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Contemporary Moral Issues (Camp Emmanuel 2005)

Orthodox Life Session Summary Sheet

"For when nothing merely human is put before us, when holy men are moved to action with no thought of their own personal gratification, and with the sole object of pleasing God, it is plain that it is the Lord Who is directing their hearts." St. Basil the Great, Letter 229.

What are ethics and morals? Discuss popular understandings of morality and ethics. Describe why we as Orthodox do not distinguish between ‘private' morals and ‘public' ethics. The bottom line is that there is no division between belief and action.

Differing Approaches
How do we decide what is right? Describe the difference between being good and becoming good. Discuss the two methods of moral decisions: applying a set of rules (dos and don'ts) and imitating a model.

How do we view moral issues? Discuss the Orthodox ideal of "sharing the mind of Christ." Describe the difference between simply agreeing with a principle of right and wrong and the Christian discipline of prayerful deliberation.

Distilled Morals and Rights
The problem with distilled ethics and morals: describe the danger of impersonal legalism in applying rules. Discuss what we mean by ‘gray areas.' Point out the tendency of rules to reduce into rights and duties. What rights do we have? Discuss problems with the modern sense of entitlement. Do we truly have any rights that cannot be taken away? What duties do we have? Discuss problems with any type of coercive morality. If we have to do it, does it still reflect our love?

Morals and Our Baptism
What does baptism have to do with morals? Discuss the meaning of baptism for our moral deliberation. What does it mean to belong to the Body of Christ?

So…How do we think about Morals?
The Orthodox Model: The Greatest Commandment: Discuss Christ's Greatest Commandment. How does this govern our moral thought and action? How does it differ from the Golden Rule and modern society's understanding of it?

In Practice
No Straight Answers; One Straight Path: Discuss how Christian morality is a journey. Describe how our moral sense develops as we participate in the life of the Church and apply Christian discipline to our own lives. End with the bottom line: Orthodox morality is about becoming good, not about just being good.

Orthodox Life Session Group Leader Information
This information is to be read and assimilated prior to the session. Please make notes from the information below on your summary page. The outline is intentionally broad so that each group leader retains the freedom to follow the mood, needs, and interests of their group. Included below are some thoughts which might help ground the discussion and offer insights for each group leader to consider. As always pray for guidance and trust the Holy Spirit to make use of your words.

Begin with a prayer. You may use the following prayer to begin the session, from St. John Chrysostom's prayer before reading the Gospel, since morals are essentially enacting the Gospel in our lives.

"Illumine our hearts, O Master who loves mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our minds to the understanding of Your Gospel teachings. Implant also in us a love for Your blessed commandments. Grant us the grace to overcome all our carnal desires, so that we may enter more completely into a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing to You. For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and to You do we ascribe glory, together with Your all-holy, good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen."

What are ethics and morals? In general, people seem to see the difference between morals and ethics as morals are the individual's sense of right and wrong, while ethics are society's rules of correct social interactions. So popular culture understands morals as what people believe and ethics as how people behave. In Orthodoxy we tend to reject divisions between public and private; a distinction between the two is hard for us to understand. Generally, then, in Orthodoxy when we talk about either morals or ethics we mean both; what we believe defines how we act, always in every situation, public or private. This session is geared at getting the group to reflect on how we decide how to act. What does it mean to be a ‘morally upright' Christian?

Differing Approaches
How do we decide what is right? There are two broad approaches: following a list of rules of dos and don'ts or modeling an example of moral behavior. As children we have the guidance of our parents to help us develop morally. These early lessons come as rules. But as we mature we need to move beyond the black and white certainty of dos and don'ts. Moral extremes aren't really the issue, we've all mastered the prohibitions against murdering people, for example; the more vague situations are harder to figure out. Think about all the commentary about the Terri Schiavo case. We want the group to start challenging the prevailing popular opinion that good morality is mastering a set of dos and don'ts. For an extreme example think of Fundamentalist Christians who are more defined by all the things they don't do than by the Person of Christ. The goal of the conversation is to get to an understanding that Orthodox morality is intimately caught up in Theosis: conforming to the Person of Christ. Rather than just following the rules we take positive moral action to become more like Christ. It is less about meeting the expectations of society and being deemed a "good" person and more about meeting the expectations of God and becoming a saint. Moral choices are part of our training on this journey.

How do we view moral issues? The difficulty with this approach is that it abandons the easy security of absolute rules. As Orthodox we live in a tension between akribeia (strictness) and economia (dispensation). That means that we have very strict and demanding moral guidelines but there is an exception to every rule. So for us morality is not a science of following rules but rather an art of applying guidelines. The purpose, however, is never to simply be a "good" person. The purpose is always to become more like Christ, to become a saint. We do not have absolute moral rules but we are also not relativistic.

