Go With the Flow PDF Print E-mail

by The Rev. Dr. Gary Watts


January 22, 1989
Hope Presbyterian Church, Richfield, Minnesota

Text: Genesis 1:26, 27, 31; 2:7; 9:5, 6

    Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them....And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day....[T]hen the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being....For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.

We are a people who pride ourselves on our individualism, our ability to think for ourselves, to make our own decisions, to take charge of our lives. Yet upon closer scrutiny, there are really very few true individuals among us. Very few of us actually spend the time, even on very important matters, to carefully think through the issues and determine before God and our own consciences what we ought to think and do. More often we are carried along with the tides of our time, floating this way and that with the currents of popular opinion.

Our commitments are frequently formulated less by what we think than by what other people might think. We are afraid to express honest doubts about our faith for fear of how other Christians might view us. We are afraid to vote Democratic because all of our friends are Republicans. We are afraid to be pro-life because the pro-choice position seems more popular or sophisticated.

Whether we like the sound of it or not, if we are honest with ourselves, you and I would have to admit that all too often we are "go with the flow" people; we are easily swept along with the streams of thought that surround us, never quite finding the time to plot our own course. So on this sanctity of life Sunday, I would like each of us to put aside for a while our fears of what others might think, to forget about what group we belong to or what gang we run with. I would like us to stop swimming with the currents, to take a deep breath, and to just tread water for the next few minutes as we think about our views of the gift of life that God has given us.

I am more convinced every day that there are two ways of looking at life that are fundamentally and diametrically opposed. From one point of view, life is seen simply as a given, a practical reality. It is something completely within our control. Like anything else we encounter in our world, life is something we may manipulate to fit our plans, in any way we choose. This view does not emphasize the origin or sacredness of life, but rather the usefulness of life. It is what I would call the way of control. From the opposing point of view, life is seen as a mystery. It is a gift entrusted to our care. Unlike anything else we have encountered, it eludes our control and demands our respect. This view of life emphasizes the origin of life as something that comes from beyond us. It is what I would call the way of care.

Of course there are pieces of both of these points of view in all of us. It is never a simple matter of all one or the other. Each of us looks at life sometimes from the way of control and sometimes from the way of care. But I believe that examining these two opposing viewpoints can help us to clarify what lies behind the opinions we form. So for the next few minutes I want to contrast these two ways of looking at life the way of control and the way of care.

First, the way of control measures the value of life by its usefulness. Using this measure, some in our history considered slavery valuable because it was useful. Others today would consider an invalid confined to a hospital bed less than valuable, because he or she could not lead a fully productive life. Still others argue that children who would be born retarded or otherwise handicapped are not valuable, once again because of their lack of usefulness to society.

The criterion of usefulness as a measure of value is dangerous and, ultimately, evil. For usefulness is always an arbitrary and subjective idea. Useful for what? Useful to whom? To a regime obsessed by racial purity, people of Jewish descent were not useful; to a culture driven by pleasure and material success too many children are not useful; to an atheistic society, perhaps Christians would not be useful. A view that devalues some life on the basis of usefulness, ultimately endangers all life, for the canon of usefulness is no respecter of persons. This is the way of control. But the way of care does not measure the value of life by its usefulness, but by its goodness. And that goodness is a gift from God. Life is good because God created it, and therein lies its value. Hear the words of the Scripture:

    So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.... God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning the sixth day.
    (Genesis 1:26, 27 NIV)

Life comes from the hand of God, and from God derives its value. The T-shirts one sees that say "I'm somebody, 'cuz God made me, and God don't make no junk!" are simple but profoundly true. No one needs to justify his or her existence. God looked at what he had made and declared it very good. That does not mean that every person in the world is a good person in the sense of moral uprightness. For each of us may pervert the goodness of life and do evil. But it does mean that the life given to each person by God is good and therefore valuable. To recognize this truth is the way of care.

It is not up to me to decide your value on the basis of your usefulness, nor is it up to you to decide mine. I have a right to life even if the quality of that life does not measure up to someone else's standards. And we have no right to devalue and take life, born or unborn, on the basis of usefulness. Though the way of control demands life's utility, the way of care respects life's goodness.

Second, the way of control is the way of order. It says life is ours to order as we see fit. Whatever does not fit smoothly into our perceived order, our plan, has no place. On this basis totalitarian governments deny individual liberties to promote order, to keep people in line. On this basis we are intolerant of the differing views of our neighbors, our friends, and even our spouses. Whatever challenges the order of our private world frightens us because it is outside of our control. Even an unwanted pregnancy cannot be tolerated, because it does not fit our economic plan, and thus is a disruption of the order of our lives. It is amazing that this penchant for the ordering and control of life is, in the case of the unborn, so often described in terms of choice. For the word choice would seem to imply freedom. But this need to make certain that life is carefully ordered, to only accept the life that fits into our plan, is not freedom. It in fact excludes all freedom because it allows for no uncertainties, no risks. And the so-called choice is always in the hands of the one with power--the power to accept life or destroy it. But for the powerless, the unsuspecting, the unborn, there is no freedom, no choice. This is the way of control.

