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A Whole Lot of Poor Judgment

When I was a young boy I would scour a stream's edge hunting for frogs. The fun was all in the catching. Once in hand, the frog generally lost its appeal, so I would grant its freedom to search for another willing to give a good chase.

Timmy had other ideas. When Timmy caught frogs he liked to squeeze them sideways forcing their mouths to open so he could pour gravel down their throats. Laughing with a strange, throaty laughter, he filled them to the point their bodies bulged and then threw them back into the stream.

I went frogging with Timmy exactly one time. Though I was too young to be articulate, Timmy's actions brought me to a full awareness of the expansive range of choices we humans have concerning our behavior, just as though a light bulb had been switched on. I remember the incident with vivid clarity--my first conscious moral awakening.

I didn't know much of anything about Timmy's home life. I didn't wonder about his parents, how they treated each other, how they treated him. I was too young to ponder issues of psychology, early childhood development or our current sociological context. He was just a neighborhood kid from down the street. But something clicked deep inside of me, some basic knowing, a coming to consciousness which had to do with the moral equation of right and wrong.

This was not a big incident, nor particularly atypical. A seeming forgettable episode of childish behavior. Alas, as the years have passed I have met my fair share of adult Timmy's who have found far bigger prey than frogs.

But the second learning that has come along over the years is really the more potent and damning. It was the realization that while I was not Timmy, a certain variation of Timmy lived inside of me, some part of Timmy that was capable of a certain cruelty, a certain disdain for the well-being of others, a certain focus upon my own wants and desires to the utter exclusion of others. In other words, a certain capacity for moral failure.

Little boys and girls grow up to be young men and women. The stakes grow larger along with body size and physical maturation. The lessons come harder the older we become and they come with greater consequences.

Several months ago three young men from the upper middle class community of Glen Ridge, New Jersey were finally sentenced after a highly publicized trial in 1993 led to their conviction of a particularly vile rape of a seventeen-year-old girl with an I.Q. of just 64, roughly the comprehension of an eight-year-old, a girl they had grown up with. They and their friends and co-conspirators, initially numbering thirteen, were attractive and popular high school athletes. As the horrific events unfolded in the basement of the home of one of the young men, six left, although none tried to stop what was happening. Not only unconcerned about this initial action, the next day those that had remained, along with some other buddies, attempted to coax the same girl into some similar activity.

After conviction one of the young perpetrators managed admit, "I used poor judgment." After the sentencing another said, "I was very young at the time" and the third convicted felon said nothing. Poor judgment, youthful indulgence, these were the only proffered explanations. Nothing about right and wrong. Nothing about moral responsibility, or integrity, dignity, no courage to embrace a larger truth.

Interestingly and tellingly now eight years after the crime, "most of those boys' parents, friends, teachers and the superintendent of their schools are still denying that there was an assault" despite the finding of a jury of their peers. They prefer to call it an "incident" in which nearly a third of the males of the graduating senior class were involved in some fashion. (Russell Banks, "A Whole Lot of Poor Judgment", NY Times Book Review, 8/3/97, p.7)

We live in strange days in the United States. We revel in an extravagance of individual freedom, cherishing it as the highest of values, and yet, simultaneously seem deathly allergic to a commensurate commitment to integrity and accountability. These two aspects of our culture are at great odds with one another.

I fear their imbalance predicts crisis for our culture, just the way it predicts crisis for us individually. To live without a dynamic moral core is, at best, to live a sloppy life that leaves messes everywhere one goes. With nothing but each individual as ultimate arbiter, really responsible to no larger, demanding and exacting authority, leaves us a world in which everything is allowed and all behavior is roughly equivalent and explainable on the basis of a wide variety of humanistic analyses.

Now I certainly do believe that psychology, sociology, anthropology and all their derivatives have shown a bright light of understanding onto the nature of the species homo sapiens. These are invaluable tools. I depend upon them daily in my work. But still, all that accumulating of impressive knowledge does not really offer a context of meaning. We are very prone to thinking that understanding how something works is the same thing as understanding what its for. Its as if we were all master mechanics who came to understand the detailed workings of a car engine and yet hadn't the slightest notion of what one might do with such a thing and why. Losing this larger frame of understanding strips our lives of their central organizing principle.

What the Christian Church claims is that we humans live in personal relationship with the creator God. This relationship has structure and meaning. It is bounded by certain inescapable principals which are woven into the fabric of our existence. The book we hold in high esteem is a reflection on and revelation of the nature of this relationship.

