Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Divided Ethics

For some reason I woke up this morning thinking about a facebook discussion I was part of a while ago over Divided, an American documentary film which argues that "modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture".  The argument got a little heated (not from me, I was polite).  This morning I woke up thinking about the broader context for it.

The message of Divided is that youth ministry, as in having a youth group as part of your church, is wrong because it divides families.  Proper ministry is ministry to the whole family, together.  Various Bible verses are quoted out of context to support this view and selective stories about youth groups are used to show they corrupt young people and lead to poor outcomes.

So from my description you can already see what I think.  My parents had grown up going to church and had no interest in going back.  At the age of 14 my school friend invited me to a church youth group and I was introduced to both Christianity and to a group of loving, accepting young people who made me feel at home.  36 years later this is still one of the key formative influences in my life.  So of course I think youth groups are a great idea.

But this is all beside the point, as we all talked (and yelled) past each other on this topic.  Let me tell you what I think this is really all about.

For most of my adult life I have been under the influence of Joseph Fletcher's controversial book, Situation Ethics.  Fletcher's view is that there is only one moral absolute, to love, as Paul says in Romans 13:9 - "The commandments...are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"  Our ethical task is to do what is loving in each situation, even if sometimes this contradicts something that seems commanded in the Bible or is mandated in our laws.

This is not an easy ethic to live by.  Our judgements are incredibly fallible, both because we are apt to be selfish and unkind, and because our knowledge is so incomplete.  So Fletcher has been heavily criticised for giving people an "out" in moral choices and promoting anarchistic individualism.  There is some point to the criticisms and it seems to me we can gain a lot of guidance on what it means to love from the Bible and from Christian tradition.  We would be foolish to simply rely on our own judgement.  Yet ultimately I am with Fletcher.  Love is the law, all else is secondary.

Not so the producers of Divided.  They see at least two things as absolute which I see as relative.

First of all, they see the Bible as providing a blueprint for the whole of life.  They believe that they can find in the Bible a whole pattern for the organisation of the church and individual lives.  This means that there can only be one right way to do things.  The task of the Christian is to study the Bible in order to find that right way, and then do it.  Of course since the words "youth group" do not appear in the Bible (either to be praised or criticised) this can be taken to mean such things are not part of God's plan, but they also then bring in various verses about the role of fathers and families to support this view. 

They would claim that this is their only absolute, but I beg to differ.  Their second is the centrality of the family in Christian life, by which they mean the nuclear family - Dad, Mum and the kids.  Anything that strengthens the family is good, anything that might weaken it or bring non-family influences into children's lives is bad.  The Bible is read through this lens.  Youth groups are bad because they are non-family.

Where does this take you morally?  It takes you towards acting like all people, and all families, are the same - or that they should be, and if they are not they need to be fixed.  It makes you absolutise our particular modern Western version of the family as a small, mobile, discreet unit.  It makes you devalue the wider community.  It makes you liable to forget single people and grandparents, and leaves you vulnerable to turning a blind eye to child abuse and domestic violence.  A family is only as good as it is, and plenty of people need protection from their families.

I'm not a proponent of one right way.  I think we should do what helps, and avoid what hurts.  There is no easy guidebook which will tell us what this is.  We need to think carefully and learn compassion - and then relearn it every time we forget.  Love is hard.  Other ways may seem easier, and more certain, but this security is an illusion.

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