The Checkout Clerk Is an Ethicist, and So Are You

In Moliere’s 17th-century play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (“The Rotarian,” so to speak), a Mr. Jourdain asks his tutor to help him write a love letter. When asked, in return, whether it should be a work of poetry, Jourdain says no. In that case, it’ll have to be “prose,” replies the tutor. But Jourdain doesn’t want that either – until he’s told it’s got to be one or the other. When he finally figures out he’s been speaking prose all his life, he feels pretty sophisticated; he now has a fancy word for what he’s been doing right along.
Well, sophisticated or not, everybody is doing ethics all the time, whether they know it or not. Judgments of moral value and duty are everywhere, whether we’re saying, “That checkout clerk shouldn’t chit-chat with the customers when the line is so long,” or “I’m happy to recommend Bob for a teaching job at ETHS.” In these ordinary ways, we’re revealing our notions of responsibility and decency, or the lack thereof. We’re calling one person blameworthy and the other praiseworthy.
These judgments find their way into every crevice of our lives. I see it every semester in my ethics classes at Southern Seminary. Salted in among the typical papers on divorce, capital punishment, and homosexuality are essays on TSA screening, public school spanking, eating out on Sunday, Braille worship material, Zoloft and Prozac, business “middlemen” in Malaysia, Bible smuggling, Muslim-veil bans, and autopsies.
When students tackle these topics in class, I press them to propose biblically-serious, working rules and principles, and then trace the implications. If the government can’t pat me down at the airport, does that mean army doctors have to keep their hands off me at a military induction physical? If we allow Muslim women to walk around town in veils, should I be allowed to walk around town in a hockey goalie mask? When does it get too creepy or ridiculous? Where do we draw the lines? And how should we tweak our proposals?
So that’s where I’ll be working in this blog — talking about the moral implications  and presuppositions of all sorts of things, both historical and contemporary. We may look at the Magna Carta or Jimmy Carter, at Waterloo, Watergate, or water boarding – “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper [or magazine, book, or mouse] in the other.”
Okay, enough prose. Let me try my hand at poetry:
If he could see the moral grid
Behind the things he said and did
He’d notice every Bible norm,
For joy to which he should conform.
If culture isn’t biblical,
Futility is cyclical,
Wrong to ruin, dumb to dumber,
Ever back to folly. Bummer.
–Mark Coppenger (Southern Seminary) for BibleMesh

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