By John Stonestreet
A few months ago, I took my four-year-old daughter Anna with me to the dry cleaners. The lady behind the counter thought she was so cute, she gave Anna a dollar as a gift. Anna was so excited that as soon as we arrived home she ran into the house to tell everyone about it.
Abigail, my six-year-old, was not excited, however—it really bothered her that there wasn’t a dollar for her as well. I sat her down to talk through it: “You love your sister, right? Then you should be happy when good things happen to her.”
Through her tears, and in all sincerity, Abigail replied, “I know I should be happy for her, but I just can’t.”
A Return to Virtue
There’s a real difference between knowing the right thing to do and doing it. As Christians, we often talk about Christian values, but the question remains: How do we ensure that correct belief leads to virtuous behavior?
We are currently facing an ethical crisis in this nation. Every day, headlines tell us of scandal on nearly every plane of society: teachers cheating to earn bonuses, media leaders at the highest level engaging in wiretapping and bribery, politicians unable to control their personal lives, fiscal shenanigans on Wall Street. As Chuck Colson said on a recent BreakPoint, “Our society is in an ethical and moral meltdown.”
Can we, as Christians, lead society toward a renewal of morality? Can we, as Christian parents, train the next generation to do the right thing even when it involves delaying gratification? What will it take for us to become the kind of people who are determined to do the right thing even when it’s easier not to?
Classically, ethical training was not focused on discussing philosophy or debating the existence of absolute truth. Rather, it was focused on the formation of virtue. In this relativistic culture, we need both to defend the standard of moral absolutes and to cultivate virtue in the lives of our children. How do we do this?
Our culture offers many flawed strategies for producing virtue in citizens. Here are just a few:
• Add rules. This is a favorite of politicians and parents. More rules and regulations may make unethical behavior more difficult to engage in, but children and adults who lack virtue tend to simply find new ways of getting around rules.
• Offer incentives. The idea here is to bribe people and companies to comply with certain standards of behavior. The problem is that when the incentives go away, often so does the “learned” behavior. Besides, in our culture there’s nearly always more incentive to do wrong things instead of right things.
• More education. This is the secularist’s answer to nearly everything: “If only people were enlightened through education, they would clearly recognize the survival value of being a good person.” But history does not bear this out. In fact, C. S. Lewis warned us in The Abolition of Man about education that fills heads with knowledge and bellies with desire, but leaves chests empty of the moral will needed to make the hard moral choices. Throughout history, the most educated individuals have often done the most damage to cultures and peoples.
• Find Yourself. This is the popular answer we hear from sources like Oprah and marketers of the self-help gospel: “Look inside. Find your true self. I’m okay, you’re okay.” But the reality is that we are not okay. As Mike Miller of the Acton Institute once noted, “What if you succeed in finding yourself and discover you’re a jerk?”
Rethinking Moral Training
Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, recently received a sizable grant from the Templeton Foundation to develop solutions to the ethical training crisis in America. Among the incidents that inspired this work was an explosion in the prison population over the past three decades. Colson began to wonder why this was happening, and his research led him to the conclusion that many of our current cultural calamities were the result of neglecting moral training.
Therefore, Colson and Prof. Robert George of Princeton University began working on what Colson calls “one of the most important things I’ve ever done in thirty-five years of ministry.” Doing the Right Thing is a video curriculum filmed at Princeton University, a six-part exploration of ethics that evaluates our current cultural malaise and suggests a clear way forward.
Joining Colson and Prof. George on the powerhouse panel of experts featured in the video series are Fox News anchor Brit Hume, the Acton Institute’s David Miller, historian Dr. Glenn Sunshine, and ethicist Dr. Scott Rae. The six sessions provide an outline of how we can begin to turn the ethical tide in our culture.
Session One explores the causes behind the cultural crisis we face today.
Session Two confronts the devastating and dangerous idea of relativism.
Session Three wrestles with the logistics of virtue formation.
Session Four tackles the culture of death and reveals how various challenges to the sacredness of human life thwarts ethical progress.
Session Five examines the marketplace with an eye toward restoring the trust that is so desperately needed for a market economy to flourish.
Session Six suggests how acknowledging the dignity of all human beings as made in the image of God provides the foundation we need to cultivate virtue across international boundaries.
Embracing the Call to Virtue
We believe this video series needs to be watched by Christians and non-Christians alike. You will find yourself becoming equipped to use prudential language to speak out about ethics and public virtue. We believe passionately that if enough people—political and church leaders, business people, students, and parents—watch and study Doing the Right Thing, we can begin to reverse the ethical tide in our country. Our goal is nothing less than to rebuild the ethical foundations of America.
This is so important. For the good of our country and for the future of our children, Christians must be working to restore ethical behavior to public life. Please visit www.DoingTheRightThing.com to learn more about this very important series.
A Final Special Announcement
On September 24, 2011, the Colson Center will hold a national, web-based simulcast on Doing the Right Thing. The simulcast will feature Chuck Colson, Dr. Robby George, Del Tackett, Eric Metaxas, and me. We are praying that thousands of churches and small groups across the country will participate in this event. Hosting the simulcast at your school, church, or small group is easy and affordable. Invite members of your congregation, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to attend with you. To host an event or to find a host site near you, please visit www.DoingtheRightThingEvent.org.
John Stonestreet is the Executive Director of Summit Ministries, a fellow of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and a national voice for BreakPoint and Doing the Right Thing. John’s daily worldview commentary can be found at www.thepointradio.org.