The Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel contains one of the most nuanced and compelling questions in literature. Pontius Pilate found himself in the untenable situation of having to choose between placating an unruly crowd and avoiding an injustice. Pilate tried to give Jesus a way to escape death, but Jesus refused to save himself.
Pilate became overwhelmed by the various, competing claims to authority over Jesus’ life. The crowd and the religious leaders said that Jesus was an insurrectionist. Pilate said that he found no evidence of Jesus’ guilt. Jesus said about himself, “Everyone who recognizes the truth hears my voice.” (Jn. 18:37) Then, Pilate responded with that question loaded with nuance and potential. He asked, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38)
Pilate’s question was an act of surrender to the whim of the crowds. His abdication of responsibility is understandable to some degree; it’s a fairly common practice. We live in a society that has resigned itself to accepting irresponsibility as the norm for public and private behavior.
A couple of weeks ago, I read a very engaging editorial in a national newspaper. The author described contemporary western society as being “morally inarticulate.” *
It is very common to criticize contemporary society as being morally bankrupt or devoid of conscience. The editorialist, however, proposed a more nuanced estimation of contemporary society. I agree with the assessment that our society is morally inarticulate. I agree because everyone has a sense of morality, but the vast majority have a sense of morality that they do not express adequately to themselves or others.
Those who practice organized religion have a sense of morality. The “spiritual but not religious” have a sense of morality. The modern atheists have a very highly developed sense of morality. Morality is not missing from our society. Rather, morality is present but inadequately expressed. Everyone has a sense of right and wrong, but most fail to express adequately their morality by means of virtuous actions.
When I was in middle school, one of my friends became enamored of English Literature. He read voraciously. He consumed the entire textbook we used for Literature class, then he moved on to classical works of literature. By the time we were in Eighth Grade, his knowledge of literature and vocabulary exceeded that of our teachers. Not surprisingly, he became a professor of English Literature and left a lasting impression on all his students.
If, as the editorialist believes, the central ailment afflicting our society is the equivalent of moral illiteracy, then the remedy is to immerse ourselves in the classic literature of morality. There are many texts that claim to be classic descriptions of the difference between right and wrong, but only one of those depicts morality from a point of view not clouded by human nature’s moral inarticulateness. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures present a definition of morality that exceeds the human capacity for invention. The Scriptures portray morality as defined by God’s faithfulness and human faithlessness.
In the Scriptures, God is always faithful, even when God’s People are unfaithful. The remedy for being morally inarticulate is to be schooled in the literature of a morality that is fully and adequately expressed at all times and in all circumstances.
This, above, sounds very abstract. Let me make it very concrete. The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the worst in some people and the best in others.
Some people have responded to the pandemic by hoarding food, medication, and other commodities. Some have responded by despairing about the slowing economic conditions. Some have become overwhelmed by fear of contagion. Other people, however, have responded by being gracious, generous, forgiving, and compassionate.
We live in a society that it morally inarticulate; everyone can tell the difference between right and wrong, but few express their moral perceptions adequately in virtuous acts.
In the Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel, Caiaphas the high priest plays the role of unwitting prophet when he says, “It is better for one man to die than for all the people to die.” (Jn 18:14) Jesus’ death is the ultimate expression of Divine morality. Jesus forfeited his life so that others might live. The remedy for our moral inarticulateness is to imitate the generosity, forgiveness, and compassion of Jesus.
The coronavirus pandemic that afflicts us is a global tragedy. It is also an opportunity to articulate God’s morality by imitating God’s faithfulness even though many others choose to be faithless. None of us have a choice about the eventual outcome of the pandemic. All of us have a choice, however, about how we live today. The morally articulate choice is to put into action the innate sense of right and wrong that all people have: to be faithful to God and generous and compassionate to one another.
* David Brooks, “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” New York Times, (March 26, 2020).