The Ideal in the Making

I keep thinking about the age-old philosophical question: do the ends justify the means? Does a good outcome excuse any means to attain it? Many people certainly seem to think so. While I can imagine situations in which I would be tempted to use immoral means to achieve moral results, if I did, I believe I would compromise my integrity. But the more I think about this question, the more I realize that the answer isn’t that simple.

On Christmas day, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Christmas sermon on peace. In that sermon, he said that if we are to have peace in the world, “ends and means must cohere.” To cohere is to hold together, to be united, to be logically consistent. Cohesion is integrity, the state of being whole and undivided.

I question whether you can maintain your integrity if the means and ends do not cohere. Does anyone admire a hypocrite? Jesus certainly didn’t. Hypocrisy is pretending to be virtuous while concealing or hiding your real flawed character. You could say that a hypocrite’s actions (the means) do not cohere with the moral standards or beliefs (the ends) that they pretend to have.

Politicians often act as if ends justify means. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are seen as legitimate means to acquire political power. Conservatives who were once very concerned about morality now excuse the amoral behavior of the man who promised to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

If you believe that ends justify means, then it’s all about winning and not about how you play the game. It’s all about what you want and not about how you get it. But if you care about the kind of person you are or the kind of person you hope to become, then what you do to achieve your goals matters.

When I see people try to justify immoral means such as dishonesty or cheating with the results of their actions, I conclude that they lack a moral compass. A moral compass should guide a person to ethical behavior. But I have to admit that we don’t all agree on what constitutes moral or ethical behavior.

My approach to morality is called deontological ethics (from Greek deon, “obligation, duty”). I generally assess whether behavior is right or wrong based on my moral beliefs or values rather than on the consequences of the behavior. Another approach to morality is called teleological ethics, (from Greek telos, “end, goal”; logos, “reason, explanation”) or consequentialism. People who endorse this approach to morality believe that a moral act is one that produces a good outcome; therefore, a good end justifies the means.

Why don’t we agree on what constitutes moral behavior? Where do moral values come from? Many people think that religion is the source of moral values yet non-religious people have moral values. In 5 Inherent Values We’re Born With, Dr. Tom Muha writes that according to Jonathan Haidt, human beings are born with five moral values:

  1. Caring about other people and not doing anything to harm them (physically or emotionally). (Harm/Care)
  2. Being fair, reciprocating kindness, and following the Golden Rule. (Fairness/Reciprocity)
  3. Being loyal to people in your group, cooperating, and helping others to succeed. (In-group/Loyalty)
  4. Respecting authority. (Authority/Respect)
  5. Practicing self-control and restraint. (Purity/Sanctity)

As adults, most people still believe that the first two moral values are important. But almost half reject the last three. In Haidt’s TED Talk on the Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives, he says that moral arguments and political differences tend to focus on the last three values.

Politically, I think of myself as a moderate. For me, in-group loyalty is not an important value. I don’t belong to a political party. I am not blindly loyal. I do believe in cooperating and helping other people succeed if I believe in the rightness of what they are doing. In the same way, I respect the authority of moral people and I don’t respect immoral leaders.

Haidt concludes that if you want to change people, rather than trying to prove that you are right, “step out of the moral matrix” and try to see that we are all engaged in a struggle in which everyone thinks they are right and everyone has reasons for doing what they’re doing. I agree that it is good to try to understand the moral reasoning of other people and also to recognize that you cannot change them.

But back to the question of whether the ends justify the means. In his Christmas sermon, MLK, Jr. said something that I think is profound and worth repeating. The means represent the ideal in the making. The means are like a seed growing into a tree or like a tree producing fruit. You can’t achieve good ends through evil means. This conclusion is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The ends and means must cohere.

So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there—they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – A Christmas Sermon on Peace

Photo by Macu ic on Unsplash

Be near me, Lord Jesus

Of all the Christmas songs I sing, Away in a Manger speaks to my soul, like a prayer, especially the last two verses.

Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me, I pray

Come Lord Jesus, come. Be near me. I need you, Lord, I need you.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, my Savior. Watch over me. Walk with me. Talk with me. I hear your voice and I feel your presence and I am comforted. You are with me. Stay close by me forever.

