Something bugged me a little bit during my Media Ethics class on Wednesday. Since it was only the second day of class, we were still milling around with the definition of “ethics” and how it might be different from “morals.” To help everyone stir their thoughts around these words, the instructor used a couple examples from a couple different religions and what the main ethic was for each. When he came to Christianity, he very briefly said that it was to treat others as you would like to be treated, which is the same definition he gave for both Buddhism and Islam. I don’t know very much about these two religions and what their ethics might be, but I know what the ethic is of Christianity and it’s not simply to love others as you would love yourself.
When we broke down into smaller groups to discuss how we define our own ethics, I noticed a common tendency. “Treat others how you want to be treated” seemed to translate into “do whatever you want to hurt, just don’t hurt anybody else.” “As long as I’m not hurting anybody else,” a student in my group said, “I don’t mind getting high off of meth, weed or something else.” “I have no problem with getting drunk and having a good time,” another said, “as long as I’m not causing anybody else any harm.” On our little “Initial Moral Orientation” charts that we were given for group discussion, no one marked higher than “Little” on their “Religious” influences. It was the second-to-last category to choose from.
What my fellow students outlined, I think, is a much broader view of morality and ethics than just the average student. It’s an American tendency to indulge in one’s freedoms and rights and however that plays out is justified by the qualification, “As long as I’m not hurting anybody.” On one hand I appreciate that the American view is at least considerate enough not to run over anybody else as we each indulge into whatever we want. But on the other hand, I have a hard time believing that no one gets hurt when we indulge; according to what influences me most (the commandments of Jesus), I would have to argue that even though we may not hurt people around us as we do whatever we want, we’re still hurting ourselves.
Even with that aside, however, I’m still irritated by the association of the Christian ethic with this ideology that you’re capable of doing whatever you want as long as you aren’t harmful to others. Anyone who has read even one Gospel from the New Testament knows that this isn’t the case. Not only are certain Old Testament commandments accentuated in the words of Jesus, but there is also no limit to how far these commandments are carried out. “Love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t stop when your neighbor no longer needs that love; it keeps going. Caring for the poor, sick, lame, and lonely doesn’t stop by handing over some change or leftover food. As long as we are breathing, we are called to carry out Christ’s commandments.
The perfect example of what I mean is the story of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks a question as to what’s the most important commandment, which Jesus asks in return how the lawyer interprets the Law. After he states it, Jesus agrees, but then the lawyer tries to place a limit on the Law by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Is it the person who lives next door to me? Is it anybody from my small village or neighborhood? Or is it anyone, anywhere, at any time? Jesus’ parable falls in line with the third option.
How I have come to define the Christian ethic is simple this: loving and caring for the people around you (as God has done for you) without any limitations. If a false or imbalanced scale is an abomination to the Lord (Prov. 20:23), and if this world pours out nothing but pain, evil and depression as we all indulge in whatever we want, then we – as the people of God – are that counter balance. By surrendering our “freedom” to stop and love someone else even if we get nothing in return, we act out the love of God. If we live out the mere commandments of the Torah, as Jesus says, “[We] will live,” (Luke 10:28). But if we follow His example of limitless love, if we “go and do likewise,” not only will we live, but others will live with us. More wounded and hurting people will be healed and taken care of by socially-marginalized Samaritans.
My Media Ethics instructor’s definition of the Christian ethic wasn’t wrong; it just wasn’t the full definition. We’re called to love until faith becomes sight – however is needed, to whomever it’s needed, and wherever it’s needed. There are no restrictions, no limitations to God’s love. We know this intellectually, but the difficulty each follower of Christ faces is practicing this experientially.
“Go and do likewise” doesn’t just stop when it gets difficult either. It doesn’t stop when we get blisters or splinters from the wooden beams we bear; it doesn’t stop when our shoulders are scraped open and bleeding; it doesn’t stop after the first mile or the second or the third, fourth, fifth or sixth; it doesn’t stop when we’re “retired”; it doesn’t stop when we’ve failed time after time after time; it doesn’t stop… period.
Loving our neighbor continues on until we’ve come face to face with Jesus, which is when it changes from being our burden to bear to being our joy to experience. The Christian ethic is relentless love – love that never ends.