I know. The title is a bit cheap, but hopefully it got your attention. Now if it could only keep our attention for longer than a typical media-attention-span, because for all the cheap shots and jokes, there is an important conversation taking place in the public arena about ethics.
In most cases we practice circle-ethics, not circular ethics, circle-ethics. Circle-ethics involves a more robust philosophy than line ethics. Line ethics gives you a right and a wrong. Circle-ethics determines who is in and who is out. We draw a line to determine who is right and who is wrong. We draw a circle to determine who is in and who is out. Of course where we draw the lines and where we draw the circles will determine who is right and who is in, though it is not necessarily the case that right is always in.
In the most recent case in point, Mr. Weiner has confessed to multiple “on-line” sexting relationships, but he has so far remained resolute in saying that he has not cheated on his wife because his virtual liaisons included no physical contact. It would seem at first glance that Weiner is simply trying to draw a line, different from what some of us would draw, but still a line.
I’m not so sure. I mean Weiner has already said that he was wrong in what he did. He has tearfully confessed and is taking a leave of absence. Perhaps in the last few days Weiner has been more interested in drawing a circle than he is in drawing a line. Circle ethics. I know I was wrong, but I’m not so wrong that I’m out. I’m still in the same circle as my constituents.
This is not just a politicians exercise. It’s happens in religious “circles” all the time. James Dunn is a New Testament scholar who has written a great commentary on the book of Romans and in it, he makes the observation that Rabbis — Jewish religious leaders in Jesus day — gave a huge amount of attention to three areas of religious law: Dietary Rules, Sabbath-Keeping and Circumcision.
You know what? Not a single Pharisee or religious leader of Jesus day would have said, “What’s the point of Judaism? Here’s the point. God’s will for humanity is summed up in eating the right foods, doing nothing on the Sabbath, and being circumcised.” No. If you asked them to give you the point, they would have recited the Shema. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.” That’s the point.
So why such a focus on those three categories? Because those categories — easily observed outward appearances — help us figure out who’s in and who’s out. Circle ethics. We do this in the church all the time today. We simply substitute favorite interpretation, doctrinal leaders, worship styles, and other not-the-point issues.
There will probably always be a place for lines and circles. But here is my suggestion, let’s not settle for lines and questions, let’s look at the point. The point is the center. The point has to do with the heart. The point keeps us facing toward what is important, not what is permissible.
If the point is to honor your wife and give her your heart, Mr. Weiner missed the point. If the point is important than what really matters is are we headed toward the point, or away from the point.
Which leaves the question, “What’s the point?” In your own life, in your community, in your church, in your politics, your marriage, in your family, what’s the point? And will your steps lead you there?