Joan and I were at the grocery store this week, and while she was shopping I was standing at the magazine rack reading and came across a fascinating story about a Japanese soldier from World War II, who evaded capture until 1975, when authorities on a Philippine island finally arrested him. He had continued fighting for 30 years, because the stigma of surrender was so powerful in the Japanese culture, he couldn’t bear the thought of dishonoring his family name. Japanese soldiers who surrendered brought such shame to their family that even their sisters were stigmatized and unable to ever marry.
But after the surrender of Japan in 1945, the Japanese understanding of shame and surrender shifted, which the soldier in the Philippine jungle didn’t realize. So when returning to Japan, rather than being treated as a hero for holding out so long, he was viewed as foolish, as someone who had wasted 30 years of his life fighting a war no longer being waged. As I read the article, I felt so sorry for the man for dedicating his life to a code of morality that no longer existed. For 30 yours he’d been doing what he believed to be the good and proper thing, only to come home to a nation whose understanding of good and proper had changed.
We’ve been discussing the fruits of the spirit described in the fifth chapter of Galatians—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These are the qualities the Apostle Paul believed were evidence of God’s presence in us. Whenever and wherever we embody these virtues, God is present. Today, I invite us to think about goodness, and more specifically the elusive nature of goodness and what happens when our cultural understanding of what it means to be good changes. For it’s clear that societies undergo shifts in understanding, that what it means to be good changes, and that qualities once perceived positively can over time come to be viewed negatively, and vice-versa. For instance, when I was a little boy, I remember my father saying any man would be embarrassed if his wife earned more money than he did. Today, I think most men would be delighted if their spouses earned more than they did. If the Danville School Corporation gave Joan a $35,000 raise, I’d throw a party. I wouldn’t feel emasculated or less of a man, the way people of my father’s generation might have felt.
It is also clear that there is no universally agreed upon understanding of good across the world, that each culture has its own interpretation of goodness, and that those perceptions vary widely depending upon the needs of the community. A woman in a honey-gathering community in South America selects her mate on his ability to climb tall trees and retrieve honey, though I suspect the debutantes of Atlanta wouldn’t see honey-gathering as a value.
Paul tells us that goodness is an indication of God’s presence, but fails to mention that goodness has an elastic quality to it, depending upon our culture. Nor did he mention that even within the same culture the understanding of goodness shifts over time.
I point this out because this week I’ve been thinking about my discomfort with modern America and wondering about the source of my unease. Then it occurred to me that America’s definition of goodness has changed, and that I am opposed to that change. I have not always been opposed to change. Some changes in our history have struck me as helpful and long-overdue. I was delighted when gay men and women were accorded the legal right to marry the people they loved. I wasn’t alive when women gained the right to vote, but I’m pleased our nation’s understanding of equality changed to permit it. I’ll be just as grateful when our nation no longer tolerates any effort that diminishes the unfettered participation of black voters. Someday our nation will changes its mind about the morality of universal healthcare and living wages, and I’ll be glad then, too.
But I am not happy with the shift in America’s definition of greatness, wherein one’s wealth is a measure of one’s worth and virtue. Because I remember when honesty and integrity were considered the necessary requirements for a life of public service and now that is no longer the case.
The straightforward integrity of Honest Abe and George I-Can-Not-Tell-a-Lie Washington. Do you remember when presidents were venerated for their honesty? The bracing honesty of Sojourner Truth, the moral clarity of Susan B. Anthony and the tell-it-like-it-is courage of John McCain, are no longer central to our understanding of goodness. Indeed, our expectations of honesty are so minimal we no longer consider dishonesty a barrier to public service.
What it means to be good has changed. Our respect for integrity has been jettisoned, replaced with the veneration of wealth, which is now the yardstick against which we measure ourselves and others.
I grew up with a woman who attended college after graduation, then moved a thousand miles away and married. Whenever I see her father around town he always makes a point to tell me how wealthy his daughter and her husband are. I once asked him what his son-in-law was like and he replied with one word─slick. He said it with a wink and a grin, hinting at hidden layers of fraud and deceit. Not kind, not bright, not thoughtful, not loving, not respectable, not responsible, not honorable, but slick, in this oily, shadowy, Tony Soprano way. This father-in-law, I could tell, this father-in-law who goes to church every Sunday and serves as an elder, admires most of all his son-in-law’s ability to attach himself to money, and believes that to be a supreme virtue, believes that to be worthy of celebration, worthy of emulation.
It is not enough to say we are for goodness. We must give careful thought to the qualities we call good. We must test them. And what is that test? Simply this. Would I want to be born into the world my actions are creating?
Isn’t that the obvious test by which our actions can be judged? Would I want to be born into the world my actions are creating? But more than that. Would I be willing to be the least powerful person in that world? And know that I would be safe and valued, with access to every blessing and opportunity that world had to offer.
When the Apostle Paul calls us to create a world of goodness, I don’t want to know how the wealthy and most privileged among us will fare in that world. They’ll do just fine. They always have. I want to know how the poorest among us will come out. I want to know how minorities will be treated. I want to know how prisoners will be regarded, how children will be cared for, how the sick will be provided for. I want them to wake up each morning, look around the world at everything we have made and say with God, “Behold, it is good.”