Carry me on your shoulders when I am weary. Lift me up when I am feeling down. When I am tossed about by the storms of life, calm the raging sea.

Jesus, Bread of Life. Without you, I was hungry. Without you, I was thirsty. You sustain me. You fill me with your love. Rivers of living water flow from my heart.

Lord, you are my rock and my redeemer, my best friend. You are the Way, the Truth and the Life. In you I found grace and truth. Show me your ways. Teach me your paths. Light my path and keep me from falling.

Lord, you are the Light of the world, love’s pure Light. Light shines in the darkness and darkness cannot overcome it. Lord, you have given me the light of life and because of you, I never have to walk in darkness again.

Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven
To live with Thee there

Lamb of God, you came into the world as a little baby. I came to you as a little child and found your love. And as a child, I learned to sing:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow
Black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children
Of the world.

Lord, have mercy on the children, all the precious children, all over the world. Bless all the dear children in Mexico. Bless all the dear children in Central America. Bless all the dear children in Syria. Bless all the dear children in Yemen. Bless all the dear children in Russia and China and Korea and Africa.

Bless all the dear children in my family.

Bless all the dear children, all over the world.

Bless all the children in your tender care. Bless all the children you have entrusted to our care for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Be near me, Lord Jesus. I ask thee to stay, close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And take us to heaven, to live with thee there.


Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Kinder, gentler, wiser

But where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we’re not moved. Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.

George HW Bush, 1988 speech

When I heard that George HW Bush passed away, I thought not about his politics but about his call to care about others. “I want a kinder, gentler nation,” he said. Bush knew that in caring about others, some would see softness and weakness. He cared anyway.

In the kinder, gentler speech, Bush said, “[p]rosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.” Thirty years later, America is still a prosperous nation.  Unfortunately, she is losing sight of her noble purpose. She is losing her goodness.

George Bush’s sentiments were at odds with those of the current president. Today, Americans are encouraged to be self-centered – to put America first. Today, Americans are urged to live in fear of others. Instead of celebrating a thousand points of light – selfless volunteerism – we’re building walls to keep others out. 

George Bush had a privileged upbringing yet he still lived a life of humility, a life of servant leadership. He understood that from those who have been given much, much will be demanded. He understood that from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:48).

Kindness flows from wisdom, but as I think Bush understood, it is not the “wisdom” of the world. The world sees kindness and gentleness as weakness. The world teaches a false wisdom of selfish ambition and vain conceit. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking put themselves first, viewing others with an “us verses them” mindset. Instead of sowing unity and peace, they sow division and discord. Instead of practicing acts of goodness and kindness, they look only to their own interests. Instead of lifting others up, they tear others down. 

Kindness and gentleness, like all good virtues, flow from the wisdom of God. A person with heavenly wisdom sees the self realistically, with humility. It’s a wisdom born of pain, the ability to step into and share the feelings of others. Kind and gentle people value others above themselves, looking to their interests (Philippians 2:3-4). Those who are wise in God’s eyes, emulate Christ, clothing themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

Where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we are not moved? Where is it written that we should act out of selfish ambition? Well, I am moved and I want a kinder, gentler, wiser nation.


Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

A Bright Sadness

The next topic in my diving deep blog series is replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones. Before I write about healthy thoughts, I am pausing to reflect on the unhealthy events of the past two weeks. Today my thoughts are dark and sad.

I believe her. It took a lot of courage to come forward. She had no reason to lie about what happened at a party 36 years ago. It saddens me that people ridicule and vilify her when she tried to do the right thing for the country.

Sometimes it seems like the wicked always win. When you believe in truth, it’s discouraging to see powerful men bury it. When you love justice, it’s discouraging to see powerful people thwart it. When you love mercy, it’s painful to see fellow citizens mercilessly attack a woman who made herself vulnerable.

The man chosen to sit on the highest court is already drunk with power. The ends do not justify the means. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

I lift my eyes to the Higher Court, to the arbiter of justice and mercy. Every person who perverts truth and justice in the pursuit of power will be held accountable to God.

