“Do the right thing.”
..Thus admonished Morgan Freeman’s character, a New York judge, in Bonfire of the Vanities, as he faced down a mob of social justice vigilantes, bent on crucifying a wall street trader for a hit and run traffic accident. Morgan’s judge made the pronouncement as though the nature of that mandate were as clear as a bright red traffic light at a busy intersection. You stop when you see one,right? You wait. But what if you are at an intersection in Tin Button, Texas and the light has been red for 30 minutes, and there’s no sign of a living being, much less another vehicle, for two miles? Would “do the right thing” mean waiting, and idling your car, until you were out of gas? Was the red light made for man, or man for the red light?
We hear those words, internally, “do the right thing,” but it’s very clear our sense of justice, of “the right thing,” varies person to person, and group to group. During a street protest, you are very, very, very unlikely to hear one group yelling “do the right thing,” only to be countered by another group of people, yelling, even more passionately, “no! no! do the WRONG thing!”
(Doesn’t that sound something like a Monty Python sketch?)
As I write this, for the last week, passionate, intelligent people, world-wide, are debating the proper fate of an American dentist who shot an African lion during a guided, game shoot. For me, “do the right thing” would probably mean giving the dentist a medal for properly reminding the world that man, among the species of life on the planet, is the true king of the jungle, not the stinking, remorseless feral cat everyone seems to be turning into Simba at pride rock. I do know, however, people I respect who can’t seem to bring themselves to condemn the vigilante threats against the man’s life.
Mind you, I don’t want to talk about this damned lion. I do, however, want to talk about the nature of a mandate that seems to shift, depending on your culture, and your spiritual view, and the books you read, and the state of your soul: “do the right thing.”
There’s a certain category of thug not admitted to this discussion, and one I think we can quickly dispatch. They are the people you read about who seem to be without any conventional moral sense at all: they put other people in gross danger on the highway by reckless driving and then do little more than shrug if they actually kill someone. A prosecutor once described this class of raping, murdering criminal with their own words. “That’s on them,” these perpetrators say, as they press for a reduced sentence. This would be the bad thief on the cross, the one who goes to his death without any remorse for stealing other people’s possessions. All he wants is a king who will set him free, and he would kill the king himself if it would further his cause. For this set of people, “do the right thing” is merely “do anything that gets me fed, laid, and high.”
God can save those folks, but we can’t. They don’t really have a part in this discussion.
And I’m nor particularly interested in the whole caravan of humanists, logical positivists, Marxists, and science-only moral dimwits who don’t know how bad a fix they are in without immutable truth, without God’s finger in stone, shouting, “thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not..” The folks who don’t have a fixed, axiomatic source will always be arguing about a human consensus of some sort. One year, homelessness will be the great social evil and the next year the glass ceiling for women in the workplace. Without God, spaceship earth will serve as the necessary deity and heretics will be eliminated for using plastic bags. This is more than just futile. It’s a cliché. For these folks, “do the right thing” means, essentially, “do whatever Harvard and Stanford seem to think is important.” Like the millions who have died at the hands of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler, they are on a collision course with death. In this world, there is no God of Abraham counseling, “favor not the poor, nor the rich, in your courts.” These folks have no real defense against academic ethicists who actually wonder, out loud, “should parents be allowed to execute their two year old children for quality of life issues?”
These people aren’t even weeds in the kingdom. They don’t even rise to the level of Pharisee. Jesus can save them too, but until He does, they have very little to contribute in the debate over “do the right thing.”
I’m more intrigued by this reality: morally speaking, Jesus is talking to a very limited audience by our standards. The adulterous woman is dragged before Jesus because His entire audience considered the crime potentially capital in nature. This was not an academic symposium on the question of open marriage. The Good Samaritan is praised for his charity, before an audience of Jews who would feel spiritual conviction at their shortcomings, not before an audience of morally numb criminals, wondering why Jesus was praising such a chump. The parable of the vineyard and the murdered messengers would have been convicting to an audience of scripturally literate seekers, who saw in the story the stoning of the prophets. And even then, many of them would be consigned to have heard, but never taken to heart the message.
Jesus was talking to a small audience, then and now. That small audience has a daunting imperative. “Do the right thing.” We don’t “do the right thing” to get into heaven, of course. We “do the right thing,” because we want to please our Lord and Master, for saving us. If you feel free to do the wrong thing, because Jesus did the right thing for you, then you may be among those not really in the discussion as well. James made it clear, “faith without works” is dead, meaning that if your faith doesn’t lead to good works, to a struggle to “do the right thing,” then you don’t really have saving faith. Jesus made it clear too: “if you love me, keep my commandments.”
I’m not quite sure why God’s character is defined so essentially on the basis of a right/wrong continuum, and why our well being depends so thoroughly on wearing the wedding robe of those made righteous by our gracious Host. Like some who question, I wonder why we couldn’t all just be heirs to bliss and beauty and endless discovery. Why must this amazing universe, so chock full of gorgeous women, fathomless galaxies, and nuanced little chocolate confections, with shades of taste beyond counting, be troubled by tedious, little moral quandaries? Why can’t we just drink the wine and relax a little?
I don’t know. I’m not in charge.
But I do know that we can’t avoid it. As I write this, I consider my wife just returning from her Jazzercize class. She’s glowing with her workout. She’s losing weight. And I feel convicted. I better get moving. Doing the right thing probably means taking better care of my body today.
I also see my four year old granddaughter across the table, and I consider how precious her life has become to me. We are having conversations now, the two of us. I showed her how to open the blinds in her vacation bedroom the other day. She said, “look, Grandpa, I can see this whole area now.”
Where did she get that word, area? This little girl is part of a big clan, and I would be bragging about her word choice, I could tell, very soon. We share her little triumphs, and I’m not alone in life, in part, because my wife and I said yes to this life, while the conventional world, and even some in the “Christian” world are saying no, justifying the killing of children in the womb, and the selling of their parts, even as they howl, in outrage, at the death of a big, murderous cat. For us, “do the right thing” meant, in part, having children, and encouraging our children to have children, because — well, when you hear your granddaughter trying out her new vocabulary on the scene presented to her eyes, then you feel the “right thing” right down in your shoes. And then when you read the immutable text, the ancient Word of God, that “do the right thing” feeling is confirmed, over and over again, in scripture.
Now, I’ll tell you: I’m not always that sure. The streets of Santa Barbara are lined with homeless people. Give them money? Or give them a job? Vote for the guy who is pristine pro-life, and lose, or take a small victory here and there? Wait for the red light to change, or look both ways and proceed cautiously?
You can think of a thousand better examples. It isn’t easy, but if you are not having this debate, you aren’t really seeking God.