Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"what she thought was right"

The other night I watched the movie How To Train Your Dragon (which, by the way, was an awesome movie). The main premise underlying life in this little Viking village is that dragons are evil and need to be killed. No one questions this premise, they just kill dragons. They fight them when they appear in the village, they hunt them, they search for their nest so they can kill them. Of course, the premise turns out to be wrong....and how many innocent and loving creatures and people suffered because no one thought to ask a question?

A few weeks ago I re-watched a two-part Doctor Who episode in which we discover that there is a whole race of "homo reptilius" living many miles below the surface of the earth. They look pretty much like people except for having a sort of reptilian face and green skin. They have a culture, a civilization, science, art, government...but because they are different, a human woman kills one of them, derailing peace talks and the possibility of cross-cultural cooperation for generations. The woman was desperate, her son having disappeared into the under-earth, but she had been given specific instructions to keep the reptile woman safe. Instead she killed her, and the excuse was "she just did what she thought was right." but what she thought was right was wrong...I hear this phrase all the time-- "they just did what they thought was right." Usually it's an excuse made when something goes badly...its sister phrase is "that's just how s/he is..."

Well, too bad.
I'm officially putting this phrases on notice, because, honestly, it's ridiculous.

At what point do we not say "oh, you did your best" and instead say "but your understanding of right and wrong was WRONG."???

There is a reason Presbyterians believe in discernment through community. We don't interpret the biblical text in isolation, we don't follow our calling without checking it with others, we don't discern direction only within ourselves. Together we learn, we pray, we listen...and all of that time together searching for the Right Thing leads us to do the right thing when the moment comes. (at least, that's the hope.) We don't rely only on our own "what I thought." Because, as we have seen time and again, that so often leads us wrong.
The difficulty comes, of course, when the whole community (or lots of it) is wrong. We've seen this with slavery, racial injustice, gender inequality, LGBT discrimination...too often we have allowed "what I thought was right" to overwhelm the Spirit moving among us. Eventually, the arc of the universe bends toward justice (at least I hope...I believe, help my unbelief!). But as long as we keep doing only "what I thought was right" instead of what God calls us to do, our communities will continue to hurt people and the earth, to damage possibilities for new life, and to obstruct the Spirit--which is the last thing we could ever call "right."

and don't even get me started on how this plays out in our political discourse and process...


  1. Discernment through community is one of the things that drew me so compellingly to the Presbyterian church. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Amen and Amen. However the rub for me is when a community's discernment moves away from God towards their own wants and needs. How can we tell them that their operating out of a place that is not of God.