Situation Ethics

                     …….Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or

                                      sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?......



Once upon a time in the long-ago 1970’s one of the most controversial and hotly debated issues was

an ethical system called Situation Ethics,  the premise of which was that if love was to be best served,

sometimes other moral principles and codes could be put aside. This ethical system was grounded in 

unconditional agape love,  the absolute law of love.  Situation  Ethics argued that if

other laws needed to be broken in order for universal agape love to be fully realized, the very love  

that Jesus taught in the two great commandments of the Gospels,  then so be it. In Situation

Ethics, the ends can justify the means, assuming, of course, that the “situation” is not intrinsically bad

or evil. Situation Ethics is among the purest systems of moral ambiguity but when we consider the

horrors of the sexual abuse of children and the silence of those institutions in which it occurs, moral

ambiguity is useless as a denominator.


On this last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday of Christ the King, the Church reveals its wisdom in

maintaining the rhythm of the Christian life of worship and preserving joyful anticipation and

expectations, very much in stark contrast to Situation Ethics. There is certainty and clarity,  all part

of the Good News, as are today’s readings in which, once again, we are shown  how to see ourselves and

our world in a deliberate and mindful way.  Matthew’s Gospel lets us ask the Lord, “when did

we see you?  “If we missed you, we didn’t mean to and if we encountered you and responded

accordingly, we are blessed.”  How remarkable it is that God allows those of us who are mindful as well

as those of us not mindful  to ask the same question.  And because the Gospel is a living conversation ,

we can chose the Grace that comes with our affirmation of Christ in those we welcome, feed,  clothe,

take care of, heal, protect  and cherish, or we can remain unaware that we have done anything wrong

and in our pretend ignorance hope for God’s mercy.    


The Gospel with its challenges was with us in the time of Situation Ethics just as it is

with us now. But oh, how different the times are: what was “situational” and morally ambiguous

in the 1970’s is not “situational” or morally ambiguous now. This is not to say that in our time we are

free from the hubris that comes from spiritual aridity or that we are not living in what Jean Vanier calls

a “mixture of light and darkness, of love and hate, of trust and of fear.” It is, though, to say that we are

clear and unambiguous about one thing--the perversity of the sexual abuse of children, especially when

it occurs in the protected confines of a religious or academic institution. We are quick to condemn the

unconscionable acts perpetrated by people who have every reason to know the evil of these acts, just as

we are quick to judge the corporate institutions as hypocritical, cruel, profoundly dishonest and

deceitful, arrogant, and even dysfunctional and toxic. If you’ve been reading the papers and listening to

the commentators about the human tragedy that has come to our Penn State University, the words I’ve

used to describe the circumstances and conditions of what has transpired there will seem familiar.  We

know that the adults involved in the sexual abuse of children, directly or indirectly, are moral cowards

who seek to protect themselves in the safe confines of their respective institution instead of asking

whether what they have done is right and just and not morally reprehensible. They are neither clever

nor wise, nor do they often practice what they say they believe.


So here we are standing firm in our righteous anger, knowing that we are justified in the integrity of our

judgment because we know the gravity of the evils committed.  This is a good, clean objective, no

moral-ambiguity, non situation-ethics position, right?  Wrong.  There are, in fact, some serious 

problems with which we have to wrestle.  First of all, the scripture readings today make very clear that

God’s judgment belongs to God, not to us. We have the right and the responsibility to render judgment 

but it is our own, not God’s.  Secondly, there is  the problem of what we believe is our righteous anger.

Maybe it is righteous, but maybe it isn’t. Either way, anger is always something of a risk, especially when

we remember that anger is one of the “seven deadly sins.”  Frederick Buechner reminds us of this risk when he says:  Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways [anger]is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.


Thirdly comes the most difficult challenge and that is what we do about forgiveness

without apparent repentance on the part of those involved with the crimes.  We are fortunate in that

WE do not have to see to it that these heinous  crimes carry punishment. They do and they will. This is

the human side. We are Christians and our path is different in that we have the law and spirit of the

Gospel  to guide us toward forgiveness.  But forgiveness is neither  simple nor easy, especially when

we see little or no repentance.  And while letting go of our anger is part of forgiveness, we have to

be mindful that in letting go of our righteous anger we don’t grant amnesty to the unrepentant. Again,

this is God’s work.


Matthew’s Gospel today shows us that we have the choice of doing or not doing, the choice of how to

lead our Christian lives, knowing full well the consequences of one choice or the other.  Not to forgive is

a choice but a costly one, like anger. Modern theologians and spiritual directors tell us that to hang on to

the wrongs is to feed a tumor in our inner lives, and thus feed on ourselves as our own prisoners.


So finally comes the act of true forgiveness. As Christians we know that forgiveness is the way of

the Gospel, a way of acknowledging how deeply flawed we are as human beings who can harm and hurt

one another and live in untruths and deceptions.  But because we are who we are we remember that

God began by forgiving us and giving us Christ, His son, in ransom. The Good News is that God invites us

to forgive as we are forgiven and to set ourselves free. This is the gift of our Faith and we experience it

again in its richness and fullness on this Sunday of Christ the King.


……for I was hungry and you gave me food , I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me …and I was a child and you protected me.




Preached by Dr. Peter Kountz

20 November 2011

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia 

Posted on November 20, 2011 .