Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Ethical Challenge

Two summers ago I took a few courses from Bethel Seminary online.  One of these was a course in Christian Ethics.  The two texts were separate volumes of a collection called "Readings in Christian Ethics."  The editors compiled articles on ethics from several different Christian traditions, and examined several different ways of approaching ethics.  I found the readings to be fascinating and informative, especially since I had not formally delved into the area of ethics up to this point.

One of the ethical theories that really appealed to me was the Divine Command Ethic.  This ethic basically states that everything God says is right and good is indeed right and good, no matter what.  The question isn't so much "Is this action right?" as much as it is, "Is this action commanded by God?"  If the answer to the latter question is "Yes," then the action in question is right and good, no matter what it is, because everything God commands is good.  This means, of course, that command or instruction given in the Bible is right and good because it is God who has given it.  But this calls into question places in scripture where something God does or commands someone to do does not look very right and good.  For instance, when God commanded the Israelites to kill any and every living thing during their conquest of the Promised Land.  Really?  That was good?  The Divine Command Ethic says yes, partly because the temporal morality of the action isn't in question.  What is in question is where the command came from.  Since it came from God, and God is all good, then the action - whatever it is - must be good and righteous, even if it means wiping people out.  As you can imagine, this is somewhat hard to swallow.

Furthermore, as I investigated the Divine Command Ethic more, I had another problem with it: just because something God has commanded for one particular person or group in history was right at that moment in time, it does not mean that it is right for all people in all times.  In other words, if God's command to Joshua to wipe the Canaanites off the face of the earth was morally acceptable at that time, it certainly can't still be acceptable for me today, is it?  In other words, it seems the moral acceptability of God's commands are relative at best, based on time, culture, covenant, etc.

But then I ran across an article in the text books titled "A Defense of Divine Command Ethics," or something like that, that was actually written by one of the editors of the textbooks: one Robert Rakestraw.  In the article, he unfolded the Divine Command Ethic in a brilliant way, taking account of the exceptions I've noted above, and explaining them masterfully.  For example, to command a people-group to wipe out another people-group for no good reason would be immoral, no matter who gave the command.  There is certainly a backstory involved when we consider the story of God commanding the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites.  For instance, elsewhere in scripture we read that the Canaanites were exceptionally wicked people, and God had given them 400 years to repent of their wickedness.  Furthermore, they were occupying land that belonged to Israel and refused to leave.  God's command to wipe them out was a meting out of his justice upon the Canaanites, and was therefore good.  This is just one example of how the Divine Command ethic "works."  Rakestraw went on to show how this ethic can play out nicely even in modern day life.

So after reading Rakestraw's defense of the Divine Command ethic, I was a believer.  In fact, his article was so well written that I read his bio from the back of the book.  It turns out he was a professor at Bethel Seminary!  I thought I would send him an email to thank him for clarifying Divine Command ethics to me, so I looked in the Bethel directory, but could not find his name.  I Googled him, and discovered a blog that bore his name.  After a little perusing, I quickly learned that he had left Bethel for health reasons.  A little more research revealed that he had successfully undergone a heart transplant, which is no doubt quite a feat in itself.  After a time, however, it was discovered that his body was rejecting the heart.  Through one way or another, an additional heart was made available to him for a second transplant.  Without the transplant, he would be dead within 6 months.

It's funny, the way God works some times.  Here is the ultimate ethical question, posed to a man who has made his living studying ethics.  How many hearts does a person get?  If he went through with the second transplant, it would be his third.  And even then, there was no guarantee that the third heart would be the charm.  Was it right to take yet another heart, when there were so many other people in the world literally dying to have a heart transplant?  Rakestraw decided that no, it was not right for him to have another heart.  In making this decision, he knew that he was signing his own death certificate, but it was the decision he made.  The doctors gave him about 6 months, after which time they predicted his heart would fight off his body to the extent that it would cause a major, lethal heart attack.  He made the decision with all of this information in view.

Rakestraw received his initial heart transplant ten years ago.  Six years ago he received the news that his heart was failing, and the doctors gave him six months to live.  That time has come and gone, however.  He is still alive, feasting on the grace of life.  How do I know this?  He posts once a month on his blog, "The Benediction Project," where he writes about spirituality, life, and death.  To my knowledge, his prognosis has not been upgraded, nor do they expect him to live much longer (although they said the same thing six years ago!).  His blog is an encouragement to read.  It's about a man who loves God, loves life, and is learning to embrace death.

May God grant me the grace to live - and die - with grace and humility like Bob Rakestraw.

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