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True North
Richard Olson
June 17, 2018

As a public high school teacher for 30 years, I had to deal with cheating at least once a year. But one case stays with me yet today.

After discovering a student had a small piece of paper in his hand, I quietly confiscate both his cheat sheet and test. I said we’ll talk later.

Later in the hallway he pressed me to allow him to take the test again, saying he was under a lot of stress, he couldn’t afford a bad grade, and what other excuses he had I don’t recall. But I remained firm, reminding myself that yes, my main purpose is to teach Spanish, but I also need to model ethics and moral standards.
The next morning before the first bell rang, he found me in my office, handed me an envelope, and left without a word. Inside was a letter, confessing to the cheating. But what bothered him the most is that I had asked him if he had been cheating all along; it one thing to have a momentary lapse in judgement but another to have your basic character and integrity questioned.

Later that day, he happened by my office, which I was hoping would happened rather than a nasty test of wills in the classroom.

There wasn’t much more to discuss, but he reiterated that it hadn’t been going on all year; he had cheated but he was not a “cheater”.

He accepted his zero, I told him we all make bad decisions throughout our lives, I complimented him on his mature response, we shook hands, and I said, “as of now we start over, forgiven and forgotten”. I didn’t brand him as a cheater or spread the word to his other teachers.

The next year, his junior year, he was not one of my students, but his senior year he was. We got along fine, I was never suspicious of him, and I treated him as I did every other student.

On the last day of school, as the class dismissed, he approached me and, in front of many of the other students, he gave me a big hug. Without a word, we looked each other in the eye, we both smiled, and nodded to each other-a tacit acknowledgement of mutual respect; we had not only gotten through that potentially ugly situation with poise and grace, but we had both gotten over it as well.

I tell this story today not to extol my virtues, or his, but to tell you that it doesn’t always work out that way and it’s getting worse.

Too often parents blame the teacher when their child cheats, sometimes teachers buckle under pressure and allow the student to take the same test over and keep that grade, sometimes the situation gets out of hand and administrators pressure the teacher to favor the student over those who didn’t cheat.
There’s a story about morality I have told many times over the years to my students, and sometimes from the pulpit, and maybe even here. It comes from Cervantes’ novel best known as “Don Quijote”. The story has many twists and turns so I will only give you the basics involving the three main characters, a wife, a husband, a friend of the husband.

When asked who was the most unethical, the most immoral person in this story, my students could never agree. They did agree it was a stupid thing to do on the part of all three.
But the story doesn’t end there. After a few more twists and turns, the wife, now fearing her husband, decides to flee and ends up in a nunnery, a slang word for brothel in those times. The friend flees by enlisting in the army. The husband, finding himself now without a friend or a wife, spends his last days writing about his loneliness. His final written words: “a foolish and ill-advised curiosity has robbed me of my life.”

Maybe we feel some compassion for all three, which makes judgement even more difficult. We may see them as victims of circumstance, this circumstance we call life, of being human, and the weaknesses that go along with that: egoism, imprudence, mistrust, irreverence, the list goes on.
But this is also a story about what Joan Dideon calls an “abdication of responsibilities”, a breach in “primary loyalties” to each other, to ethics, to morality, a breach that leads us to a sense of helplessness, acrimony, and failure.

The best moral for this story comes to us in Spanish: Cría cuervos y te picarán los ojos: Raise crows and they will gouge out your eyes.

I have use the words morality and ethics interchangeably today to be inclusive. Morality is defined as a more universal concept that spans cultures. Ethics is defined as more specific to a culture or situation, such as business ethics, medical ethics and political ethics. Sometimes morality and ethics cross paths and are one in the same, sometimes the relationship is vague, other times we see a clear distinction. But both go back a long time in our human history.

No one can know for sure, but the concept of morality and ethics may go back to the hunter-gatherer stage of human development, pre-dating the role that religion later claims for itself.
As they formed tribes they found safety in numbers. But they also discovered how to pool their efforts to survive. Food was scarce, so the little they had needed to be distributed fairly. If an unscrupulous bully emerged, they understood it as a danger to their community.

We all know that ethics and morality change, from tribe to tribe, from generation to generation, from culture to culture, from religion to religion.

In some ancient civilizations, sex between an adult male and young boy was not immoral, unethical or taboo. Today we consider it immoral and illegal.

In some regional cultures, female circumcision is practiced as to protect the purity and virtue of a women. But from a different standpoint, it is seen as mutilation, gender suppression, and anything but virtuous.
Some religions over time have sanctioned polygamy while others have always deemed it immoral.

Prostitution is sometimes called the ‘oldest profession’. And the paradox, hypocrisy, and conditional morality of it has a long history too. But as to its moral turpitude, the verdict is in for some and still out for others. Even as it exists legally in the regulated brothels of Nevada and the Red-Light District of Amsterdam the debate as to its morality continues.

But, as to preying on youngsters and forcing them into prostitution, I can’t imagine any debate at all. Yet, people do it and they get paid for doing.

Some connect access to health care with morality and point to the immorality of spending billions to prolong the lives of the most elderly for weeks or months, while services are denied or rationed for others.
We would likely agree that using food to subjugate a population is immoral. Yet the immorality of wasting food appears to be less troublesome in our country. It is estimated by the USDA that we waste over 30% of our food. Not only is that food wasted, but consider the environmental degradation; fertilizers, refrigeration, transportation, and what it would mean if we could cut that by 30%.

