Joan and I went to the farmhouse the day after Christmas for a long weekend. The weather was warm for winter, and rainy, which didn’t deter Joan from walking five miles a day. I stayed home while she walked, just in case the house caught on fire or a water pipe burst. Guarding the house didn’t require my full attention, so I reclined on the couch, closed my eyes, and thought deep thoughts until I lapsed into a state of near-unconsciousness, not unlike sleep.
One of my deep thoughts was about an incident the week before when a friend of mine mentioned that the Obama administration, in its first three years, had deported more immigrants than the Trump administration had in its first three years. When my friend, with whom I customarily agree, made this observation, I became angry. I didn’t blow up at my friend, because I’m an adult and have learned to control my more destructive tendencies, but I was upset and determined to prove my friend wrong, so I went home and researched and read and discovered my friend was correct. According to a November 17, 2019 article in The Washington Post, the Obama administration deported 1.18 million people during its first three years in office, while the Trump administration deported a shade under 800,000 people. While I found this disparity interesting, what I found even more fascinating was my reluctance to believe anything negative about a president I admired.
So here was my deep thought: the moment we accept uncritically, the moment we affirm unthinkingly, the actions of another, is the very moment we hand over our conscience to another. The instant we do that, the instant we surrender our conscience to another, the instant we are willing to exchange our morality and conscience for the morality and conscience of another, is the moment we are at risk of great evil. This is why the first thing any leader must do is convince us their morality is greater, is finer, is more noble or patriotic than our morality. This is true of politicians, it is true of preachers, it is true of anyone who wants us to exchange our morality for theirs, who want us to take the crown of morality from our heads and place it on theirs.
This is why when President Obama was deporting people at a record rate, I said nothing. And when I first learned of it, I didn’t believe it. For I had handed over my conscience to him. It is why so many evangelical Christians support a president who contradicts every virtue they have ever affirmed. He asked them to exchange their morality for his, and they consented. To be clear, this is not a Republican tendency. Nor is it a Democrat tendency. Our willingness to let others dictate our morality is a human tendency.
Surrendering our conscience to another can be good or bad. When our morality is lacking, when our care and concern is limited to our tribe, our race, our religion, allowing the higher morality of another to expand our worldview and compassion is wise.
In the course of my life, I have been challenged by others more ethically evolved to shed my provincialism and embrace God’s wider world. When our conscience is void and malformed, heeding those saints and sages whose hearts and minds are truer and wiser than our own is essential. It is the only way to stretch, to grow, to love more fully, more deeply, more widely.
Other times, I have been asked to shed my morality in order to embrace a smaller, meaner morality. I have been asked to love less, care less, give less, help less, feel less. I have been asked to exchange the best I have known for the worst I have known. I know each of you can say the same.
I read an interesting story this week about a man named Abraham Johannes Muste, who was born in a poor family in the Netherlands in 1885. Seeking opportunity, his family moved to the United States when he was a small child. They settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they were active in a Dutch Reformed Church, the church of their heritage. When Abraham Muste graduated from high school, he attended Hope College in Holland, MI to study for the ministry, then moved to New York City and enrolled in a class at Union Seminary, which had a transformative effect on his spiritual life. No longer able to affirm the fundamentalism of the Dutch Reformed tradition, he became a minister among Quakers, where he met and became close friends with the Quaker Bayard Rustin, who later became a close advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
King Jr. once said that he never made an important decision without consulting Bayard Rustin. When Rustin heard that he chuckled and said he never made an important decision without consulting Abraham Muste. Abraham Muste died in 1967, but every evening for the last two years of his life, he stood outside the White House, rain or shine, hot or cold, and lit a candle to protest the Vietnam War.
This was noticed by reporters, one of whom asked him, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House holding a candle?”
Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”
I remember when I became a Quaker, how I wanted to go forth and change the world. I thought it would be my life’s work. I went off to college and graduate school and began pastoring and writing books, so I could change the world. Now I spend my time fighting like the dickens to make sure the world doesn’t change me, making sure I don’t forsake my deepest values for the tissue-thin morality of those the Apostle Paul described as “the powers and principalities, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12) Lord, I pray they don’t change me. I pray I never sell off my morality to the highest bidder, and while reclining at my farmhouse thinking deep thoughts, I pray the same for you.