The ethics of cake

by | May 20, 2016

A couple of weeks ago I posted a little parable called “#cakeforeveryone”, with a promise to write something more prosaic in due course.

Perhaps the best way to do so, now that the digital crowd has drifted away with puzzled looks on their faces, is to explain what I was getting at. (And if you haven’t read the parable, it might be worth doing that before reading on.)

I know that parables are meant to have only one main point, but I confess there were two related things in my mind as I wrote about my fictional efforts to provide cake for the multitudes.

The first was about the nature of love and action.

James 2 warns us of the danger of generous words without generous deeds: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (Jas 2:15-16).

My offer of cake to Jim was better than a pious wish, but not by much. What Jim needed was someone to listen to him, uncover his needs, help him turn his life around, speak the gospel to him, disciple him—someone, in other words, to love him with discerning practical action in relationship over time. The fictional ‘I’ of my parable wasn’t remotely interested in offering this kind of time-consuming nitty-gritty help—the kind that actually makes a difference in people’s lives. I just wanted to reassure myself that I was compassionate, and advertise my righteousness on the street corner of social media (thus performing the neat trick of transgressing James 2 and Matthew 6 at the same time).

This is one of those sins (like viewing pornography) that the internet didn’t create but certainly nourishes and enables. For all its advantages, social media does make it temptingly easy to sprout opinions, express outrage, and generally position ourselves positively in relation to trending social problems or moral causes—without ever having to love any living soul in any real way at all.

The debate over asylum seekers is as good an example as any. It costs nothing to criticise governments for not showing more compassion and humanity in dealing with refugee boat arrivals (and both sides of Australian politics have suffered this criticism over the past five years). It’s easy and satisfying to share barbed memes and heart-rending photos, with #letthemstay attached.

By way of contrast, I know of a conservative evangelical church—one of those places that is mostly on about evangelism and discipleship, that supposedly has no social conscience—whose members and staff visited a local refugee detention centre for years, getting to know asylum seekers, helping them practically, going with them to court, sharing the gospel with them, and seeing an amazing number converted to Christ. Hardly anyone knows about this ministry and its effects, and that is how it should be—because they didn’t do it to make a point or to create a shareable. They did it in costly, time-consuming love.

This is what genuine love is. It doesn’t boast, or seek praise; it goes beyond words to costly sacrificial actions for the good of the other. It gets its hands dirty in the complex, messy business of people’s lives and needs.

This brings me to the second point.

Loving one person well (like Jim) would not only be time-consuming and costly, but complicated. Who knows what sort of factors led Jim to be homeless and destitute? And who knows how long and winding the road would be for him to find his way out? In fact, it’s very likely that no-one would ever be able to properly fix Jim. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or that we couldn’t make a real difference for Jim. But such are the realities of evil, and the limits of our knowledge and capacity, that we should proceed with a realistic degree of humility about the path ahead. The fictional me discovered this soon enough in seeking to expand my cake distribution efforts beyond even a few people.

Now scale this up to a larger group or to a whole society. The complexities multiply dizzyingly. Difficult compromises and trade-offs will be required to retrieve as much good as possible in circumstances where any viable outcome is less than ideal.

This is the burden of judgement that God has give to those in political authority, and why we should spend more time praying for our leaders than lambasting them on facebook.

For example, what a terrible choice our leaders have been recently faced with: on one side, the evil of rampant people smuggling and multitudes of desperate people dying at sea; on the other, a strict detention policy that subjects vulnerable people (including children) to unpleasant and debilitating conditions for months and in some cases years. Does the strict policy retrieve more good from a difficult situation than its opposite? Which is preferable: for 2000 to die at sea or for 10000 to spend a year in detention?

These are agonising and difficult choices, but ones that must be made. It is not adequate for us to tweet #welcometherefugee or #letthemstay without offering a meaningful and workable response to these real and difficult questions. It’s the equivalent of saying #freecakeforeveryone.

And if we feel that we lack the information, background, knowledge or experience to offer practical solutions to these complex policy questions, then perhaps that (again) should lead to a degree of thoughtful reticence before we blurt out our next status update.

In other words, for love to be genuine, it must be expressed in relation to reality, with all its complexity. And this inevitably requires what ethicists call ‘practical reason’—the thought process that is alert to the moral dimensions of each situation we encounter, that seeks to see via the spectacles of Scriptural truth how the good and the right might be sought or achieved in those often complex circumstances, and then resolves by the enabling of the Spirit to take action.

Read. Watch. Listen.

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