A moral code is an agreed upon set of rules for right behavior that is consistently applied.
Moral codes are not in vogue currently.
People are encouraged to do what is most fulfilling to them, to be actualized. We are told to be happy even when it involves being unfaithful. What is right has an amazing array of grays. What is expedient for a so-called greater good is prized. It is presumed that we will protect those who promote us although doing so will compromise our integrity.
We like to claim the rule of law, but our culture is enthralled with people who run rogue and rule-less.
You work and live and observe people like this as much as I do: People who claim to have a moral compass. Their inner sense is superior to any set of principles handed down through centuries. They are, though, suspiciously unwilling to candidly share their guiding principles. They claim a high ground from which to judge others. But they are entirely reluctant to participate in any community that offers moral guidance, much less expects accountability.
Despite our contemporary discomfort, following an agreed-upon moral code is central to a life of faith.
God created humans to be in relationship with one another and with creation. Following divinely inspired, culturally relevant agreed upon principles of respect for others is the basis of community life. This includes subverting one’s desires for the welfare of another and seeking the common good at risk to oneself. A moral code promotes the well-being of society and creation.
Having a clear moral code exponentially increases our chances of making righteous decisions on a daily basis. It is especially helpful when we are under duress – from temptation, stress, because of cultural bias or societal norms.
We don’t have to figure out on the fly whether it’s ok to lie about where we were when it would sure be convenient to leave out the part about doing some more shopping. We have already that we will always tell the truth. We don’t have to figure out if complying counts as consent in the heat of the moment. We have previously established that consent requires an affirmative response. We don’t have to decide if we spread rumors about the other side because they bad mouthed about our side. We have already decided we will not denigrate others even when we disagree with them.
Yet, there is an uncomfortable consequence that comes with living with a moral code.
It does not befall the self-absorbed or free-spirited, I’ll know right when I see it, don’t let your rules tie me down people of the world. Abiding by a moral code makes it possible to break the code. Guilt – and often shame will follow. To avoid that horrid mixture, the best of us are capable of extraordinary self-deception.
If the living without a moral code undermines civil life, self-deception undermines both relationships and our inner life.
Scripture recognizes the danger that self-deception poses. We couldn’t find a more thorough story of failure to abide by a moral code one once claimed and a portrayal of self-deception than the story of King David.
It begins with what generations of male preachers have tended to speak of as adultery. Female interpreters have more frequently inherently recoiled at the notion that there could be anything consensual in the relationship. At what cost – if at all – would Bathsheba have “no” to the king – the divine and political leader of the nation? David apparently initially intends to take no responsibility for his own child. David expects Bathsheba to withhold what has happened to her. He attempts to manipulate her into deceiving Uriah into believing he has conceived a child with his wife. Then David uses his position as military leader to arrange for the death of an entirely innocent man. He marries Bathsheba in a charade following cultural customs.
The list of moral failures – the breaking of God’s divine code and direction – that David manages to pack into perhaps three months is genuinely staggering.
Yet, David has, additionally, broken a moral code which is no longer relevant in our culture.
In ancient Israel, wives were the property of their husbands. David had multiple wives and other women whom he owned. Uriah had one wife – Bathsheba. When the prophet Nathan confronts David, he will – much to our chagrin – focus on David’s theft of property and affection.
Nathan tells David a story of two men. One is a poor man who loves a particular ewe. The other is a rich man who has many sheep. When a traveler visits the rich man and it is time for the traditional feast, the rich man takes and slaughters the poor man’s single ewe.
David is outraged at the rich man’s arrogance and abusiveness. He declares that the man who had broken this moral code deserves to die.
At this point, if we had not before, we understand that David has not only sinned, he has deceived himself. We know this because David does not feel guilty for what he has done. He does not recognize himself in the story that reflects some portion of his transgressions.
It takes very little imagination to conjure up the moves that David might have employed in this self-deception.
He might easily have convinced himself that Bathsheba was a willing and equal participant. He might have suggested to himself – or even Bathsheba -that she should be honored to receive his attention. She was just the wife of a mercenary foot soldier, after all. And men do die in battle. One really couldn’t call it murder. He could even have persuaded himself it was generous to marry this unfortunate woman and provide for her child.
In the face of all that it takes someone whom David trust to reveal to him his self-deception. Nathan says to David, “You are the man.”
David remembers who he is and he sees what he has done. He is a good and decent person who listened to the voice of God, and he broke that moral code. He sinned against God, Bathsheba, Uriah, the child yet to be born, the community. And he has deceived himself.
Scripture records that David does what all moral code breakers who would be free of shame must do.
He confesses his wrongdoing. Once the self-deception is overcome, guilt sets in. There is work David must do to set things as right as they can be. Forgiven, David will still suffer, which he understands he deserves. He will grieve the devastation that comes to his children through his sins. This is not just a morality tale, after all, but the saga of a family. Broken codes of conduct have consequences from generation to generation.
This ancient story from the Hebrew scripture is filled with the truth of life in Christian community.
We have all fallen short of the image of God. We have all failed – in one or another – to adhere to the moral code of scripture and of our common faith. We have all failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we have all – one time or another – deceived ourselves with elaborate explanations of how what we have done and left undone was the very right thing to do. God’s grace is always there to be claimed, through the gift of Jesus Christ, an offering to allows us to try again.