There is a strong tendency within the church for people to extract and teach the ethical framework found in the Gospels. For instance, people might set up a community in which they attempt to live out principles such as giving to someone in need, turning the other cheek and living simply.
There are however a number of interrelated problems with this approach. Firstly it tends to generate guilt. In other words, the more that we hold up certain principles the worse we will feel when we fall short of them.
This leads to the second problem, namely repression. In order to deal with the guilt we will be more likely to avoid a direct confrontation with our failings. In this way we will tend to intellectually disavow what we are doing. One of my favourite parables is the one in which a king returns to his home one day to find a beggar at his gates. Upon seeing this man in rags the king ran into the palace and summoned one of his servants saying, “There is a beggar outside; throw him out immediately. Do you not know that I am too kind and compassionate a man to look upon such suffering?”
It is this logic that we see played out in our own lives on a daily basis. “Do not show me the suffering that takes place in the dairy industry, for I love animals so much that I cannot bear to see such pain” or “Do not tell me where this shirt was made because I love children too much to hear of their horrific abuse in sweat shops.” Here our “beliefs” are nothing more than a form of Unbelief—they are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to avoid the truth. It is unbelief, because it is fully affirmed as what we believe while being that which covers over what we actually do believe (This subject of Unbelief is something I explore in my forthcoming book The Idolatry of God).
Finally this leads to the symptom. In other words we are able to continue to do the action that we expressly attack because we are not directly confronted with it. Hence we see that some of the organisations that consciously uphold the most righteous ethical frameworks have some of the most destructive unethical underbelly (the Catholic Church’s dark underbelly of sexual abuse being just one example).
This was the insight of Paul regarding the Law. The more we say that we should be moral and avoid immorality the more our desire for what we disavow grows. The louder the “no” the greater the temptation to transgress the “no.” The result is guilt, a guilt that is managed through repression, a repression that results in pushing our destructive actions into the unconscious to be manifested in our clandestine actions (i.e. in symptoms).
So what is the alternative to attempting to hold ethical principles? The answer is creating a space of grace in which we are invited to bring our darkness to the surface, to speak of it in an environment in which we will not be condemned or made to feel guilty, a community that will let us speak our anxieties and darkness without asking us to change. In short, a place where we can confront our humanity rather than running from it.
The trick is to create an atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance where people are not told what to do. Where people learn that heresy which claims that, while not everything is beneficial, everything is permissible. In other words, while there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation. In such an environment ethical acts will emanate from the body just as heat emanates from light. One will not have to be taught that they should look after their neighbour as if it were something that we need to be told, they will simply be more inclined to do so.
The desire to have ethical rules to follow tends to lead to the action they forbid. This causes the spiral into guilt, repression and disavowed symptoms. In contrast laying such ethical propositions to one side and learning to accept both ourselves and the other in grace opens up the path to what we have set aside.