And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. Luk 21:25-28
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7
Well over thirty years ago, I sat in a home Bible study when I first heard the "Luke 21 verses" quoted above. Deep within my heart the theme of the "perplexity and distress of nations" took hold as I knew this would be profound in my walk with Christ. Today as I look within myself with it's "imaginations" and also without at the world with it's own nations, I do believe whole heartily that our redemption does indeed draweth nigh; it is even at the door. How often I see with the world news reports, that there is ever more increasingly futility in finding solutions to the cataclysmic situations and forecasts that face mankind and this world. More gripping, even more real and yes increasingly distressful, is the perplexity we often feel within our selves, as the last bulwarks of self sufficiency and understanding are stripped away by circumstances and situations divinely appointed for "our death of self."
It seems often the dilemmas arising from life are without answers and we must fall upon Christ that He guide and direct us, all the while giving us peace, knowing He will neither fail nor forsake us. More so with each day, we are finding we can do nothing of our self and that's a good place to be. When we are weak, He is strong and our futility must be realized as whole that His strength be whole. This is the miraculous action of His Life in exchange for ours. This is our death and resurrection which is a day to day affair until we be filled with His Glory.
When we find there are no logical answers to life's problems, I believe we are getting close to seeing our redemption, both personally and corporately. Surely today Christ is preparing you and me along with the rest of mankind to surrender our carnal notions and inventions. Man's natural wisdom has for all recorded history left us barren of peace and void of anything except temporal stop gap solutions that often fade faster than they are implemented. This morning I read these closing paragraphs to a writing (below) and I thought, "what a mess we have, when we must make moral judgements, all the while knowing no reasonable judgement of any sort will suffice."
Such is the wisdom of natural man and of this world. God has ordained it that man through his own abilities will never solve the dilemma of death and suffering that faces each of us along with our brethren. Corporately and personally, we as men must finally be brought to naught that Christ our miraculous and supernal Saviour and Lord will be realized as the "End All" of our distresses and perplexity. As you read below of these "perplexing" and yes, "distressing" scenarios; one hypothetical and the other real, I pray you would find cause to "cast all your cares upon Christ." It is Christ, who posseses the Keys to Life whether it be the temporal life of this world or the Eternal Life of God. Jesus truly holds "all of life and all of our lives" within His grip. "Come, even so, come, Lord Jesus."
Lifeboat Ethics and World Morality
In philosophical ethics, one of the major hypothetical scenarios one discusses is "lifeboat" ethics. The instructor paints the "lifeboat" scenario:
You are captain of a passenger boat, responsible for the lives of your passengers, which has an accident in the middle of shark-infested waters. No messages of help were sent before the crash, so rescue is not expected or likely. The 30 passengers and crew all cram into the lifeboat (capacity 29), which is immediately encircled by sharks. There are no weapons upon the lifeboat, and the raft is beginning to sink due to the overload. The nearest island (deserted, of course) can be seen, but you cannot reach it without at least one passenger jumping out of the lifeboat to certain death by being fought over and eaten by sharks. You, as captain, cannot be the martyr yourself, since only you have the requisite skills to help the 29 people survive once you get to shore, etc.
The probability of the boat sinking with 30 people is 100%, the probability of being fought over and eaten by sharks (once in the water) is 100%, and the probability of outside intervention (e.g., rescue) is 0%.
You ask for a volunteer, to give their life to save the group. If only one person decides to give his/her life for the other 29, then the 29 have a decent chance of making it to shore.
No one volunteers, after repeated requests. You are now forced with killing (against someone's will) one innocent person, or letting 30 (innocent) people die in the jaws of the sharks.
What do you do?
In the classroom, this discussion proceeds then to what criteria one "should" use to decide which passenger or crew member is to die--to save the many. It cannot be you--no matter how badly you want to avoid the knowledge that you had to kill someone against their will--since your death would be the one most likely to result in the death of the others (and your death would have been in vain). I repeat, the "I will be the martyr" answer is unacceptable--for in your death, you will likely have 'killed' the others. You, as captain, will be forced to live with your choices, which will not be easy, but will be important to the lives of 28 other people.