Instead the goal of our moral deliberation is to "share the mind of Christ." Now we have to be careful not to reduce this theological idea into a mere democratic morality. To share the mind of Christ is not simply to come to some sort of consensus in the Church about right and wrong. It is not to submit to majority rule. To share the mind of Christ is the goal and activity of all our efforts in the Church. It means to literally think with Christ's mind. To participate in His life so intimately that what He likes, we like, and what He hates, we hate. To share the mind of Christ is to see the world as our God sees it and act how He would act. This begins with simple imitation: we do the same things He did in the Gospel accounts as much as possible. But as we mature we actually get drawn into Christ through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the life of the Church, things like prayer and fasting. This is the basic focus of all Orthodox moral/ethical teaching. Not just "What Would Jesus Do" in an abstract way, but actually seeing the world the way Christ does and acting the way He does. This is a profound mystery of the Church, so try to communicate as much as you can to the group and plant what seeds you can if it's a little difficult for them to grasp.

Distilled Morals and Rights
The problem with distilled ethics and morals: In America we are living with the legacy of the "social gospel" movement of the early 20th Essentially those following this movement thought that society could be transformed by distilling Christian teaching into a set of universal (i.e. not specifically Christian) rules. The problem is that this entirely bypasses the process of becoming Christ-like. Anyone can simply meet the standard by conforming to the rules with no effect whatsoever on their soul or conscience. We see it every day when people manipulate systems for their own benefit; they play by the rules but they certainly aren't becoming saints. So the danger of distilled rules is, in a word, legalism. People just meet the minimum requirement of the rule without ever understanding what it means to be becoming something greater than they are. Always keep in mind that Christian morals are never about being a good person or being a good citizen. The Church couldn't care less about whether or not society approves of us as good people. Christian morality is about becoming a saint and conforming to an eternal standard of holiness. This requires constant attention and self-evaluation to understand why we do what we do. In contrast, it is very easy to follow a set of rules without ever really thinking about them or being effected by them. Think about some rules at school. You follow them out of fear of reprisal but they don't really affect who you are. It quickly becomes a battle between what we deserve (our rights) and what we have to do (our duties). Orthodoxy has problems with both of these ideas.

What Rights do we have? There are two problems with our modern insistence on our rights. The first is logical. In popular culture a right is something that no one can take away from us. It is something that we deserve. But very few things, actually none, really fit this description. Even our hallowed national rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can easily and often are, taken away from citizens. More important, though, is the moral problem. Basic human rights are about what we as a society owe others, not about what is owed us. We have allowed our egotism to pervert how we should act toward others into how they should act toward us. Instead of respecting others because we all have a right to basic human dignity, we demand that others respect us. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the Church's reasoning. As Christians we are always concerned with the other before the self.

What Duties do we have? This would seem to mean that as Christians we live a life of duties rather than rights. It would seem to mean that we go through life saddled by all the demands of how we should act to protect others' rights. But again, there is a problem with this type of morality, called deontology by philosophers. As Christians we affirm that we have free will. As Orthodox we emphasize the absence of coercion in God's relationship with us. In other words, there really isn't anything that we have to do. Rather God offers us an example of what we should do. Again, emphasize to the group that a Christian moral life isn't about being forced to live a certain way or even about living a certain way out of fear of punishment or hope of reward. Christian morality is about accepting an invitation to become something more than we are by ourselves. It is about taking all the small steps on the journey to becoming a saint.

Morals and Our Baptism
What does Baptism have to do with Morals? This is the core of the session. Please reflect on these ideas so that you can comfortably communicate them to the level of your particular group. It is profoundly important that the group begins to understand that their baptism into the Church changes who they are. We act differently as Christians, not because of the rules we have, but because of who we are, who we are becoming, and particularly who we became at our Baptism.

I have often been told that we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to have been baptized. There is great truth there. In Baptism we die and are reborn, not metaphorically and not symbolically; but in reality we die and are then resurrected in Christ. As St. Paul writes, we die to the old man and put on the new man.  But who is this "old man" that dies? It is our egotistical self who tries to accumulate and hoard, tries to possess and exalt itself. And the "new man" is a new creation in Christ, one who continually offers his/her gifts to others. Most importantly, the new self is one that no longer belongs to the individual. Now, in our society individual sovereignty is idolized (i.e. "you can't tell me what to do, I'm my own person"). For some it is the very definition of our national ideal: personal freedom at any cost. But Christianity starkly contradicts that self-conception. In baptism we offer up ourselves; we literally relinquish our sovereignty to God. This is not some abstract theological issue. We truly, if we are to be faithful Christians, become servants of Christ, meaning that we surrender all rights that we might have claimed for ourselves before our baptism. It is that radical of an act. We no longer claim any authority over ourselves. That is what it means to claim Christ as our Lord and Savior. For Orthodox Christians, we approach moral issues differently. We don't hunt for our rights, we don't try to secure our own interests; we seek the mind of Christ and submit to that, whether it is pleasant or not.