Reading from one vantage point, the account of Jesus in the desert concerns what is real and true at the center of all things, namely the nature of our loving and just God. That's why the stark choices that are laid out before Jesus bear the weight of moral temptation; these are not simply some ho-hum decisions, each option perfectly tolerable. These decisions concerned life and death, which, I would argue, all moral decisions ultimately point to. Jesus has the choice of whether to live a sort of living death, though exciting and important on the face of it, or to die into a resurrected life.

Satan says to Jesus, "If you're the Son of God, turn this stone into bread! Prove yourself! Let's see some evidence. You want the hungry fed, don't you? What about a little bread here and there. Or, I know a good one. Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of a tower. That would be impressive, because God could demonstrate his great love for you. Everyone would marvel and flock to your side. If you're so special prove it. Take a short cut from the route that's been laid out for you. You believe there's injustice, I say, go the route of politics. You could be a great emperor who dispenses justice and mercy even as you establish a reign of peace. All you must do is repudiate your high-fallutin' ideas about your so-called sacred nature and follow me."

The problem was that Jesus could not really repudiate his nature. All he could possibly do was pretend. And pretense is the enemy of integrity. Integrity is all about truth. Our own sacred identity is dependent upon integrity and is therefore at risk so long as we pretend we're something we're not, so long as we routinely pretend one choice is about as good as any other choice. Experience alone informs us that some choices are better than others. Some choices dignify life and ennoble our humanity, while others debase life and our humanity. Some things are true, others are false.

In our tradition Satan is known as the Father of Lies. He is the great pretender. He personifies our human capacity for self-deception of every sort. That's why he figures so prominently in the story of the Garden of Eden. You will remember that when God comes to question Adam and Eve they blame everyone but themselves for their choices. They assume no responsibility for their action. They pretend. Grudging only the slightest hint of accountability they might have said, "Well... we used poor judgment", or "You know God, we were younger then". Is it any wonder this story has such an undisputed place within our collective mind? When we read it we know we've just read our autobiography.

Jesus in the desert provides another model for our humanity, which is to accept the truth. And to choose the truth. The truth for him will be a path of sacrifice. How much more tempting it would have been to take the route of power and glory of one form or another. Unfortunately, for him, that would have been a lie.

Lewis Smedes in his book, Pretty Good People, recounts the bad days of Salem, Massachusetts when good people were accused of consorting with the devil and spiriting death into their neighbor's souls. During the days of the witch trials the only escape for the innocent was to confess to crimes they had not committed. So innocent women saved their lives by lying about guilt that was not theirs. And honest women who could not lie were hanged by the neck. People no longer knew who they were or what was expected of them.

Except for Rebecca Nurse. She knew who she was. She knew what she expected of herself. She came to life in Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible.

Rebecca stood accused of killing newborn children with a witching spirit. In the courtroom wild-eyed girls screeched terrible things and pointed their fingers at her. And the rest of the people wept at the dreadful things they heard.

The god-fearing, devil-believing judge said to Rebecca, "It is awful to see your eye dry when so many are wet."

"You do not know my heart," she replied. "I never afflicted no child, never in my life. I am as clear as the child unborn."

The good John Proctor, an honest man, a man of independent mind, was said to be Rebecca's partner. But Proctor confesses to a guilt that never was his. He had a wife and a son to care for. When Proctor told his loving lie, the judge dangled his lie in front of Rebecca's conscience:

"Now woman, will you confess yourself with him?"

"Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot. I cannot."

She would not be herself if she lied, and she could not now become another woman, not at her age, not with her character. Proctor was not old, maybe he had time to find his real self. But Rebecca was another kind of person. Hers was the way of truth. But they took Rebecca outside and hanged her by her neck.

Smedes concludes that Rebecca tells us what integrity is about. Integrity is a bigger thing than telling the truth. It is about being a certain kind of person. It is about being people who know who they are and what they are, and it is about staying true to what they are even when it could cost more than they should have to pay.

Now reclaiming the moral core of our existence is not the same thing as being moralistic, forever on the prowl to ferret out evil doers or focusing our energy and attention on all the favored peccadillos of our sisters and brothers, wagging our fingers in righteous condemnation. Reclaiming the moral core has to do with how each of us looks deep within to discover the truth at our center. That truth reveals that our lives derive their meaning from our relationship with God and with all that God has created, and that these relationships have structure and direction. From our God relationship, from that perspective, we see that there is greatness within us, and that greatness is directly related to our ability to see and to hold what is true.

Friends, this being the first Sunday of Lent, we are given an excellent opportunity to think about these things, to look into the center of our souls and to take stock, to see and to bear what is true about ourselves. The Good News is that there is help and companionship for this journey. God promises it. And it doesn't much matter who we've been up till now. The message of Easter is, that no matter what, we all have fresh options. It's near impossible to believe, I know. But that's the remarkable truth of it.