Tuesday, February 26, 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Conscience and Unenforceable Obligations

a sermon preached by the Rev Richard S. Gilbert
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday February 24, 2008

[it was a real pleasure to be able to invite Dick into the pulpit last Sunday, who was here in Portland because his wife Joyce was performing with the Longfellow Chorus later that afternoon. Unfortunately, Dick's footnotes for this sermon did not attach to the attachment, and therefore I was unable to include them with this post....twj]

There is a story of the Maine couple, who after a good night’s sleep, rose early to prepare for a new day. The wife proceeded to the kitchen to make breakfast, and the husband went outdoors to savor the beautiful morning. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun shone brightly. It was Maine weather at its best. Shortly, the husband returned to the kitchen and said to his wife: “Well, Mary, we are really going to have to pay for this.”

This story reminds me of the pathetic fallacy in literature, which attributes a kind of moral character to impersonal nature, as if the great natural order balances good and evil in human life, quite apart from our deserving. The apparent price for enjoying a good day was the inevitability that we would be somehow punished. This rather intriguing view of things is a fitting introduction to a consideration of the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s provocative words, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Do a good deed daily” was a mantra drummed into me during my Boy Scout days. It was not a bad slogan in a way; we ought to do good deeds. One of the dangers, however, was that I might think if I did one good deed early in the morning, I’d be off the hook for the rest of the day. Or it might suggest that virtue is somehow a matter of accumulating a certain number of good deeds, like merit badges. I recall the story of two Boy Scouts walking down the street, presumably looking for someone to help. One says to the other, “I can think of at least a half-dozen good deeds we could do if we got paid for them.”

How, then, should we understand Coffin’s cynical mantra, “No good deed goes unpunished.” What did he mean by that? Is it simply a corollary of the famous epigram: “Nice guys finish last” ? Is it merely hyperbole? After all, some good deeds are rewarded.

I think Coffin was doing battle with a biblical dogma that still has much currency in our land – the belief that there is a direct correlation between virtue and reward, vice and punishment. Conventional wisdom assumes that virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. People who work hard will flourish and those who don’t will fail. It is part and parcel of the Protestant work ethic, now simply the work ethic, stripped of religious meaning.

That ethic dates back to the Hebrew biblical tradition. I recall my bible professor’s lecture on the Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible. He summarized a set of ethical laws – the Deuteronomic Code – with the words, “do good and prosper.” This was the message from the religious leaders of the time to keep their followers in line. Prosperity automatically follows goodness. Honesty is the best policy. Why? Because honesty pays.

The “do good and prosper” motto and the “no good deed goes unpunished” slogan constantly do battle in religious thinking. It is hard to imagine Jesus saying: "Take up your cross and follow me - it'll make you feel good – you’ll be rich and happy.” And yet much of the “pop Christianity” of our time sends exactly this message. Belief in Jesus will enable you to prosper in the marketplace; to win on the football field; to triumph in the election. That theology is called “the prosperity gospel,” a dramatic contrast to the Jesus ethic in which it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. What is it about those words that these preachers and presidents don’t understand?

When the word "sacrifice" is used call us to moral account, the number of altruists drops off precipitously. The language of sacrifice drops out of our vocabulary and is replaced by that of success. It won’t cost much to be a Christian – or a Unitarian Universalist. No sacrifices required. Nothing but blessings. The lessons of Jesus of Nazareth are easily forgotten.

One of the most gripping scenes in literature is the encounter of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Doestoevski's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Set in the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, Jesus has reappeared, and is outraged at what he observes being said and done in his name. He tells the Grand Inquisitor that he intends to go out among the people and set the record straight. “Not so fast!” warns the Grand Inquisitor. “No way will I let you do that to these well-meaning people. They’ve grown up with their version of Christianity, as their parents and parents’ parents did before them. Their religious convictions provide meaning in their lives. Think how crushed they’d be if you told them that their beliefs were all wrong. . . . It would be like pulling the life jacket from a drowning man. You would deprive them of all hope. How dare you! Their religious beliefs work for them. Leave them alone.”

Dogma and authority are pitted against the hard teachings of a sacrificial ethic. As the story concludes, the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus to death as a heretic: “I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn thee.” As in fiction, so in history. For a lifetime of good deeds Jesus was punished by death on the cross – a sobering rebuke to the Deuteronomic school’s mantra “do good and prosper.” Doestoevski understands the “lesson” of Jesus very well.

