Where Do We Begin?

“Toto, . . . we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz film

There were five neat rows, six wooden desks in each. Behind them, large windows showed a flat, treeless playground covered in stubbly grass. Fully stocked bookshelves lined the wall to the right. To the left hung a chalkboard and charts explaining antonyms, synonyms, and homonyms. At the front of the room, a map of China and the USSR had been pulled down like a window shade across the center chalkboard.

I was in sixth grade, and that map was the key to our assignment: memorize the rivers. This was during the Cold War, and we were afraid of a nuclear attack, so we practiced duck-and-cover drills at school. According to our teacher, being able to identify the rivers of China and the USSR would ensure that if we were ever captured and taken to Russia, we could follow the waterways to make our escape. I don’t know if he was serious or if that was his ploy to get us to learn some geography, but we memorized the Volga, the Dneipr, the Yellow River, the Yangtze. We definitely wanted to be able to find our way home.

In a way, morality is about finding home. It’s about having a compass that points True North so that wherever we are in life, we can orient ourselves and confidently head the right direction. I recently read about a sport called orienteering. It’s a type of cross-country race that involves finding your way. Writer Barbara O’Neal explains, “It is the sport of using a paper map and compass to find a series of flags as fast as possible. The long courses are expected to take the elite of the group about 40-50 minutes, which means a lot of people spend much longer running around a forest, off-trail, getting scratched by hostile plants and tumbling down hills . . .”(1) In other words, most of the contestants are disoriented.

Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is disoriented, off kilter, out of balance. Of course, every age since the beginning of time has been out of balance in some way, but the present age may go down in the history books as one of the most unbalanced. Every day on any news station or site, we find reports about workplace harassment, sex abuse, domestic assaults, doping scandals, racial discrimination, bigotry, bullying, insensitivity to the needs of refugees and the poor, mass shootings . . .

Then there’s the lack of moral leadership in the highest levels of government, where lying, deception, and corruption has taken root. We’d like to be able to point to our nation’s leaders as examples of wisdom and morality. But many of them are just the opposite. We have to beware of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” people calling truth falsehoods and falsehoods truth. Scandals erupt so head-spinningly fast that we get mentally dizzy trying to keep up with it all.

But believe it or not, there are a couple of bright spots in all this. First, this turmoil has brought morality into our daily conversations and is causing us to wrestle with the underbelly of our own lives, which we’re usually adept at ignoring. Second, the fact that we’re upset over it means we still have a conscience.

In 2011, twenty-nine men died at the Upper Big Branch mine, because Massey Energy repeatedly ignored safety standards. The company was ordered to pay a fine of millions of dollars. The sister of one of those miners said in a radio interview that the fine didn’t begin to make up for the loss of twenty-nine miners. She said, “It’s wrong on the very deepest level of morality.” A second person said, “It’s pretty easy to buy peace in this state.”

When I heard that interview, I realized that the reason news reports reveal corruption is that these events, large or small, are an affront to our sense of what’s right and good. The very fact that these stories are reported is proof that we know this is not the way things should be. The outcry tells us that people naturally understand that these things are wrong. Genocide, child abuse, murder – we humans know at a deep level that these are not right. We know there is a standard of accountability. That’s obvious when we listen to news reports and hear people upset about injustice. “Look,” we’re saying, “This is wrong!” And sometimes, “How can we make this right? Who will take a stand?” Or better, “Here’s what people are doing to turn this situation around.”

It’s the age-old good-versus-evil story, and as in Jesus’s time, we religious are not immune to doing wrong ourselves and even doing it in the name of Christianity. A May 2018 Pew poll showed that the largest group opposing immigration into the United States is Christians (2) – white evangelical Christians to be exact. One reporter recently commented, “Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks.” (3) We have a tendency to quickly brush aside these critiques, but when we ignore the mirror that’s being held up to us, it’s at our peril and our children’s as well.

Have we slipped away from our moral mooring? Is our moral compass broken? Sometimes it feels as if we’ve lost our direction and no longer know how to locate True North. And yet . . .

In the supermarket recently, I saw a group of teenagers with Down Syndrome led by a teacher who was treating them so generously and graciously that I had to pause and watch and appreciate the whole group. Through “Room in the Inn,” churches shelter the homeless on freezing winter nights. During the winter Olympics of 2018, one of the gold medal winners brought the silver and bronze winners up to stand next to him as equals on the podium. In the Parkland, Florida school shooting, teachers and students gave their lives to shield their friends. As Mr. Rogers advised, in times of trouble, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” (4) In all nations, races, religions and walks of life, we will find them.

I come to the topic of morality and faith from a broad point of view, because I have a broad range of friends who are interested in the topic. I also come to it with a Christian slant, because I’m a Christian. But morality grows the same way in all people and gets stunted the same way in all people. Most of us are opposed to genocide, kidnaping, wartime atrocities, school shootings and massacres at concerts. Most of us believe that among humans, there is a basic level of moral decency that people should uphold. Most of us hold to some form of the Golden Rule, which was taught in the most ancient of civilizations and was recorded in the earliest religious writings.

We’re concerned for our children and their future. How can we raise what researcher Robert Coles calls, “morally literate children”? (5) How can we guide them? How do we help them live wisely? What about the pervasive influence of screens? How can we help our children develop their God-given inner moral compass? Where do we begin?

The answer is that we begin at the beginning. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . . God created man in his own 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” (Genesis 1:1, 27, 31). We begin with reverence and respect for what God created, from roses to rivers, from sparrows to stars, from fish to forests. We begin, too, with reverence and respect for people, for imago dei, the image of God in each person. God created, it is very good, and it’s a serious matter to hurt, neglect, or damage what God made.

Yet we have that choice. And it’s a moral one. Create or destroy. Help or hurt. Open our hearts or close them. It’s amazing that God trusted us with earth, sky, sea, plants, animals, and each other. Such generosity. Such risk. Yet from the beginning, we humans were loved and entrusted with more gifts than we know what to do with. Including our children.

Neil Postman, educator and researcher on the role of media and culture, pointed out an obvious and weighty fact that we don’t often consider: “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” (6) Our parents could never have foreseen what our world is like now. We cannot foresee what our children’s world will be like after we’re gone. So how do we prepare them? It’s hard enough to guide them through today much less anticipate what tomorrow might bring.

Our parents could never have foreseen what our world is like now. We cannot foresee what our children’s world will be like after we’re gone. So how do we prepare them? It’s hard enough to guide them through today much less anticipate what tomorrow might bring.

When we look at everything going on around us, we can either despair for our children’s future or look forward with hope. I choose hope, because no matter what’s happening in our world at the moment, there is – and always has been – a True North toward which a functioning moral compass points. We can teach our children how to use that compass. There is a guiding light for life, and we can help point the way.

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Schoolroom image at the top by macdeedle from Pixabay