Is it the one who has already enjoyed the longest life? Is it the one who has made the least contribution to life (so far)? Is it the one who has the least probability of surviving on the island once you arrive? Is it the one that is likeliest to be a divisive element once at shore (when unity will be essential to the survival of the group)? Is it the most 'morally questionable' one (involving ethical judgment)? Is it one selected by random processes (e.g., short straws)? Do you take a vote? Do you have a 'last man standing' fight, with the people fighting to throw each other off the boat, so that only the strongest people stay on the boat? Do you pick those with the least number of dependents back in the real world? And so on...
Some students will try to avoid the issue altogether, by talking about 'taking their chances' on the boat, on the sharks, or on the rate of travel toward the island. But the scenario is not constructed that way--the 'there must be some other way' fantasy options don't exist...just as in real life tough decisions...just like decisions public leaders in governance have to make some time...If you the captain take a chance (especially given the odds stated above!) and lose all 30, when you could have saved some/most, this is generally considered unacceptable (assuming you value human life, of course).
The death of the person chosen (in most ethical systems) is morally required--but it is only the "big picture" that justifies this violation of their will. Examining the morally of killing them--without placing it in the context of the alternative of killing 30 people--will not lead one to the ethically correct and overall more humane choice. [In fact, in traditional ethical systems, the killing of the individual in this context is not considered 'legal murder', but falls into 'justifiable homicide'.]
This principle can be abused, of course, as we all know from countless examples in history and in the modern world, but this does not invalidate the principle itself--it only highlights the misuse of it. [This principle was reportedly used by Caiaphas against Jesus in John 11:49-50!]
If you—as leader—make a moral judgment to decide NOT to make a choice, then this implies that you would not kill the one to save the 29, and consequently, your moral judgment would kill the 30.
This moral trade-off or dilemma situation actually can be extended in the lifeboat example to an additional (and possibly relevant) sub-scenario:
Once you have decided who to kill (to save the group), how do you kill them?
a. Do you literally throw them off the raft screaming, with them frantically trying to climb back in (threatening to capsize the boat, feeding everyone to the sharks) or trying to pull someone else out so they can get back in, before the sharks seize them in their jaws and drag them underwater?
b. Do you tie them up, so they cannot jeopardize the boat, and then throw them to the sharks to be fought over and eaten alive as they try to hold their breath while sinking in the ocean?
c. Do you knock them unconscious, and then throw them in, so that they only experience the jaws of the sharks for the brief moments the pain brings them up to terrorized consciousness?
d. Do you kill them in the boat (while they are screaming and pleading for mercy), by gunshot to the head, snapping the neck, or strangulation/suffocation, and then throw them to the sharks, so that their suffering is absolutely minimized?
Are ANY of these "pleasant" alternatives?-- Of course not!--they are stomach-churching, gut-wrenching, heart-hollowing alternatives. The very exercise of thinking through this should deeply disturb any compassionate person! My attempts at the Lifeboat scenario over the last couple of years still bring tears and anxiety and feelings of hopelessness to my heart...But when there is no other "way out"--the toughest choices of one's life have to be made...and these choices (and consequences--however important and good) haunt one for the rest of their life...no question about it...But a troubled memory and haunted conscience may be a small price to pay for saving 29 lives...
But are some of these alternatives in the lifeboat more humane than others?--absolutely. [Normally, one selects the method that would minimize pain and minimize negative effects on the survival chances of the rest of the group. In this case it would be the swift death in the boat, than the much more terrifying and painful death by sharks. The implication for our case should be obvious: a swift death for the innocents would be morally preferable .........]