So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. – Matthew 10:26

When I read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I was intrigued by his chapter on A Bright Sadness. A bright sadness is Rohr’s description of the quality of delightful older people who have the capacity to hold both the good and the bad “creatively and with less anxiety” than those who have not reached that level of spiritual maturity.

I am trying desperately in these dark times to achieve that bright sadness. Deep pain and intense joy can coexist. I feel them both: sorrow for the broken world I live in and the joy and hope of the Lord.

I take refuge in the Lord, the one who examines each of us and knows what’s in our hearts. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice. Someday I will see his face.

Psalm 11

In the Lord I take refuge.
    How then can you say to me:
    “Flee like a bird to your mountain.
For look, the wicked bend their bows;
    they set their arrows against the strings
to shoot from the shadows
    at the upright in heart.
When the foundations are being destroyed,
    what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
    the Lord is on his heavenly throne.
He observes everyone on earth;
    his eyes examine them.
The Lord examines the righteous,
    but the wicked, those who love violence,
    he hates with a passion.
On the wicked he will rain
    fiery coals and burning sulfur;
    a scorching wind will be their lot.

For the Lord is righteous,
    he loves justice;
    the upright will see his face.


Worn out shoes

When I saw the story on the internet about the taped, beat-up looking shoes that Nordstrom’s sells for $530, it brought back a memory of a pair of honest to goodness beat up shoes I wore when I was 10 years old. I’ve worn and worn out a lot of shoes in my life time; the only reason I remember that pair is that I wore them to school on the play day at the end of the year and they fell apart as I ran a three-legged race. I don’t remember if I taped my sneakers after they were torn; I just remember how hard it was to run in cheap, worn-out shoes. And embarrassing, in case anyone noticed.

When I wore my worn out shoes, I wasn’t trying to be cool. I was wearing what I had. Nowadays it isn’t unusual to see people wearing “distressed” or ripped jeans. In my day, it wasn’t trendy or fashionable to pretend your shoes or clothes were well-worn.

It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood – the things that made an impression on your young psyche.

I have other shoe memories. One of the first was of going to school in kindergarten or first grade in a pair of second-hand tap-dance shoes; I wasn’t a dancer, I just needed shoes for school and that’s what my mom bought for me. I remember a pair of oxfords that I wore with my Brownie dress – that was a good memory. I remember the white go go boots I got for Christmas in the 5th grade; I loved them. And I remember the pair of shoes my mom bought at a popular classmate’s family garage sale. I liked the shoes but cringed at the thought that she might recognize her used shoes and say something to embarrass me.

People are understandably disgusted with the $530 beat up shoes because this “fashion” statement is insensitive to people who have no choice but to wear clothes or shoes that are genuinely distressed and worn-out. People who are poor do not get to make fashion choices. They get to choose between food and rent and gas to get to work.

Who is crazy enough to spend $530 for a pair of dirty, taped up sneakers? Evidently, a lot of people – a lot of shallow, self-indulgent people. I know this is a judgmental statement to make. People have a right to spend their money any way they choose – they certainly don’t need my approval. But the choices people make – even about what to wear – says a lot about their values.

I am an accountant. I know $$. Where is the value in spending $530 for a pair of beat-up looking shoes you could buy for $30 or $50 and wear out for real (by walking and running and living in them for goodness sake!)? The value of these shoes – the reason Golden Goose can charge a ridiculous amount of money for ugly shoes – is the value people place on impressing other people.

Your fake worn-out Golden Goose shoes? That don’t impress me much.

When you strip off all the pretense that money can buy, what is left? Our value as human beings is not based on what we wear; our value comes from who we are on the inside. Do we care about other people? Are we kind and patient and forgiving?

We are all born naked into this world, but each of us is fully clothed in potential. – Emmitt Smith

I have misjudged a lot of people in my life. One is the girl who I thought would judge me if I wore her used shoes. As an adult, I’ve gotten to know her (another Cathy) better. She is one of the most empathetic people I know. She has walked a mile in my worn out shoes and I love her for it!


Photo credit: USA Today (link above)