They fixed the sign at the Royal Theater in Danville last week. Two men took the sign apart, replaced the wood structure holding it together, then reassembled it, and when they were done, the theater owner came out and put up the letters announcing this week’s movie—Hillbilly Elegy, starring Glen Close as a grandmother, though I first remember her playing Robin William’s mother in the 1980 movie, The World According to Garp.
Some people in my town scoff about the people who live in Hollywood, though I’ve noticed they’re the same people in line at the Royal Theater on Saturdays nights. I went there nearly every week growing up, when it was owned by Mr. Ahart, who sat in the ticket booth sporting a cardigan sweater, a tie, and slicked-back hair. I saw my first Walt Disney movie there, Pinocchio, and heard Jiminy Cricket sing that cheerful little ditty, Give A Little Whistle. Do you remember that song?
Take the straight and narrow path
And if you start to slide
Give a little whistle
Give a little whistle
And always let your conscience be your guide
Ironically, the movie Pinocchio was released in 1940, urging the world to let their conscience be their guide, just as Germans were following their conscience and exterminating 11 million Jews and others.
We’ve been talking about things we’re supposed to believe, but maybe shouldn’t. This morning I would like us to think about that pithy little saying all of us have likely been taught—Follow your conscience or, as Jiminy Cricket sang, Let your conscience by your guide. This, of course, assumes the human conscience is an infallible moral guide, an interior compass pointing us always toward the right, the good, and the true. But is that true? If history teaches us anything, doesn’t it teach us that the human conscience is very malleable? Let’s think about it. For centuries, white people convinced themselves black people were happier being enslaved. For centuries, men convinced themselves women were better off having no say in their future. For centuries, religious people have convinced themselves they are morally superior to nonreligious people. I know a man who has convinced himself our recent election was fraudulent and that if it comes to war, he is perfectly within his constitutional rights to kill me for not agreeing with him.
Few things are as malleable as the human conscience. I’ve been taught, and perhaps you have too, that we were born with an innate sense of right and wrong, that that’s what differentiated us from animals. But I see little evidence of that. What I see is a cultural formation of conscience, carefully taught and encouraged, whose violation is punished, so that after a while it occurs to us that obeying these moral codes is more advantageous than breaking them.
But the moral code we call our conscience is often set aside when it becomes a hindrance to our goals, which is how 40% of self-described pro-family evangelicals supported America’s child-separation policy. How does that happen unless you are willing to set aside your conscience when it becomes a hindrance to your goal? How did people who had fervently opposed sexual assault, defend a president who in 1998 sexually abused a White House intern? How does that happen unless you are willing to set aside your conscience when it becomes a hindrance to your goal? Few things are as malleable as the human conscience.
Not only do we set aside our conscience when it suits us, we don’t think carefully about how the human conscience is formed, which is problematic. Most people assume the codes and rules that form our conscience descended upon us from the heavens, with little appreciation for their human and cultural origins. If you’re driving down the road and see a replica of the Ten Commandments in someone’s yard, it’s very likely that person believes our moral codes came to us directly from God, through the nation of Israel, some 5,000 years ago. It’s also likely that person believes those codes should never be broken, even as they remain oblivious to the times they have violated those commandments in order to fulfill some desire. Just last year, a man visiting our meeting, who I knew to be a serial adulterer, chided me for not having the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in our meetinghouse.
Conscience is a human construction, and though shaped and formed by our understanding of God, it is still a product of human experience, reasoning, and cultural codes. This is why in some cultures gay people are put to death and in other cultures gay people are welcomed and affirmed. In some cultures blood sports like cockfighting and dogfighting are illegal, while in other cultures bullfighting is an honorable tradition.
The online magazine, This View of Life, recently reported a study done by a team of sociologists and ethnologists studying morality as a cooperative phenomenon—the notion that our conscience is a product of our culture. In their global study of morality they discovered seven reoccurring rules every culture had in common. No matter where you live, no matter your religion or nationality, no matter your race or gender, there are seven universal rules every society has determined is essential to your personal and communal well-being. Here they are:
- Love your family.
- Help your group.
- Return favors.
- Be brave.
- Defer to authority. (That’s tricky. While deferring to authority is crucial in forming cooperative societies, we are under no obligation to defer to authority when it demands our support of evil.)
- Be fair.
- Respect other’s property.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the world followed those rules? The good news is that most of us do, most of the time, except when we want something really bad, and it isn’t ours. Like wanting the results of an election to favor us, like wanting someone else’s spouse, or someone else’s country, or someone else’s power, property or wealth. When we want those things, we will jettison our morality to attain them. Which is to say that we are most at risk of evil when we want something more than we want goodness, compassion, and truth. This is why, when faced with a decision, or achieving our goals, we must ask ourselves this question—we can even call it a Quaker query, if you want—“Does the attainment of my goals cause me to forsake my conscience?”
Let’s now enter into open worship, reflecting on our lives and God’s hope for them.