Toward a Positive Morality

When K gives Bess a bath, they blare music and sing along. A great time is had by all, I’m sure. Bess is a quick study of melody if not of words and her little voice combines with K’s in a pleasing microcosm of happy home life.

Cute as it is, I don’t really care for the music they listen to. Most of it is old Sunday School songs that K and I heard as kids (and K actually remembered). After bath time, recently, K asked me why I had that look on my face. She knows I’m not a big fan of Christian “genre” music and knew what was going on before she asked, I think.

“I don’t like the music,” I say.

“What’s the matter with it?” she asks.

“I don’t think it’s good theology.”

“What’s the problem.”

“It’s too simplistic.”

“They’re kid’s songs!” she exclaims.

The one that really got me was the “Ten Commandments Song,” and not just because it is still infuriatingly running through my head—“Number One, we’ve just begun; God should be first in your life…” If you keep singing this to yourself, you’re probably a child of the eighties.

I’m not a big fan of the Ten Commandments. Gasp if you must, but I’m just not. I don’t think that they really have much of a place in Christian morality. Gasp again, this time so others turn to look at you.

That’s because the Ten Commandments, like most of the Old Testament law, enforce a negative morality—“thou shalt not.” There are several problems with this.

First, negative morality gives us ample ammunition to infringe upon the warning that we “judge not, lest [we] be judged.” Matthew 7:1. It’s just so tempting to say, “But he did!” when comparing someone’s actions to one of the Big Ten.

Second, negative morality does not allow us to fulfill our calling to follow after Jesus. Consider the Rich Young Ruler episode (Mark 10:17-27; Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23). The Rich Young Ruler has followed the commandments all of his life, and Jesus quite readily tells him that there’s still more he lacks.

Negative morality is legalistic. Trust me; I’m a lawyer. It allows one to say, “I have avoided doing those things; I have fulfilled my obligation.” Jesus continually confronts the Pharisees about this problem, largely because the Pharisees hoped to reclaim righteousness through jurisprudence and adherence to the letter of the law. Compare with Jesus’ commands, which seem to be largely positively framed: “forgive those who trespass against you” (Matthew 6:9-13); “give to him that asks of you” (Matthew 5:38-42); “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44-46); “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).

This is a point made by E. Stanley Jones in The Christ of the Mount, which I’ve referred to before. Jones argues that, unlike negative morality that allows us to say, “I’ve done (or haven’t done) that, box checked,” the positive morality of Jesus always calls us to do more. “Love your neighbor as yourself” has no resting place—you must always ask what more one can do to love your neighbor. Negative morality tells us not to get worse; positive morality calls us to be better. It brings the spirit of the law to the apex and allows the letter of the law to subside in importance.

There is a good place for negative definitions of behavior—the legal system. Negative commandments allow us to offer societal protection against evils while preserving the greatest amount of freedom in the individual—“if it doesn’t say I can’t do that, then I can.” Excellent for the needs of society to order itself, but not great for those on a journey of sanctification.

Third, negative morality is not terribly responsive to our moral needs. “Thou shalt not kill,” doesn’t help us with questions like, “Is it permissible to kill one person to protect ten from him?” The commandment against bearing false witness is even flatly contradicted in the Old Testament, or at least an exception is made. Rahab, a prostitute (or perhaps innkeeper depending upon how misogynistic you like your translation) hides the Israelite spies in Jericho, lying to the authorities about the presence of the Hebrews in her home. For this lying, she is rewarded and blessed.

We live in a fallen world, so we need moral guidance that allows us to understand and work morally within that world. Black and white commandments of “thou shalt not” do not make room for the myriad potential factors and circumstances that influence any particular moral choice. Our intuition tells us that there’s a difference between killing someone for profit and a soldier killing to protect the lives of his brothers-in-arms.[1]

The positive commandments of Jesus—to “love your neighbor as yourself” is at once imminently simple and infinitely complex and responsive to circumstance. We must ask ourselves, “What does it mean to most love my neighbor in this circumstance? What does it mean to love two neighbors who are in conflict with one another?” Etc.

Fourth—and this is what got me thinking about this in the first place—positive morality is a, well, more positive formulation of behavior for instructing young ones. Isn’t it far better to say, “It hurt little Jimmy when you did that; what would be a way to love him better next time?” than to say, “That’s bad; we don’t hit,” which carries with it the connotation of “you’re bad and defined by that one action.” Am I overthinking this? Perhaps? Is it hippy-dippy (to use the term for the first time in my life)? Definitely. But would it have a positive impact on children’s behavioral development? What little knowledge I have on the subject seems to indicate yes.

I’m fairly well convinced that it’s worth it to start thinking about how we can be better rather than focusing on how we’ve messed up—to avoid hurting others by focusing on our relationships with them rather than sterile commands. What do you think?


[1] A few caveats here. First, one must admit that, being subject to a fallen world, our intuitions may not always be trustworthy. Nevertheless, I believe in C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” and the existence of conscience as a signpost to God. Additionally, when we talk about comparative morality—“X is okay in this kind of situation but not this”—we open ourselves up to far more ambiguity than we can handle in this post. Still, that gives a good reason for the theological point that we treat all sin as equal—we’re incapable of knowing with certainty how to rank one sin against another, so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can.

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