But the way of care gives up order to gain freedom. It says that some order is good and necessary, but not that which would destroy freedom. The way of care recognizes that it is not up to us to order all of life, but to live our own lives and to make room for others to live theirs. Hear again our Scripture:

Then God said,

    "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
    (Genesis 1:26, 27 NIV)

The task with which God has charged us as people created in his own image is to govern the earth as his agents, reflecting his will. We are not to impose our own order on the world, as though we were its masters, but to seek God's order by supporting the goodness and freedom of all creation. But when we deny others the freedom to pursue the image in which they were created, or even the possibility of that freedom by denying them life itself, then we have placed order above freedom; we have opted for control rather than care.

If we had time to read the rest of the creation story we would find it very interesting that though God desired his creatures to do his will, he did not deny them the possibility of doing otherwise. In the very garden that he gave them to enjoy stood also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He created us free to be part of his plan or not, as our own children are ultimately free to be part of our plans or not. Certainly God could have looked into the future; he could have said, "These creatures will not stay in line; they will harm one another and themselves; they will face suffering and heartache; they will have a poor quality of life; perhaps it would be better just to forget the whole thing!" But in the act of creation, God proclaimed that life with all its uncertainties and all its disorder was worth the living. God proclaimed that freedom was better than order, that care was more important than control.

Finally, the way of control is the way of convenience. It is the path of least resistance. The way of control asks all things and all people to adapt to its situation, rather than adapting itself to the situation of others. It is not convenient to involve ourselves with the plight of the poor and needy, so we create zoning laws and other acceptable means of keeping them out of our sight. It is not convenient to support an aging population, so appalling conditions go unchecked in nursing homes and people talk of euthanasia. It is not convenient to burden ourselves with the needs of the starving and malnourished of the world, so we justify the disparity of our standard of living, chalking it up to divergent political or economic systems. It is not convenient to add more people to a burgeoning population, or to deal with a less than perfect human being, or for society to feed one more mouth among the impoverished, so the unwanted pregnancy must be terminated. This is the way of convenience, the way of control.

But the way of care chooses justice rather than convenience. Justice and convenience are virtually always at odds, because the right thing to do is hardly ever the convenient thing. It would be far more convenient for the majority race to continue to oppress or at best ignore the minorities. It would be more convenient for men to deny women political or social rights. It would be more convenient for us to pass by the person in distress or need, particularly if that person's need brings our values into question. But the way of care calls us to opt for justice and not convenience.

Justice says that if life itself is in danger, or the basic rights of life, then we must move ourselves out of our complacency and defend that life. The Scripture declares

    And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.
    (Genesis 9:5, 6 NIV)

The right to life is granted by God. It is the foundation of all justice, for it is the first and foremost right upon which all other rights are built. That is why crimes against life, such as the denial of food and water, war, and abortion are the worst abrogations of justice. And God tells us that he will demand an answer from anyone who denies that most basic of all rights to another. It may be justifiable that some people go hungry in a time when there is not enough to go around. But that does not justify conspicuous consumption at the expense of others. There may be just wars; many have claimed that there are. But that does not justify all wars for all reasons. There may be justifiable abortions, particularly in the case of real endangerment to the life of the mother. But that does not justify the million and one half abortions that take place in our country each year. God calls us to let justice roll down like water, and the way of care calls us to justice rather than convenience.

Well, if you are as out of shape as I, you have probably been treading water long enough. The time has come to get moving again. As we take an honest look inside, we know that each of us deals with life sometimes by control and sometimes with care. But when we find ourselves facing the difficult issues of our times, we must give careful thought to which view of life is guiding us. Because the question is not really whether or not we are "go with the flow" people, but with which flow we will choose to go. Are we going to be carried along with the convenient currents of the day, or are we going to flow with the waters of God's justice?

Each of us may only be a tiny droplet in that stream, and our decisions may seem almost insignificant. But together we can become a torrent that will stand against the tides of the times. Together we can press on to the day when all life shall be respected, from the beginning to the end, not because we have deemed it useful, not because it fits into a prescribed order, not because it seems convenient, but because it is life and therefore good and sacred, because it is life that must be granted freedom and treated with justice, because it is life, cared for by the God who calls us to do the same.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Watts is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota.

 

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