Have you ever considered words such as trustworthy and integrity? What exactly do they mean? It occurred to me that I’ve encountered a few people in life who could be trusted to be dishonest, duplicitous, and unethical in almost any setting. In an odd sense that’s a form of trustworthiness. In fact, in a twisted way, they were people who had a lot of integrity, if integrity means being true to who you are. I have not encountered many such persons, but they were persons one could always rely on. It may seem bizarre, but aren’t those the tests, the tests of reliability and authenticity? As was once said about a certain former mayor of Chicago, “He may be a crook but he’s an honest crook.”
Of course we normally take words like trustworthy and integrity to mean honesty, loyalty, transparency, authenticity and the like. In fact, we take it for granted that that is what we mean when we use them. The problem comes when we encounter persons on whom we cannot rely because we don’t know from moment to moment whether they can be trusted to do what they say they will do, or mean what they say they mean. Their integrity is in doubt because so much is hidden from view, or what is displayed for public consumption is nothing more than a parade of changing masks deliberately imitating authentic personalities.
None of us is completely trustworthy, but most of us try to be predictably steadfast in our words and behavior. Each of us sometimes lack integrity as we work a little too hard to be liked, do what we think others expect, or take on personality traits that we think more attractive than the person we believe ourselves to be. “To thine own self be true” (from Hamlet) is often very hard work but it is rewarding work, and I believe that most of us try. But let’s face it, that’s what Paul meant when he observed that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.
What strikes me is that the gospel records of Jesus’ life and teaching display a man of complete integrity and total trustworthiness in every virtuous way. For me, that’s what it means to say that he is without sin. It’s popular to think of Jesus as being in absolute and unwavering harmony with God’s nature and will as if that is our criteria for judging the divinity of Jesus or whether he really is the Christ. That is nothing but arrogant hubris. We can’t start with God and then test Jesus against it. We don’t know what God’s nature and will are. We have to start with Jesus in his human trustworthiness and integrity. That is what leads us to have faith in him as an illumination of God’s character and will on which we can utterly rely. God does not make Christ known to us. Christ makes God known to us, and we can have faith in that because of his integrity and trustworthiness. That is what scripture means by the fullness of God being revealed in Jesus Christ. For us, the imitation of Christ is the work of becoming, and it is always a work of becoming, persons of virtuous trustworthy integrity.
Progressive revelation (see previous post) is not always sequential, at least as recorded in scripture. The organization of the books within the canon, as well as the various presumptive dates for editing, make the process of studying scripture an adventure in wallowing about in a sea of words, sifting them for the fullness of understanding revealed in Jesus Christ.
If a few chapters ago the deuteronomic Moses called for the killing of apostates, in the 16th and 17th chapters he took a dramatic turn toward an ethic of power and authority that we have not yet achieved. Those called to governmental authority, said Moses, were to judge with righteousness, neither perverting justice nor showing partiality. Kings were not to lead the people back into slavery, nor multiply their own wealth too much, nor exalt themselves above other members of the community, and they were to be guided by God’s most generous law in the writing of civil laws.
If the killing of apostates cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus, these words of guidance not only resonate with the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s commandment to love one another, but they set a moral standard for governance not yet met in most communities, and egregiously violated in some. Moreover, the communities in question cannot be understood only as units of civil government, but also as any community governed by hierarchical authority, and that most certainly includes the modern corporation.
In one form or another, these are truths that have been understood and taught by scholars of management and leadership for at least sixty years. Sadly, there is little evidence to show that much learning has taken place or success achieved. The myth of rugged individualism, along with the motivating power of greed and fear, rebel against such new fangled namby-pamby ideas that first saw the light of day over three thousand years ago through the hand of the prophets who penned the words in Deuteronomy and were ratified by Jesus Christ over two thousand years ago. The “let’s stone them” approach seems so much more direct and practical than anything God might have in mind.
Consider the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy. Kill them, says Moses, kill any preacher or prophet, regardless of how powerful or awesome the signs and wonders they can perform, if they try to lead you to worship a god other than our God. Even if that person is your offspring or soul mate, take no pity, have no regrets, just stone them to death. How does that resonate with you? Sounds more than a little like the Taliban to me, but there it is right in the bible. How do you reconcile that with the teachings of Jesus Christ? Is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures a different God that the one revealed by Jesus? The Gnostics thought so; were they right?
Those were questions that haunted more than a few participants in my adult Christian education classes. My response was to emphasize the idea of progressive revelation. It’s the idea that the story of God’s engagement with humanity, as recorded in the bible, reveals a God who addressed each succeeding generation in the cultural and ethical vocabulary of their time and place, and, at the same time, pushed them in new and unfamiliar ways to explore a God whose dimensions were always in the direction of greater inclusivity and love. God also continued to press the improbable revelation that He and He alone is God, there is no other. Those new and unfamiliar ways were uncomfortable, and there were many false starts and much backsliding along the way. Progressive revelation means that previous understandings of God and godly ethics can be and are corrected or replaced by succeeding revelation. Scripture records all of it.
In our own time we have experienced something of that progressive revelation. Consider that until two hundred years ago the world, as a whole, gave no serious thought to the idea that slavery might be immoral and inconsistent with God’s will. More recent than that has been the recognition that expansion of territory by conquest and genocide was immoral and inconsistent with God’s will. Neither of those ideas caught on right away, and respected Christian leaders hotly defended the contrary position. Both still happen, but at least we have come to the general recognition that God does not approve, even if earlier generations claimed he did.
I wrote a column for the local paper on this theme a couple of years ago, and was hammered in a letter to the editor by a fundamentalist preacher on the grounds that since the bible is God’s Holy Word, every part of it is of equal ethical value and there is nothing progressive about it. It is precisely that kind of Christian fundamentalism that can lead to our own brand of terrorism, by any of a dozen different names, and which, in my opinion, lead us away from God as revealed in Jesus Christ and toward an idolatrous god of our own making. What can be done? Should we stone them?