The Ethics of False Moral Equivalence

The Ethics of False Moral Equivalence

On April 16th, 1963 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. His letter was in response to another letter he had received four day earlier from eight white clergymen from Birmingham, including two Episcopal Bishops, entitled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense”.  In their letter to King the clergyman argued that justice takes time and that the peaceful protests in Birmingham were leading to violence and hatred.

“We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”

“Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

In response King sent one of the most important pieces of writing in American history. It is worth a complete read, but the main point I am going to focus on is his direct and personal response to those clergymen. He said

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He was trying to point out that it is a false argument to equate protesting injustice, with the actual injustice itself. In fact, this argument always allows those who control and are responsible for the injustice to escape from any responsibility. It also allows those who might support the injustice, or who believe for some reason that the injustice is morally justified to find cover for their beliefs. In this instance it is falsely equating the segregation, violence and injustice towards black people, with the inconvenience of peaceful protests.  

How Should We Live?

Each day in our lives we are faced with moral and ethical choices. Our faith is there to be a guide and the teachings of Jesus Christ are meant to show us the Way to live a virtuous and upright life. The consequences of our choices give us opportunities to learn and grow. When we find ourselves falling into the trap of false moral equivalence, that may be just the place we need to look for repentance and  forgiveness. It may be the place where our greatest growth is needed.

Here is an example that many of us have probably faced that might explain the day to day challenges of false moral equivalence.

If you were at a party and your friend got extremely drunk and you gave them their keys and said “Be careful going home”, you will be equally morally responsible for the injuries caused by your friend’s drunk driving. And if, at some point in time, someone who was hurt by your friend came and screamed and yelled at you and called you names and said you were a horrible person for giving your friend their keys, you could not then turn and claim that their anger was as equally as morally wrong as you giving your friend their keys. Could they have expressed themselves better? Who cares! That is not, in any way, the point of the moral and ethical conversation. One person does not get to insulate themselves from ethical responsibility by claiming that their feelings got hurt or that someone was mean to them.
What would Jesus Do?

While these ethical and moral arguments apply across all religious and secular bounds, what should we say as Christians when faced with injustice? We look to Jesus and ask how he dealt with those who may have been slipping into the realms of False Moral Equivalence.

While Jesus gave us the commands to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31), he did not allow either of these expectations to stop him from harsh and biting criticism of those he was seeing act unjustly to those around him. Here are two examples.

First, in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31-46,  Jesus literally says that there will be a reckoning with nations being separated like sheep and goats, and the judgement will be based on how we treated “the least of these”.  He literally says “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” Whoa! Those are strong words from the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Love.

Secondly we read the words of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Luke 6:20-36. Jesus pronounces:

20…‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man.23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.


But then Jesus continues,

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Jesus very clearly speaks out against injustice and say that it must stop. My guess is that Jesus might have lost a lot of followers by calling them goats who were going to hell or saying that their current way of life was going to flipped in the afterlife. I’m sure many people were upset and likely claimed that Jesus should have been nicer.

There are many other places where Jesus calls out injustice with language that might be heard for us to hear. Matthew 23 is almost an entire chapter of calling those of power and privilege horrible names including “A brood of vipers”. The point is that it would be absurd for someone to say “Jesus, you calling us goats  is the moral equivalence of us not feeding the poor or caring for the sick. It’s really just as bad and therefore we will not even talk about people being mistreated until we have a conversation about your language. How are you loving your neighbor if you say such terrible things to us?”

Jesus wants each of us to flourish and have abundant life. But Jesus also knows that often times we get twisted in our understanding of how to live ethical, moral and holy lives. We are called back again and again to repentance and renewal.  As we often say, God loves us more than anything the way we are, but loves us too much to let us stay that way.

False moral equivalencies are ways in which we often avoid taking responsibility for our actions by deflecting attention to focus on our own discomfort. That discomfort is about having our shortcomings pointed out. Feeling regret about what we have done, or how we have acted is most times a natural prerequisite to change.

The Good News for us is that God is waiting for our hearts and souls to change with open arms. The God of mercy and forgiveness is waiting for us to hear the cries of injustice and respond with action rather than offense. The God of love and grace wants all people to know the deep and abiding welcome that guides us beyond who we might be, to the one God calls us to be.

About fatherjeremy

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Oregon. I am currently the rector of Christ Church, Lake Oswego, OR
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