Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Moral Victories

In an excellent post, Allan Bevere writes that Christians should reject the concept of "moral victories":

Moral victory is the consolation prize, if it can be called that. It is another way of saying that it doesn't matter whether we win or lose, it's how we play the game. I cannot remember who said it, but I think it is closer to the truth to state, "It doesn't matter whether we win or lose... until we lose." One of my favorite theologians, Vince Lombardi said, "Show me a guy who believes all that stuff about moral victory, and I'll show you someone who has played too many games without his helmet."

One thing we learn from the Bible is that God is not into winning moral victories; God is into winning real victories. When God comes to Moses in the flames of the burning bush in order to call him to service, God plans to actually free his people from slavery in Egypt. Is it possible to imagine God settling for a moral victory of a well played, but failed attempt of the Israelites to be free from the clutches of Pharaoh? Can one imagine, that as God's people are worshiping the golden calf in the wilderness of Sinai, God in despair says to Moses on the mountain, "Well at least we gave it the old college try. Perhaps it is time to cut our losses and be happy we made it this far."

When one traces the biblical narrative from Genesis through Revelation, it is clear that God is bound and determined to get God's way; that God is going to set the world to rights, and he will settle for nothing less. Moral victory is not in the plan of the Almighty.


RERC said...

How do we square this with the oft-repeated advice to church leaders:

"God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful?"

This is a subject on which I often get hung up. I wrote about it late last year on my web site:

Eric Helms said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Helms said...

For me its about definition of success. Faithful=successful. The victory of Christ over death and the work of salvation is ultimately in God's hands. Insomuch as we are faithful to God's purpose for us within God's plan of salvation our faitfulness is part of the success of God.

If you look at the example of Moses--it is not Moses who was successful, but God. Moses was faithful to God's call to lead the people. Moses' faithfulness to God resulted in success. We would do well to remember also the apparent failures (It took 10 plagues including the killing of firstborn children) along the way before ultimate victory.

Ed Kross said...

"The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of cause and effects, nor because of the inherently greater stregth of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection."
John Howard Yoder, "The Politics of Jesus"

John said...

Okay, I've changed my mind. Moral victories are acceptable, and certainly a temporal victory at the expense of principle is barely a victory at all - if at all. See also Just War Theory.

I think that Allan's Sinaitic analogy is incorrect. God the Almighty may not have to have moral victories, but his people often must settle for them.

Keith Taylor said...

John said,

God the Almighty may not have to have moral victories, but his people often must settle for them.

I disagree John. I NEVER settle for a moral victory. I Never signed up to be a Christian to have a "moral victory". Our victory is already won by our Big Brother, Jesus Christ for us. We have complete and total victory over sin and over death.

I think the issue is that you are looking at it from an earthly point of view, but as Christians, we have to adopt a spiritual, eternal point of view.

Christ's victory over death and sin is the ultimate success in the whole fallen universe. His redemptive power to make us whole before God the Father is all the success that any of us can more than ever ever hope for, and yet, we have that already by the Father's Grace, extended to us thru Christ's blood & death, and resurrection. That is total and complete victory over sin and death, and it is a victory that is not a "moral victory" is a very real victory, a complete victory, a perfect victory. I am promised in the Bible that I will literally live forever in the presence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. That is no "moral victory" in my book, that is ultimate reality.

John said...

Let us say, hypothetically, your boss tells you to do something brazenly unethical if not illegal. You refuse, and are then fired. You have won a moral victory. But you most certainly have not won a temporal one. In the next life, yes. In this one, no.

By the way, Keith, did you get my letter?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for the comments everyone, and thanks, John for linking the post.

Some thoughts:

I understand the sentiment behind the idea that God does not call us to be successful, but faithful. My two issues with this notion are that it tends to accept the world's definition of success, and secondly, sometimes the faithfulness not successful adage can be a way of excusing our lack of success precisely because we haven't been as faithful as we should be.

Success from a kingdom point of view cannot be had apart from faithfulness. Moses was successful in doing what God called him to do because he was faithful. His inability to enter the Promised Land is not a commentary on his lack of success, it testifies to his failures in the midst of what, by and large was a successful/faithful journey with God and God's people.

Ed, you utilized one of my favorite Yoder quotes. In fact, I am somewhat surprised that you did not see the connection between Yoder and my comments concerning death and resurrection. It is only through death and resurrection that God triumphs-- not through any other means. And without resurrection, the cross has no significance, unless we want to use the cover language of moral victory.

John, my question to you in response to the whole Sinai analogy that I use is, where do the people of Israel settle for moral victories in the wilderness?

Also, I like your example of the boss giving the employee an unethical order; but why should that employee's faithful and courageous and sacrificial response be described with the language of victory? It is certainly moral behavior, but it seems to me he or she has the capacity to act morally because of the victory of cross and resurrection. The act, in and of itself is not victorious, but faithful, virtuous, and moral. Also to say that such an act was a moral victory implies that the person in some way failed. The employee clearly did not.

Finally, one of my big problems with the language of moral victory is the overused term "victory." It is like the term "war." We have the war on drugs, the war on poverty, etc. The term has been used for everything we want to get rid of. It cheapens the term when nations are actually waging war on each other.

We do the same thing with the word "victory" when it is used to refer to loss.

RERC said...

Sorry, I just realized the link I put in the first comment did not come through. Try this link.

Stresspenguin said...

On the matter of success and failure, I want to share what my OT professor said about the issue of success in the call to ministry. We were studying Isaiah, and when we came to chapter 6 he noted that verses 1-8 are used in the ordination liturgy. He said something along the lines of, it was out of context, and unfaithful to use that text without verses 9-13, where Isiah is essentially given a task which the would would consider failure. Essentially, God sends Isaiah with a message to give to a dull people who will never hear, see, or comprehend what is said.

Now, I'm not sure if that particular oracle applies to contemporary calls to ministry, but what if it did? What if we are to proclaim a message that will not be understood or accepted? It becomes more than simply an exercise of obedience on the prophet's part, but a part of God's will for the whole of creation--providence type stuff, ya know?

Kinda looks like God's wisdom looks like foolishness to the world, or something like that. I'm still chewing on the whole concept.