So-what if a married congressman, who is also a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, finds out his mistress might be pregnant and asks her to get an abortion? His hypocrisy made the headlines, his adultery-so what?
So-what if people rally to protect unborn children yet show little concern for the welfare of children after they’re born?

So-what if we act morally outraged when children are attacked with chlorine gas, while at the same time we overlook the ethics of lying to the public about weapons of mass destruction to gain support of an immoral invasion?

Morality and ethics may change over time and throughout cultures, but it has one lasting quality, it empowers those who get to define it, those who get to impose it, and those who get to police it. And the armaments to achieve and maintain that power range from scriptures to sabers, from Bibles to bombs, from Gods to guns.
Clobber passages are passages from scripture used to “clobber” those who believe that homosexuality is not a sin punishable by Hell.

These are easily memorized passages, carved from passages that precede or follow them, and often taken out of the context of ancient times.

The Sodom and Gomorrah story is one of them, even though their interpretation of the story is both narrow and selective. But they end their portion of the story even before Lot’s wife is turned into garnish for a margarita.
After taking refuge in a cave, Lot’s two daughters get him drunk and they each have sex with him, without his knowledge, each on a separate night.

Now I can’t resist the temptation to make crude remarks about Lot, who despite his comatose state, was able to rise to the occasion with no failure to launch.

But this is incest and is nothing to joke about. The story tells us that the daughters believed that they would never meet another man, so for the sake of the preservation of human kind, and as victims of circumstance they too abdicated the morality of their tribe.

As the story continues the sin of the mothers is visited upon the sons as their nations become enemies of the Israelites. Such is the divine retribution of Biblical immorality.

I find it ironic, however, that a story that is used to clobber homosexuality ends with incest. And I wonder, is the immorality of that incest migrated by the daughters drive to procreate or is it migrated because Lot is the victim and not the perpetrator?

We humans self-select in many areas and religion is a major one. Many people believe that without a religious tribe to define and regulate morality, morality becomes relative, fleeting, or non-existent. It’s understandable that each religious tribe would want to establish their own standards of morality.

But the distance between stated moral standards and displayed moral behavior is wide. Sometimes tribes oust or censure members when their behavior belies those standards.

But it is often within the tribe that transgressors of morality find their best compassion and only forgiveness.
British author, lay theologian, and all-around wit, G. K. Chesterton said that art is like morality, you have to draw the line somewhere.

And I agree. I had to draw that line with that student years ago, but not just for the sake of that student, or for my sake, but also for the sake of the other students who played fair.

A local pedophile priest gets caught, and the line is drawn, a line that leads to another parish. But over the years that line gets thicker and blacker and the pattern and cover-up make new lines; headlines. Yet few adherents fall away, such is their forgiveness.

A vocal anti-gay evangelist, “slips” into sin by having sex with a man. A line is drawn, one leading out of town. After going through a “restoration process” he claims that he now has the tools to embrace his heterosexual side and shun any homosexual feelings. The line circles back and he continues his ministry. (Ted Haggard)
A wealthy tele-evangelist talks of a loving God, of goodness, of a God that created us to leave our mark on the next generation. But his line of compassion ends at the door; no hurricane refugees in his beautifully appointed church. Yet the money keeps rolling in and the place is full.

A family crosses the border to escape violence. Lines are drawn to funnel them into camps, parents here, children over there. Lines are quoted from the Bible. “Family values”, once the party line, erased. And all in line with the politics of getting a border wall.

At first, I got a bit defensive when I read that an article in Psychology Today claimed that religious affiliation is the best predictor of morality. Then I remembered, I belong to a religious affiliation too. We draw the line too. We have principles that speak to ethical standards and moral behavior too. We are value voters too.
Of course, they most likely meant a religious affiliation that includes a system of divine rewards and consequences. But a man by the name of Arthur Paliden once said that true morality is doing what is right without the threat of divine retribution nor the possibility of divine reward.

Yet if it is divine magnetism that draws the needle on the moral compass for some who would otherwise act immorally, then so be it. But those of us who aren’t directed by divine intervention are not any less moral; we have a magnetism of our own, one that is self-imposed, one that makes us humans responsible, one that is self-rewarding.

Civil societies rely on a moral compass to orient ourselves. And we have a duty to that civil society, a duty to prevent our moral compass from going out of whack, a duty to guide that needle as to be steady yet flexible, a duty to stand up to unscrupulous bullies.

Not an easy task in a society where ethical and moral lines are deliberately blurred, erased or drawn only for others. Not an easy task, as morality and ethics have become more complex by science, multiculturalism, globalism and the extreme tribalism of nationalistic politics. Not an easy task when presidential appointees believe their integrity should not be a factor in the confirmation process, or they avert scrutiny about the morality of torture by saying they will act in a way that is “consistent with American values”.
Some wish to achieve this task by bringing America back to God, by putting God back into schools, by claiming to speak for God. But we must never stand by and allow those who seek to impose those time-worn theologies on modern society. They are theologies built on structures of oppression, fear, and discord, and they have proven ineffective.

As for me, someone who makes no claim of being God inspired, I loosely quote Justice Stewart’s remark about pornography, but in the context of today’s topic of moral behavior, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
But, of course, knowing it when we see it is the easy part; holding to our true north, a more challenging task.