Dave Brisbin 11.5.23
I’ve continued to receive questions about the war in Israel and related issues, and one of them was very specific and raised an ethical nightmare of conflicting moral imperatives. Got me thinking of the competing ethical systems I learned in school: categorical imperatives—universal laws and duties that are self-contained and always morally right without regard to consequences vs utilitarianism—actions that are morally right when they produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people vs virtue ethics—the what would Jesus do question of looking to an ideal virtue agent to show us right action.

Each one has its pros and cons, and we probably need all three to regulate the excesses of the others, but what would Jesus do presents an interesting question for those of us trying to follow his teaching. First off, we can’t apply what would Jesus do to macro situations—Jesus was always teaching in the context of micro relationships and individual hearts. But a friend told me his reaction to the macro war was so personally devastating that he “googled Gandhi” to find, an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, and Jesus in the gospels, do not treat evil with evil, but rather with love. My friend’s clear use of virtue ethics helped him reframe, return home from macro confusion and despair.

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Jesus is much more situational than categorical in his ethics. Since he can’t ask what Jesus would do, in asking what the Father would do, he focuses on what love requires in any situation rather than what is categorically right. But to know what love requires, itself requires pure presence—awareness to really see the situation as it is, all who share it as they are.

When Jesus gets the devastating news that his dear friend Lazarus is dying, he stays two more days where he is, teaching and healing. Did love require delay to create the greatest good for greatest number or was he just lost in presence? When he arrives, he knows love requires a deep conversation with Martha, but with Mary, he simply weeps. What love requires can cut through volumes of ethical philosophy, but only if we’re fully present first.


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