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Why We Need to Rediscover a Moral Imagination

“Can we all just get along?” Rodney King famously said after the Los Angeles Riots in 1992.   King was beaten a year earlier by four LA police officers after a high-speed car chase on Foothills Freeway.  A bystander videotaped King’s beating and sent it to a local news station.  When an all-white jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four police officers on trial, outrage turned to violence.  By the time peace was restored, after six days of upheaval, at least 55 people had been killed, 2,000 were injured, and upwards of 11,000 people were arrested.  Property damage was estimated at $1 billion.  Many never returned to their Los Angeles-area businesses.

King said his now-famous words at a televised news conference May 1, 1992, hoping to stop the deadly unrest.  

Can we all just get along?

In today’s polarized society, that remains a good question, doesn’t it?  Can we all just get along?  Sadly we have had far too many incidents of public injustice since King’s day.  Can we all just get along?  Apparently not.  

But there is hope.

Sociologists have observed for the past century that the West is suffering from a gradual decline in moral consensus.  (A moral consensus is a mutually shared set of values that leads to the good life together.)  Our inability to agree about basic moral judgements not only threatens mutual respect in public discourse but gridlocks policy making for democratic society and short circuits our ability to empathize with others.  Personal attacks on social media, partisan politics, xenophobia, and media extremism are results of this lack of moral consensus, and a harbinger for things ahead.   Much modern argument about moral issues is interminable because there is no established way of deciding between various moral claims.  An invocation of one premise becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter assertion.  One literary scholar concludes that if we don’t repair the moral foundation of the West, then we can expect totalitarianism or complete social collapse.   

What is causing this?  Many secular sociologists and Bible scholars agree on the problem: we’ve lost our story. 

This presence of a shared moral imagination which establishes an agreed upon set of values and a common vision of the good life depends upon a shared story of what makes life good, blessed, fair, courteous, and mutually beneficial.  Without this shared moral imagination we become increasingly fragmented, isolated, and defensive.  If politicians, family members, neighbors, colleagues, and citizens do not regain a common vision for moral goodness, then the breakdown of civil discourse will continue.

Street Lights & Public Safety

Are you with me so far?  If not, let me explain.  Take traffic lights.  For more than a century traffic lights have guided driver behavior at three hundred thousand intersections in the United States.  Imagine, however, if two neighboring suburbs did not agree that a green light meant go, yellow light meant slow down, and a red light meant stop.  Most of us would say that we have to agree upon the meaning of traffic lights in order to safely drive to our destinations.  But what if we didn’t agree?  What if one suburb liked red and wanted to make red mean go and preferred yellow to mean stop and green to mean slow down?  What if both suburbs’ citizenry lobbied lawmakers for change?  What if arguments at the capital were so fierce and long-standing that a decision could not be reached to provide safe passage at common intersections?  Imagine if at those intersections, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes!”  What would happen?  Road rage would increase.  Eventually people would chose not to travel far from home in order to avoid the risk of conflict at intersections.  For those who do, traffic fatalities would rise.   What is the result of such lunacy?  Fragmentation.  Defensive posturing.  Isolation.  Skepticism.  Fear.  Xenophobia.  Insecurity.  Lack of confidence.  You see how it happens?  Fair laws are based on a mutually shared understanding.  But who decides what’s fair? 

From your own experience can you make parallels?  Can you think of issues that divide us in our day?  Do we not see the same thing happening with gun control, sexuality and gender, immigration, spiritual authority? 

A Way Forward? 

How do we regain a foothold?  Maybe sports can give us some clues.  Sportsmanship teaches athletes to avoid dangerous play and respect their opponents.  In competitive athletics justice requires players to play by the rules of the game.  The thrill of victory and agony of defeat lie in the way competition brings out the best in athletes.  Therefore we strive to win, but not at all costs.  Yes, we strive to win, but not at all costs!  For example, the preamble to the rules for ultimate frisbee state a fundamental principle: “Ultimate relies upon a Spirit of the Game that places the responsibility for fair play on every player... Highly competitive play is encouraged, but should never sacrifice the mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play.”  The “Spirit of the Game” characterizes the common vision of the good game, a shared moral consensus among all ultimate players.  It allows the game to be played with respect, passion, and purpose.  We must therefore regain a common spirit of the game with rules upon which we agree.  But can this be done for larger society?  What role might the local church play? 

