against consequentialism

an unspoken Advent sermon, of sorts

In my recent involvement in the ongoing debate about sexuality and the church, I’ve heard a number of people argue that if conservatives were to treat affirmers of same-sex unions as brothers and sisters in Christ, that would serve to “normalize” or “legitimate” the affirmers. The consequences of such normalization, they say, would be to weaken the witness and testimony of Christ’s church.

It’s natural and in most cases appropriate to think about the likely consequences, outcomes, of actions. But … When people ask Jesus whether many will be saved or only a few — which is basically a question about the general or universal consequences of sin — he begins his answer by telling them to focus their attention on their own spiritual condition: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (And he adds that some of those most confident of their admission will be turned away.) When people ask whether the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed suffered death as punishment for being more wicked than other people, Jesus says: Nope, they weren’t more wicked than you, so repent now while you still can. When Jesus prophesies the death of Peter, and Peter replies by asking what will become of John, Jesus replies: “What is that to you? Follow me.”

I think if you put these passages together they have a common theme: Jesus asks people to obey rather than calculate consequences — and if you are going to think about consequences, focus on the consequences for yourselves of disobedience. If, as I have suggested, we are commanded to treat those who disagree with us on matters of sexuality but “confess the faith of Christ crucified” as brothers and sisters, then that’s what we have to do, regardless of what consequences we anticipate or fear. I say If because my interpretation may be wrong, but the question that I’ve raised is the one question that must be answered before we go any further. Because once we acknowledge people as brothers and sisters then a whole bunch of other commandments kick in. At every stage our only concern, it seems to me, is our own obedience to the Lord’s teaching. To say “But if I do that, then X will happen” is to invite the reply: What is X to you? Follow me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this specific case might be, I have to say that thinking about these matters has been an enlightening experience for me personally. For many years I have understood my own Christian calling as one that encourages reconciliation and mutual understanding. (Let it be acknowledged that I have often failed to manifest the generosity of spirit required to do such work well.) I have tried to do this in a small way politically — hoping to get liberals and conservatives to have more charitable and mutually forbearing interactions, something that I do from my position as a conservative-liberal-socialist — but mainly within the church. I have hoped for many years to get rival Anglican bodies likewise to be forbearing towards one another and to seek common cause. I have tried to encourage cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, in the belief that, given the strong currents of our culture, if we do not hang together we shall most assuredly hang separately. But recently I have found myself grown very weary in well doing, despite the biblical admonition. I have said to myself, You gave it your best shot, it’s time to pack up, go home, and do something else for a change. I told a friend recently that the chief thing I have learned in my years of seeking reconciliation is that people’s enmities are their treasures, and trying to deprive them of those enmities is like trying to take gemstones from the lair of Smaug.

But just in the past few days I’ve come to realize how much my discouragement arises from consequentialism rather than obedience. I have wanted to make a difference. I have wanted to be successful. Even when I have thought of people whose efforts were belatedly rewarded — like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who went to his death thinking that his enormous gifts as a poet had been wasted, had gone for nothing — my real focus has been on that eventual recognition, which Hopkins has surely received in spades. But it’s not possible to reflect on the example of those who did not grow weary in well doing but whose efforts brought forth no obvious fruit — those who, as George Eliot says in the magnificent closing words of Middlemarch, “rest in unvisited tombs “— because nobody knows who they are. If we have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, should we not also have memorials to the unrecognized and unthanked workers of charity and kindness?

In any case, all my mental fluttering about consequentialism has come home to roost. It was a moment of powerful illumination for me when I realized that if I were to say to the Lord that I could see no point in continuing to seek reconciliation among people who did not want to be reconciled to one another, the only answer I would be likely to receive is this: What is that to you? Follow me.