To clarify what that statement implies regarding ethics, consider how you would answer the following two questions about driving down the road.
1) Is it better to turn right or left at the intersection ahead?
The answer depends on where you’re trying to go.
Far too often we assume that the specific moment of decision is the only factor worth considering in ethical deliberation. To restrict our lens to the moment of decision is to preclude the possibility of our actions leading anywhere in particular. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different if our actions are meant to be in service to any particular goal.
2) Now assume you know the roads and you know where you’re headed. Do you know which way to turn at the intersection?
The answer depends on whether you know where you’re coming from.
Even if we know the goal of the decisions we make, the practical choices to arrive at the same destination are deeply shaped by where we are coming from. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different when our context is shaped by radically different experiences and histories.
In the same way, any time we are asked to consider the ethical implications of a particular word or action, we must consider both the world we believe ought to be created through that word or action as well as the context through which each person affected has arrived at the particular moment in question. No matter how “by the book right” something might seem, it may still have the effect of destroying the very world one hopes to create. No matter how many times one specific word or action may have been right, if the context has changed enough the implications might be the opposite of what they have previously been.
Ethical action is only possible at the intersection of the stories we hope to participate in and the stories that wrote us. In the tension between the world we create with our actions and who we have been up to the point of action, we create the space where the truth of relationship is possible. Ethical words and actions are precisely those that build up relationship and not those that tear it down.
We so often ask only, “what should the individual do in a given moment?” A better question would be, “what would the world look like if our community made abundant life a present reality?” We so often think only, “why are those other people so wrong.” A more fruitful way to think would be, “what is the source of their fear or grief that leads to such opposite conclusions?” To start with a goal in our minds and empathy in our hearts would not solve all the world’s problems. But I sure do believe it would allow us to take at least one correct turn along the way.
That truth is relativtastic is another way to name this essential role of relationship in any ethical analysis.
I think about this kind of analogy a lot in terms of how our most partisan and broken divides play out in the life of the church. Whether it’s abortion, sexuality, immigration, or whatever else you want to name, we often consider only repercussions for moments of choice rather than where we are headed or where we are coming from. In other words, we spend all of our time fighting about the parameters or prohibitions of the laws that we think ought to be put in place. We spend precious little time or energy considering how we can become the kind of people who live in such a way that all but the most extreme cases make no sense as a source of controversy or division.
If we were to become the kind of people that truly value life, we would not allow the possibility of systems and attitudes that tell people their children are a personal burden more than a communal gift. If we were to become the kind of people that know the power of intimacy, partnership, trust, vulnerability, and mutuality, we would not accept that gender is the necessary and sufficient category by which to divide our world and define acceptable marriage. If we were to become the kind of people that embraced and brought to light the gifts all neighbors have to offer, we would not be so ready to abandon common sense or compassion through fear and protectionism.
In short, if we were to build God’s kingdom here and now, there would be no lines in the sand regarding momentary choices because we’d recognize that God’s love is much bigger than our limited boxes can hold. The kingdom of God is a world upside down way of life that calls for nothing short of complete submission to the power of God at work in all things. The kingdom is not a right or left kind of endeavor; the kingdom is an invitation toward a radically different way of life no matter what roads have brought us to where we are now.