Some years ago when I was the associate pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Salina, there materialized in the community what appeared to be the beginnings of a “gang problem.” At that time, gang violence was all the buzz in the media. Salina Law Enforcement and public schools were rightly concerned that perhaps gang violence could creep into the community and the schools. In an effort to head off the problem, an ad hoc committee of people from the community was assembled. I speak fluent Spanish and spent a lot of time working with the Salina Hispanic community, which at that time was made up of a large percentage of newly arrived immigrants. So since I was plugged into the Hispanic community and a member of the clergy, I was asked to serve on this committee.
For the most part it was a good experience. Folks from the police and sheriff’s department as well as from the schools, juvenile services, and court services shared a lot of good insights. To moderate the dialogue, someone brought in a woman from Wichita, who I will simply refer to as Ms. Shoulder Pads because (1), I cannot remember her name, and (2) her blouses all had shoulder pads in them as was the fashion in the 1990’s.
Ms. Shoulder Pads began by insisting that there really was no right or wrong; that every community had the right to establish its own norms of acceptable behavior. (Isn’t that what the Nazi’s did?) It was therefore up to the ad hoc committee to establish the norms of behavior that the schools and law enforcement could live with. One of the women from court services began by reminding Ms. Shoulder Pads that we did, in fact, have the law, which forbade such things as acts of violence, selling drugs, and the other behaviors in which gang members would routinely engage. Ms. Shoulder Pads condescendingly informed us that “the law”—whatever that meant—was not part of the average gang member’s experience; it was not “their reality” and it was therefore unreasonable to expect them to obey it.
I had to ask Ms. Shoulder Pads if she was serious about her insistence that there was no right or wrong. That, if that is indeed the case, then anything goes. Who was she, or any one else for that matter, to tell some gang banger wannabe that assaulting people, selling or using drugs, etc., was wrong? “Well,” she replied, “I suppose there are some things that are wrong, but just a few.” She conceded that such things a murder and rape should be prohibited, but after that, it was up to the community to set its own norms.
“So there is no absolute right or wrong?” I asked her. To which she replied, that aside from murder and rape, there was not. “You are absolutely sure of this,” I asked. To which she responded yes. “So it is absolutely right that there are no moral absolutes, apart from the two you have arbitrarily isolated.” I proffered. She again responded in the affirmative. “You sound like you are making a claim of absolute truth here—your absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. In other words, if we are to take you seriously, we have to accept as truth that there is no truth. Or can we vote on this as well as a community defined standard?”
Needless to say, I am not on Ms. Shoulder Pads’ Christmas card list! The remarkable thing is that all the other community members were at a loss as to how to respond to her. We wanted to be polite as she was the “expert” from out-of-town. But after the meeting was over, most all of the other committee members commented that Ms. Shoulder Pads was out of touch with reality.
The point is that it is impossible to relativize morality. Many people try to in order to give themselves a way to behave in any way they choose. But just punch one of them in the face and immediately watch them appeal to a higher objective standard of morality to keep from getting punched again and to have the assailant punished! It just does not work.
And just because a community has defined a certain behavior as acceptable does not make it such. Remember it was the venerable Supreme Court of the United States that voted black people as less than human in the Dredd Scott case and voted that Japanese Americans could be legally held in interment camps during World War II in Korematsu vs. The United States.
There has to be a higher and objective standard for morality. We Christians believe it is God. Surely people who believe in God have failed to live up to His standards. But at least, unlike the Supreme Court and Ms. Shoulder Pads we have standards to which to aspire.