An Epideictic Approach to Reclaim Our Story

Scholars who study the history of public discourse note that a particular genre of rhetoric -- epideictic rhetoric -- is an ancient method of reinforcing acceptive values for teaching us the “rules of the game” as it were.  The history of epideictic rhetoric can be traced from the poetry of Homer to modern children’s literature like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein.  Epideicitic rhetoric traditionally had two social functions: 1) education by which young people were initiated into ongoing traditions of the culture, and 2) celebration by which adherence to cultural values were reinforced to adults by rehearsing the stories of virtuous acts and heroes.   Recently some scholars have suggested certain kinds of children’s literature can be an effective rhetoric for rebuilding the Western tradition.  If that’s the case, how much more could the story of the gospel told in Holy Scripture be effective!  Ultimately, it is not the West per se that I am necessarily interested in preserving, but rather the integrity of Christ’s people in a pluralistic world. 

Reinforcing the collective moral imagination that God intends His people to share is one important aspect of today’s preaching.  Further, corporate worship presents us with invaluable liturgical resources through art, music, the sacraments, prayer, fellowship, and sabbath practice.  The Biblical story is meant to teach us who we are as God’s people and how we are to act in light of His provision for us in Christ.  Amen!   Knowing that God’s love for His people is unconditional frees us up to enjoy his commands and moral precepts without fear of His rejection or disappointment.  Redemptive history -- including the moral precepts of the law -- is our cultural story, our shared history, our rules of the game, our collective family history that shapes the collective moral imagination of the people of God.  Worship, sacraments, fellowship, prayer are means of grace to drill this collective consciousness into our hearts so that we care for others, seek the liberty of the poor and captive, exude fairness, demonstrate loyalty, submit to authority, and uphold sanctity.   As God’s people, may we live by “The Spirit of the game!”  -- in dwelt by God’s Spirit!

This highlights the important use of public Bible reading and exposition to repair our collective moral imagination of the good life for the covenant community.  The Scriptural story teaches us a shared vision for the good life (John 14:6; Rev. 21:5, etc.), and epideictic exegesis invites us to find our place in the story.   We celebrate our communal story in order to repair our collective moral imagination so that in a hostile public square Christians can stay the same page, live with integrity, practice respectful public discourse, and -- to steal a line from Jordan Peterson -- “stand up straight with our shoulders back.”  Christian worship becomes the place to call one another to celebrate the collective imagination, the shared history, the true saga beneath all stories, the gospel which brings human flourishing for the blood-bought lambs, and through them, hope for the world. God’s story of redemption is our story, too.  We must tell it and show it and live it together. It is the foundation of our being, belonging and behaving.  It is the way we roll as the people of God.  

Eyes Wide Open

Further, our social interactions is also important for our own moral, spiritual and social integrity.  If we are not explicit in retelling and teaching the redemptive story, we will be complicit in its decline.  The Church must therefore engage in discipleship with eyes wide open.  The world, the flesh and the devil bring internal and external obstacles.  The anti-language and anti-society language that exists beneath the surface of Christian community has been the target of persecution from the earliest days.  Since Christians report to a higher authority, emperors and dictators always feared the revolutionary posture of Christianity.  The Apostle Paul set out to rid the world of Christians in the first century.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams shared strategies to rid the New Republic of Christian’s influence in the 18th century.  How much more do we see strategies at work today?  

Even simple things like attention spans must be accommodated (and retrained!) for effective discipleship.  Shortened attention spans affect our ability to listen to good stories and hinders our ability to tell them.  Our collective practice of prayer is vital.  Good leadership and clear facilitation must remain a high priority for community group leaders. Some of us didn’t grow up in a story-telling culture and this skill needs to be learned.  In fact, story-telling is a crucial skill to regain repairing the our collective moral imagination.  In the end we do not study Scripture primarily to understand a section of the Bible alone, but in context of THE STORY of the Bible, the one, unified, coherent storyline, of which any section richly complements.

So, here’s the bottom line.  When throwing a party, facilitating a community group or having dinner with your family around the dinning room table, you’re not merely welcoming others into your home but you’re welcoming them into a story-telling environment of GOD’S REDEMPTIVE STORY FOR THE WORLD.  This story shapes their moral imagination.  Your hospitality becomes a portal into another land so that they can learn the ways of God’s people for our place and time.   Therefore, we should walk away from all interactions with Scripture asking these questions:  Whose faith and character should I emulate?  From who’s stubbornness and pride should I learn?  Where do I get the power fo live this way? Some books, like Proverbs, do not make sense apart from the author’s intended character formation, while others like the Gospel of John take some knowledge of early-church history to compare our responses to the responses of God’s people in the first century.  

During these days at Trinity, we reinforce our collective story using John 6. John 6 is called the Grand Central Station of the gospel of John.  Is a great place to see how God intends us to get along and “how we roll” as the people of God in a pluralistic world today.