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05/10/2022 11:46:54 AM


The world asks a lot of us: Honest self-reflection

In Akron, Ohio, recently, a driver apparently decided that a "road closed" sign didn't apply to him (or her; news reports did not identify the motorist) and drove around the barriers only to end up stuck in a large patch of freshly poured concrete. Workers were able to extract the car and repair the roadway, but they advised the driver to get the concrete off the wheels and the underside of the car before it hardened. Police responded to the scene, but whether charges were filed has not been reported. In this instance, the results are almost humorous, but a far darker example comes from Ukraine where some Russian troops have committed atrocities, murdering innocent civilians in cold blood, as though the rules of humanity—and even of war—don't apply to them.

Commenting on these war crimes, theologian and ethicist Russell Moore, who leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today, wrote in that publication, "The world should watch what these criminals are doing -- to call it what it is and hold them to account whenever the time comes. But [religious people]…in particular should watch and recognize something we often want to ignore: how the human heart can justify great evil."

Moore went on to say that while most people have not committed war crimes, "every one of us has grappled with our conscience -- and in many cases, we have followed the same path, even when the sins are not as heinous and the stakes not as high."

Moore then spoke of ways in which we excuse ourselves from the rules of decent behavior.

"One of the first steps is to emphasize power over morality," Moore said. "An easy way to do this is to characterize the situation as an emergency, requiring a dispensing of the ordinary norms of behavior. … Acting within the bounds of conscience is painted as a luxury, for times that are not as dire as these." 

Moore noted that "the most dangerous form of lying is not the propaganda people give to others but the lies [we] tell [our]selves -- to quiet [our] consciences."

He said that this can happen in matters that fall far short of war crimes. "People can wall off certain categories of sin and refuse to view them as such -- placing the blame for the sin not on themselves but on those who would label it sin." As an example, Moore said we can "define sin merely in social terms: 'As long as I don't seem to be hurting anyone else in any kind of public way, then why is it anyone's business what I do in my private life?' Or one can do the opposite and define sin as merely personal, acting as though questions of social injustice are of no moral consequence."

Moore also said that sometimes an evil is too great to ignore altogether. "The conscience must reckon with it, but it does so by projecting that evil onto some other person or group. Rather than grappling with the indictment of one's own sense of right and wrong, one can short-circuit the blame by locating it elsewhere. This is how, for instance, Russian war criminals—while carrying out the very same tactics as Nazi storm troopers—can claim that they are fighting to 'de-Nazify' Ukraine," he said.

Some honest self-reflection: When have you been aware that you were seeking to justify or excuse non-righteous behavior or attitudes? How did that realization affect how you proceeded? Is apathy the same as actively condoning? Or are we just fatigued from all the ills of the world?

I know that the world asks a lot of us these days. I do call upon all of us—including myself—to remember the world needs our clear-eyed perspective and our consciences at work.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784