A look at history reveal that while many have been martyred for not assenting to the creeds, no one has ever been executed for not following the Golden Rule.

A more contemporary fictional illustration of how good deeds may be punished is found in Peter Sellers' film, "Heavens Above." Sellers plays the Reverend John E. Smallwood, who becomes vicar of a church in a contented English village. “The village enjoys the benevolence of the wealthy Despard family and the success of the pill it manufactures - sedative, pepper-upper and laxative combined, a perfect trinity. The vicar persuades Lady Despard to ‘Go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor,’ as the Bible advises, and she freely distributes food, driving butcher, baker and candle-stick maker out of business. And when Smallwood pronounces that the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is more efficacious than the triple-actioned pill, sales go down, unemployment goes up and mob violence ensues.” The film ends with the good vicar being sent rocketing into outer space where he thinks he will be missionary to whomever might live there.

Smallwood wanted to do good in the worst way, and he did - in the worst way. Without taking account of the risks inherent in his action, he blundered ahead with a literal New Testament morality which evidently doesn’t work in a modern capitalistic society. He innocently produced results that were nearly catastrophic for the very people he sought to help. We learn that it is not easy to apply the high-minded ethics of the first century to the complicated world of today. And we also learn that often, despite our best intentions, we are punished for our good deeds.

Here we have a distinction between an "ethics of conscience" and an "ethics of responsibility." Smallwood acted out of an ethics of conscience: he affirmed a moral principle and adhered to it at all costs. We admire the Smallwoods of the world, yet despair of the harm they sometimes create. They do the wrong thing for the right reason, failing to take into account a moral analysis of the real world situation – the ethics of responsibility.

Recently I read of an ethical dilemma that is much more real than the amazing and amusing “Heavens Above” fictional drama. Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California, proudly proclaims on a marquee outside and a banner inside, “All are welcome.” Its website reads: “An Open and Affirming, Inclusive Church with a Progressive Theology and a Commitment to Social Justice.” It is much like our Unitarian Universalist Welcoming Congregation program. But in January of 2007, Mark Pliska, 53, came to church and told the congregation he had just been released from prison for molesting children, but that he sought a place to worship. He requested membership, thus throwing that liberal congregation into an ethical tailspin. Congregants wondered just how welcoming they really were. By accepting this apparently repentant man, were their children safe? The Pilgrim Church conscience would surely accept this man – “all are welcome.” But the Pilgrim Church sense of responsibility must consider the safety of its children. A true dilemma.

Pilgrim’s minister, The Rev. Madison Shockley, said: “I think what we have been through is a loss of innocence. . . . The scariest moment was when I got the feeling in the congregation about whether Mark could attend or not, and we needed more time, yet people were saying ‘If he stays, I leave,’ or ‘If he leaves, I leave.’”

A mother in the church who attends with her three sons was conflicted. Her oldest son, Sebastian, 9, reminded her, “I’d feel uncomfortable, but we’re supposed to let everybody come.” In the meantime, publicity over his arrival at Pilgrim led to Mr. Pliska’s eviction from his apartment and the loss of his job. He was homeless and unemployed. Yet he said he did not regret being open with the church after spending years hiding who he was. As one Unitarian Universalist minister, whose congregation dealt with two known sex offenders, said, “You can’t be all things to all people.”

How would we handle that dilemma, we the people who “covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”? Hopefully, we would struggle with our conscience and share our dreams and doubts with one another. We would experience the tough tension between an ethic of conscience and an ethic of responsibility, and maybe even pray a little.

It is in the utter messiness of the human condition that we discover what our values really are. I won’t presume to resolve the dilemma of Pilgrim Church, and I don’t know how it came out. I merely raise the issue as an example of “no good deed goes unpunished;” to remind us of the strenuous quality of the ethical life. That life is far more complex than simply following any absolutist rules – obeying the Ten Commandments – doing good and automatically prospering.

It is for good reason that we affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Once more we discover the inherent dialogue of individual and community. The right of conscience enables us to decide matters of importance without external coercion. Our inner integrity cannot be violated. At the same time we are always in relationship with our community, which we help shape and which in turn helps shape us.

I recall one summer evening many years ago when a Roman Catholic visitor, learning I was a minister, asked about my religion. When he learned that I neither feared hell nor sought heaven, but believed in "the importance of being good - for nothing," he was incredulous. He said that if he didn't fear eternal punishment or seek eternal reward there would be no telling what he would do.