There are indescribable blessings and joys to being a Christian. The reward is infinitely greater than the cost; that is what it means to worship an infinitely loving God. But when we talk about morals it is more about how we live a faithful life rather than what we get from living a faithful life. The rewards are the absolutely free, undeserved blessings of our Father who adores us. So I don't want to minimize how joyful the Christian life is; but I do want to emphasize what it means for us to call ourselves Christians. That often entails sacrifice and obedience; both of these virtues are absolutely rejected by modern standards. This changes radically how we look at moral decisions. They are not about our rights but rather about being formed into the image of Christ and sharing His mind. writes, we die to the old man and put on the new man.

So…How do we think about Morals?
The Orthodox Model: The Greatest Commandment: Before we get to specific moral issues in the Street Wise session, it is important for the group to grasp the basic difference in how we approach moral issues as Orthodox Christians. We are not looking for the "correct" answer, though at times there may be a correct answer. At their age, the campers are ready to begin to move from the security of, "Teach me how to think about this specific issue," to the ambiguity of, "Teach me how to think morally." Their moral perception might not mature as quickly as the complexity of the issues they are faced with. We must offer them a guideline. Christ Himself offers just this in the Greatest Commandment. Read Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, and/or Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

"And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?' He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?' So he answered and said, ‘"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind," and "your neighbor as yourself."' And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.' But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?' Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, "take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you." So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?' And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.' Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'" Luke 10:25-37.

Essentially we ask two questions when we deliberate morally: how does this act demonstrate my love for God, and how does this act demonstrate my love for others. These two questions are by no means simple or straightforward which is precisely why we practice spiritual discipleship in the Orthodox Church.

How it differs from the Golden Rule: One caution is that society's understanding of the Golden Rule has become subtly distorted. We have reduced the Golden Rule into an egotistical altruism: we do good only to secure good for ourselves. We do not act in a way that will benefit others simply because we would like that for ourselves; instead we act to benefit others so that they will have to act that way to us. This is Kant's categorical imperative if you're familiar with Enlightenment philosophy. The problem is that it is still just love of self which informs our actions. Christ's teaching is radically different though the difference seems subtle. We are to place others at the center of our deliberation; not because we will somehow benefit from doing so, but because that is what it means to love the other.

In Practice
No Straight Answers; One Straight Path: This session has purposefully avoided any list of contemporary issues with easy, straightforward answers. The Church does have guidance on all the modern issues but it is critically important that our campers learn to think morally in an Orthodox sense. In Street Wise we will apply this moral thinking to contemporary issues like abortion, euthanasia, violence, war, poverty, drugs, and self-abuse. But the goal of this session has been to move away from dependence on dos and don'ts toward the freedom of a developing moral conscience. Morality, then, is connected with living a Christian life. As we purify our consciences more we will see the mind of Christ more clearly. As we see the mind of Christ more clearly we will recognize our greater need for purification. It is an upward spiral into the Kingdom of God. As we mature we begin to understand more clearly what it means to be a moral Orthodox Christian. And it is the Sacraments and the life of the Church which allow us to perceive the mind of Christ. Discipline in our Christian lives, prayer and fasting, teaches us both how to be moral and empowers us to be moral.

Bottom Line
We are being formed into the Image of Christ by the Church. Our lives are not about our rights and freedoms; they are about our potential to become holy and reflect Christ's love and mercy in a world that struggles with pain and suffering. We are not about claiming what we deserve but rather freely offering the gifts that we have been given. Moral deliberation for an Orthodox Christian is about how we can love more fully and freely.

Street Wise Session Group Leader Information
"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." Luke 10:25-28

Begin with a prayer. Ask the group to review the bottom line from Orthodox Life. This whole session builds upon those ideas so they need to be fresh. Tell the group that they will now apply the ideas from Orthodox Life to specific contemporary issues. Divide the group into smaller groups (4 or so per team depending on the size of the group). Give each group a scenario or two and give them 10 minutes to discuss it and present a possible response. Get back together and talk about their ideas. Do as many scenarios as time permits and interest holds, perhaps switch up groups if necessary. You may also discuss some of these scenarios as a group and attempt role play. Time permitting, divide the kids into groups again and have them write and develop their own scenario and then let the entire group discuss it. Do not feel the need to get through all the scenarios. If a particularly good discussion about one issue is helping them grasp the way we as Orthodox approach moral issues then let them stay on it. This is more about the practice of thinking morally than the need to offer simple answers.

Keep in mind that there aren't any right answers. The session is designed to get the group talking about how to think about these issues. If you have any questions about the moral issues involved please ask a clergyman before presenting this session or check the Church's teaching on these issues in Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian by Fr. Stanley Harakas. If you feel like a topic is over your head or you don't understand how to present then concentrate on one you are more comfortable with. Remember this isn't about giving the group all the right answers but about learning the process of thinking about these issues from an Orthodox perspective.

See below of the Contemporary Moral Issues Scenario Sheet.

Moral Criteria
Remind them to consider how their response demonstrates their love for God and love for the other. Ask them not to give the simple standard answer but instead an honest answer and why they think that meets the Greatest Commandment. If corrections need to be made, gently explain how their solution either violates love of God or love of the other and ask if they see another way.