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Friday, April 27, 2012

Conscience Crunch

If keeping a vow meant you would have to sin, would you keep it? Why or why not? How can this passage help you to keep your vows in perspective? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, P.379).

(From Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 31):
So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

One of my all-time favorite passages in American literature occurs when Huckleberry Finn struggles with his conscience—when he must act based on a decision to conform to the laws, expectations, customs, and mores of his enveloping society or whether to act in the best interest of his slave friend, Jim. It is a weighty matter to spurn the panoply of power represented by the prevailing culture; one is surely arrogant to discount the beliefs, opinions, and convictions of so many. But even so, there yet remains a quiet and simple conviction residing somewhere deep within the heart of man that one should respect the inner voice sometimes strikingly at odds with culture.

In some ways I lately can identity with Huck Finn. I am a Christian and have heard many times that Christ is the only way. If you don't believe in Christ, you will go to hell. He is the only path up the mountain to God and salvation. Christianity is thus seen as tightly exclusionary and highly legalistic. This seems to belie the Lord's prayer with its emphasis on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

Many Christians view Islam as especially suspect. One cannot gainsay the fact that Muslims do not view Christ as the Son of God. Nevertheless, to better appreciate their beliefs and to become acquainted with believers on a personal basis, I have been attending Friday mosque services. Once during lunch following a service, a believer said that I was really a Muslim at heart. I found this comment remarkable, for privately I had been thinking—after witnessing their many loving kindnesses—that they were really Christians at heart—consistently behaving in accord with the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

The opening question that I quoted preceding today's blog raises an important and longstanding distinction between the will of God and the will of man. Those faithful to God have not infrequently found themselves at odds with the society or state that they find themselves in. It is my firm belief that in the end we are to obey God rather than man. Such a view has always put man in a perilous position. We never can take the laws, opinions, and convictions of a society lightly. They are established by experience, tradition, and belief. Decision points where there is conflict between societal mores and individual conscience are hazardous. This is sometimes shown when horrible things are commited in the name of God. That is why in these moments of decision, we often find ourselves in an uneasy twilight zone—in an area fraught with hazards and vulnerabilities.

But thankfully many societies have incorporated in their systems room for the “conscientious objector.” That is (not just in terms of military service) there are attempts to allow leeway for the exercise of conscience even when that runs counter to culture. This does not mean that opposition to prevailing views is cost-free. Sometimes the price is very high. Nevertheless, society puts on record that it declines to put itself in the place of God. The state despite all its power and magnificence, retains humility before the sometimes confounding inner voice of conscience. Let us be thankful for such accommodation, and for the likes of Huckleberry Finn.

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