He was bound to the Great Enforcer, not the moral power of “unenforceable obligations,” those inner tugs of conscience toward doing what we believe is right no matter what the outcome.

Why do we honor our marriage covenant even when we are at times unhappy? Why do we sacrifice to raise children when that seems hopelessly frustrating? Why do we keep promises even when we could get away with breaking them? Why do we obey the law even when there is little danger of being caught? Why do we involve ourselves in community service and social action when no one seems to notice and we often fail? And why have people done these things for centuries?

No external power is forcing us to meet these obligations; we are truly on our own, not coerced by the "cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example," in Boris Pasternak's words. Character is what we are when no one is looking. Character is when we act though it will not do us any particular good. Character is when we respond to our unenforceable obligations to our neighbors. Character is when we struggle with the creative tension between an ethic of conscience and an ethic of responsibility.

What do I conclude from all this? Of course, not every good deed is punished – the phrase is rhetorical to make a point.

Doing good is not about keeping score. I believe our mandate is to do good for its own sake; to learn the importance of being good for nothing. When we are honest with ourselves we know that life is not necessarily fair – there is no eternal law written in the nature of things that renders prosperity for goodness or poverty for evil. This understanding is not really cynicism but simply a frank recognition of the “sheer randomness of our fortunes."

Lest we become discouraged by this hard reality, I think of a man of heroic proportions who illustrates the courage-to-be even knowing that his good deed would be punished – Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a German U-boat commander in World War I who became a pacifist in World War II. He led the Confessing Church in its resistance to Nazism while many of his colleagues collaborated.

His death in 1984 was especially poignant to me since I had spent a treasured few hours with him during my 1978 sabbatical in Germany. To him are attributed these familiar, but disturbing words: "In Germany the Nazis first came for the Communists and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me - by that time there was no one to speak up for anyone."

Not all of us are called to be heroes or heroines. Many of our decisions to do good are clear – we know what we need to do. But on another level are actions we must take for which we will not be paid. We may be required by conscience to say and do that for which we may very well be punished. It is a hard truth, but one well worth pondering in an age of ethical weakness and easy morality.

In my Building Your Own Theology program I invite participants to write their own Ten Commandments. I do likewise. Here are ten of my considered convictions, or should we say habits to be learned by highly ethical people:

1. Walk gently upon the earth as you would be a good guest in a neighbor's house. The cosmos does not make junk. Creation is fundamentally good.

2. Be gentle with your neighbor - none of us knows what it is like to be another. People are precious. Walk a mile in their moccasins.

3. Be gentle with yourself - aspire to be more than you are - but accept your finitude. You have a right to be here.

4. Love people, use things. Treat people as ends, not means.

5. Affirm the importance of being good for nothing. Do good for its own sake. Doing good is not about keeping score.

6. Be honest with yourself. Let the inner and the outer person be the same.

7. So act that your behavior speaks louder than your words. Deeds are more important than creeds.

8. Share with your neighbors so that everyone has enough, no one has too much and we share with maximum freedom and minimum coercion. This world is a neighborhood. All people are our neighbors.

9. And to show a little more humor than the Ten Commandments: Always be a little kinder than necessary. "Do unto others 20% better than you would have them do unto you - 20% to correct for subjective error."

10. Be humble and realize that loving your neighbor will require all the strength you have to give. Remember that we are all toddlers in moral as in spiritual matters.

“Love is the doctrine of this church, and service is its prayer.
This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace;
To seek the truth in freedom, And to help one another.” Amen.

READING: THE LESSON - Author unknown

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathered them around him.

He taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven;

Blessed are the meek;

Blessed are they that mourn;

Blessed are the merciful;

Blessed are they who thirst for justice;

Blessed are you when persecuted;

Blessed are you when you suffer;

Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven,

And remember what I am telling you.

Then Simon Peter said: "Do we have to write this down?"

And Andrew said: "Are we supposed to know this?"

And James said: "Will we have a test on this?

And Phillip said: "What if we don't know it?"

And Bartholomew said: "Do we have to turn this in?"

And John said: "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."

And Matthew said: "When do we get out of here?"

And Judas said: "What does this have to do with real life?"

And the other disciples likewise.

Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan, and inquired of Jesus of his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain...

And Jesus wept.