Now, some might propose that all must die. Some might say that you the captain discuss the matter with the group and get agreement that all thirty sink and be eaten deliberately, rather than sacrificing someone else, so that the 30 can die with a 'clean conscience' of not having murdered someone (although it is quite questionable whether they would have shared your responsibility for killing the individual--they might have simply trusted you to come up with the tough decisions and accountability for the choices). Of course, your moral responsibilities as captain are rather different: to bring back as many alive to their families as possible, regardless of what emotional state they are in. A group suicide of this type is certainly not out of the ethical question, but if ANY ONE of the 29 do not AGREE/WANT TO DIE this way, then you have done the exact same "against their will" killing as in the traditional 'sacrifice' PLUS you have killed more people in the meantime. [A variant of this would be to not tell the 30 that the boat will sink, until it is too late, forcing them to die "with a clean conscience" without their consent, but this seems less 'virtuous' than the other alternatives.]
This is a vivid textbook illustration, but it shows clearly that specific moral choices must be evaluated alongside the moral consequences of the alternative choices (and even non-choice is a choice, of course). To not choose to do something in this case, invariably results in the death of everyone. In other words--the "big picture".
And, by the way, this lifeboat ethics scenario is lived out in the real world constantly. I remember engaging this puzzle as a student/reader earlier in life, and thinking through it in abstract terms. But the "blood" in it finally registered itself with me the first time--as a business executive in a firm about to go under, putting literally thousands of people suddenly into the jobless category--I had to decide which of my workers I had to fire, in order to keep the other workers with a paycheck for their family...The decision on who "to throw off the lifeboat" so the others could continue to have paychecks is one of the more painful and distressing ones senior executives (at least the "human" ones) have to make...
We really need to see the reality of the trade-offs in complex moral situations. It is not simply the horror of one set of examples versus the horrors of another set of examples--it really is the 'bigger picture' of trying to maximize value and minimize destruction. It's just not as easy as decrying the death of innocents, no matter how heart wrenching that may be to us or to God.
One modern illustration, to show how complex tough situations can be:
I have in front of me as I write this, an article from the U.S. News and World Report of May 3, 1999 (p.41). The article's title is: "Paying for Freedom: When Christian groups buy slaves in Sudan, do they help keep the practice alive?"
"Arab mercenaries, riding fast horses and firing Kalashnikov rifles, swept down from the north. For two weeks, they terrorized this settlement [Nyamlell, Sudan] of 10,000 black farmers, burning stocks of seeds, slaughtering cattle, torching huts. Then they rounded up 400 Kinka tribespeople and marched them away as slaves...Over the past decades, such raids have occurred hundreds of times in a civil war between Sudan's Arab north, ruled by an Islamic government, and the mainly black south, whose people practice Christianity and traditional African religions."
Into this scene comes an organization called Christian Solidarity International, who buys these slaves from Arab middlemen and returns them to their families and loved ones in Nyamlell for free. Is the civic leadership of Nyamlell thankful for these efforts to end the suffering and captivity of their sons and daughters?--No. The civilian commissioner of the country condemns the purchasing/freeing action: "The program is empowering some of these Arabs to continue with their acts...It may seem cruel to block the redemption of our children, but it's necessary in order to halt the trade in the long term."
Now, who's right here? Has the leadership of the country made a bad choice--using "big picture" words like "in the long term"? Or is the relief of immediate suffering of the captives created by the Christian group the right choice, even though it incidentally provides economic incentive for further slave raids?
This is quite complex and simply painting a picture of the immediate suffering of an existing captive is NOT a complete enough way to approach the issue; one MUST consider the future sufferings of future captives as well.
I pray you glean from this message how moral judgements made by moral men will always be lacking and thus we groan with all creation for our full redemption and the redemption of our world. I know I have never groaned more, nor as deeply as I do today. Ah, but there is respite and peace to be found! Thank God, like me, you can "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." 1 Peter 5:7
"Come, even so, come, Lord Jesus."
(writing excerpt, thanks to
The Christian Thinktank)