alternatives), but you are never called to choose between two "wrongs" (i.e. alternatives that are sinful in the sight of God).

5. Omission over Commission.

Although I may never do what is wrong, there are special cases in which, for tactical reasons, it is prudent to keep my beliefs in reserve and decline to act on what I believe (2 Kgs 5:18-19). This demands a great deal of moral tact, for it would be very easy to cross this line into moral abdication. As a rule, I would say that it’s only justified when we are positioning ourselves to act at a more opportune time.

As a practical matter, there are many divine imperatives we must postpone until later, simply because we cannot do all of them at once.

6. Providential pragmatism.

God has often chosen not to empower his people. As a matter of providential circumstance, we are frequently in no position to leverage our will on an unwilling majority. We must play the hand we’re dealt, and God is the dealer, so we shouldn’t necessarily feel that we’ve betrayed the cause if we sometimes opt for the best winning strategy over an even better losing strategy.

Precept and providence go hand-in-hand. For a morality play, you need both a script and a stage. God’s preceptive will supplies us with the moral norms, while his providential will supplies us with the live options and theater of action. We can only choose from the available options, and not a select set of utopian hypotheticals.


I'd like to thank John Frame for commenting on a preliminary draft of this essay.

No comments:

Post a Comment