A CASE STUDY IN SOCIAL ETHICS
“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18). We are thus alerted to the fact that our faith is evidenced by how we behave. Accordingly, this has profound social implications.
As a pertinent aside, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that if one has difficulty doing, then believe. And if difficulty in believing, then by doing. In this way, not to focus on the problem, but its solution.
This brings to mind a recent case in point. A devout couple, who believe in faith healing, face twenty years or more in prison for failing to have their son receive medical treatment. As a result, the youth died. A jury had previously convicted the parents of involuntary manslaughter in the earlier death of another son, and they were put on a ten year probation that included orders to seek medical care if any other child got sick. They have seven surviving children.
The couple’s lawyer insists that no malice was intended, and this is likely true. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power,” the husband affirms. Consequently, he observes that medicine “is against our religious beliefs.”
The couple’s pastor attributes the death of their children to the parents’ lack of spirituality. Which he concluded would not persuade them to seek medical assistance, even if another of their children appeared near death. Thus putting their surviving children at risk.
Two issues surface. Initially, as to the validity of their claim. “Is any one of you sick?” James inquires. “He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” (James 5:14-15). This does not seem to preclude medical treatment, although it might be interpreted in this manner. For instance, when Paul pled that his affliction be removed, he received instead the assurance: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Then, too, he urged Timothy to use a little wine to treat his frequent illnesses (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23). Which may be a subtle reference to the common practice of diluting the beverage.
Consequently, we might conclude that it is not an either/or situation but both/and, as various studies appear to confirm. All of which recalls the observation of a physician, who allowed: “I like to pray with my patients, since in allows for the fact that I am not God, but an instrument to serve him.”
What then? We are left to struggle with the social implications of this conflict of interests. This, in turn, evolves in the context of the divine mandates. Which have traditionally been understood as four in number: concerning labor, family, government, and church. In particular, this issue has to do with the last three of these.
There is the family. Qualifications aside, it is expected that the parents will care for and supervise their children. In this regard, they provide a wide range of services. Such as relates to their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
The parental role is not to be usurped either by government or church. Since the mandates are complementary, rather than competitive. Then, if for some reason the family is dysfunctional, a surrogate family may be recruited.
Then there is government. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus was asked (Matt. 22:17). They meant to put him on the horns of a dilemma. If he were to advocate the paying of taxes, he would lose support from the populace. If, conversely, he were to protest the paying of taxes, he might be charged with rebellion.
Jesus was well aware of their intent. “You hypocrites,” he rebuked them, “why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” When they showed him a coin, he inquired: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription!” When they acknowledged that it was Caesar’s, he enjoined them: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
It was not Jesus’ intention to suggest that these were two equally valid spheres: the secular and the religious. In Jewish tradition, it was held that foreign rulers were accountable to God for their activity. This allowed for making appropriate decisions. In this instance, it was thought to involve providing security for children at risk.
Finally, there is the church. “Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs they observe. They are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and all the same time, they surpass the laws by their lives” (Letter to Diognetus, a middle of the second century text).
Jesus alerted his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14, 16). Thus to serve as a righteous social catalyst, which protects society from decay and resulting chaos.
Which is to affirm: “Life is good. Wherefore a man should treasure it, not despise it; affirm and not deny it; have faith in it and never despair of its possibilities. For behind it is God” (Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism, p. 59). “Life is good and man can find it such, provided—and this is the great condition for everything else—that it is properly lived.” As if under a sacred canopy, as characterized by the sociologist Peter Berger, rather than the law of the jungle—concerning the survival of the fittest.
The importance of the divine mandates is thus illustrated by this case in point. For persons interested in exploring their implications at greater length, I recently authored A Guide to Christian Ethics, which is available is both print and e-book format. Then, too, please remember this couple and their surviving children in prayer, as well as guidance for those who must deal with the situation.
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