Parliamentary Ethics and Military in Essex
As I drove home yesterday (Saturday) from one of those ‘taxi service of Dad’ runs we parents of teenaged children regularly offer, Any Questions was playing on BBC Radio Four. It’s the radio version of Question Time – a panel of people (mainly politicians) discussing news stories with a political bent. The item being discussed when I tuned in was parliamentary ethics. The question was, “Is the Prime Minister ethical”. The backdrop, of course, was the breaches of COVID restrictions in Downing Street and the fact that the Prime Minister was fined for breaking the law.
Ethics is a subject that interests me. It is one of our key focuses in the Centre for Christianity in Society as we seek to connect Christ with contemporary culture. I also teach ethics in the Irish Baptist College. So, I listened attentively.
As you may expect in a political programme, there was the usual defense of the Prime Minister from the representative of his own party and the usual attacks from other parties. The headline from his opponents was that he lacks integrity and cannot be trusted to tell the truth, therefore he is not ethical. His colleague, meanwhile listed the achievements she thinks he can be credited with, which, she said were for the public good and which, therefore, prove he is ethical. The most honest contribution, though, was from a man (I didn’t hear his name or even his whole contribution) who acknowledged that there are different views on what ethics is and what is good or bad and that it is difficult to establish a standard of universal rights and wrongs. He still judged the Prime Minister to be unethical, not by some universal standard, but because he has (in the contributor’s judgement) failed to live by the laws he himself established.
Here is the crunch for modern British society. Without an agreed set of standards, how can anyone judge another person’s actions as right or wrong, good or bad? The law is a set of standards, but it hardly expresses everything we might think of as good. After all, what is legal may not be kind or helpful for others. And the law is not always right – it is made by people and can be changed by future generations of law makers.
The disparity between what the law allows and what is appropriate was displayed in the other story that caught my attention this week, the sordid tale of soldiers in a barracks in Essex engaging in sexual activity with a woman they apparently smuggled in repeatedly. When a video emerged, the situation was investigated. Although it was concluded that no crime had been committed as the activity was consensual, the head of the Army ruled that the soldiers’ behaviour was unfitting for members of the British armed forces and banned the unit from travelling to the Balkans on manoeuvres. This decision means they will miss out on a medal and extra pay and, presumably, carries some shame within the army.
Here are two examples of confusion about ethics. In politics, is it ok to overlook the character of the politician so long as she or he achieves things for the public good? Does it matter if law breakers break laws? In the military, is it fair to punish soldiers for sexual misdemeanours when they have not broken the law? Does it make sense to hold those who are entrusted with the hefty responsibility of carrying arms in our name to a higher standard than the rest of us?
This lack of clarity about ethics does not stop people judging others, though. Indeed, it seems that in our public discourse we are just as judgemental as ever. People are put in the dock and sentenced to reputational death in the court of public opinion all the time. The values by which these judgements are made are often unexpressed and assumed and there seems to be no grace at all in the Twitter-sphere.
The problem flows from the fact that British society, in keeping with the West as a whole, wants to keep the trappings of Christian morality without maintaining their foundations in the person and law of God. We want integrity and honesty in politicians. We want chastity and dignity in soldiers. But above all we want to be free to do what we choose to do so long as no one else is harmed in the process. If we do not know what a person is for – that is, we have no concept of purpose in life – then how can we know how a person should act and how he or she should treat other persons? And so, we doom ourselves to constant contradictions.
The Christian gospel, grounded in the Bible, is, by contrast consistent. It calls us to integrity and honesty. It expects our attitudes and actions to be consistent and pure. It also calls us to sexual purity, meaning that the only proper context for sexual activity is the lifelong covenant relationship of marriage between a man and a woman. The gospel calls us to this because this is what God created us for. It is grounded in the reality of purpose. We were made to love God and others. It is unloving to God to lie and act with hypocrisy or to use our bodies in sexual immorality. It is unloving to others to lie to them and act without integrity or to use their bodies for our sexual gratification (even if they consent to it).
In cutting off from the roots of morality in the person and purpose of God, we leave ourselves hopelessly muddled. But we also lose the even more wonderful possibility of grace. We pass judgement without mercy on others. The gospel speaks of judgement too. A more serious judgement by a higher standard than any in the realm of social media. Jesus warned us not to fear those who can destroy our bodies (or our reputations) but to fear the One who can destroy body and soul in Hell (Matthew 10:28). Sin is a much bigger problem than the odd shameful action and it is a problem even for those who feel no shame when they do what is wrong because they reject the concept of right and wrong. God will judge.
This may sound like bad news for us. If it were the end of the story, it would be. But the gospel offers what the court of public opinion cannot. Jesus interposes Himself in our place. He stands where we should be and takes the punishment we should bear. The fullness of God’s wrath absorbed by the One who has no need for shame or guilt. So that those who confess their sin and trust in Him can be forgiven, cleansed and declared ‘not guilty’ in God’s courtroom. The gospel offers real hope because it takes sin seriously and offers reconciliation to God. Then it points us in the right direction towards a life of obedience to God, living for His glory, which means loving Him and loving others. More than that, He gives us the Holy Spirit to enable us to live this way. The biggest question in ethics is not, “What is right”, but, “How can I do what is right?” The gospel answers it.
As I listen in to the confused conversations of our world about ethics, I am thankful for the gospel. God, who alone is truly good, loves us enough to show us right and wrong and to deliver us from His just judgement through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus so that we can live by His Spirit to do what is good.