Sjolander Road Fellowship




Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

progress and virtue

12/15/20

I suspect that each of us has some sense of what the word progress means. It likely includes things like being more healthy, gaining economically, establishing new and better personal relationships, and maybe growing in knowledge and wisdom. For those who are religiously minded, the attributes of personal progress might include becoming more virtuous.

Along with our picture of personal progress we also likely hold some concept of what progress as a community or nation looks like. I doubt many of us see the present state of things as perfect and requiring no improvement.

Thus our political differences largely hinge on this issue of what progress means. In the minds of some, progress involves going backward in time to some better earlier state. Progress in this view would  mean reclaiming the past. Others see the past as simply the stepping stone to a better tomorrow, something significantly different from the past.

Intertwined in all the various personal views of progress is this issue of personal virtue. Does the personal practice of virtue guide us in how we define progress and then further in how we pursue our dream of a better collective future?

The Bible and all wisdom writers of note have much to say about the importance of virtue. Since we are accustomed to the Bible as our wisdom book, we can look for guidance there. The Bible narrative starts out dealing with mankind as individuals; Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. But then it expands the story to include a nation, a political entity.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel, as that political group, is admonished to obey the Lord. In that obedience, we often get the impression that what God required was ritualistic compliance with the various articles of prescribed Judaism- holy convocations, sacrifices, Sabbath Day observance, etc. None of these were especially indicative of personal virtue.

When Jesus came along he made special note of how religious compliance and actual virtue were vastly different. One could be highly religious but sadly not virtuous. He was particularly harsh in denouncing how Jewish leaders promoted ritualism and conformity over actual righteousness.

So, as each of us forms our own view of  progress, we face the question of how or if personal virtue will frame that view and constrain how we pursue the associated politics. Admittedly, not all will have the same opinion of what virtue entails, though I suspect on a personal level most will have very similar definitions. 

Unfortunately, when we consider the subject of political progress, what is virtuous is often treated as relatively unimportant. Many, who respect personal integrity and virtue in individuals, succumb to the idea that political or collective progress cannot be achieved virtuously; it instead requires a significant level of ruthlessness. This is even true when the advertised political goal is to increase individual and collective righteousness.

We are encouraged in this thinking by the idea of righteous judgments and necessary evils, often drawing on the Bible for support. Much of the Bible does suggest that ruthlessness is a part of progressing in righteousness by suppressing evil men. So it is not surprising that those influenced by that story are prone to view no holds barred conflict against perceived evil as God ordained.

But all of this begs the question- Did Jesus say that this Old Testament mindset reflected the ultimate Truth? Did he promote ruthlessness and warfare in the pursuit of righteousness by coercion and oppression? What did progress for collective humanity look like in the mind of Christ- forced compliance and lockstep conformity or ultimate freedom, including the freedom to practice virtue without reservation or exception?