How Do You Feel about Moral Values?

August 25, 2019
Genesis 37    
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Joseph was a brat.  In spite of the glorification of Joseph in our Sunday School lessons, he wasn’t the kind of guy you would have wanted to share a cubicle with.  We are introduced to him with the words, “He was a helper to his older half-brothers and he brought a bad report of them to his father.”  In other words, the first thing we learn about the kid is that he was a tattle tale.  In the very next verse, we learn that Joseph was his father’s favorite and that he flaunted that fact before the rest of the family.  The other sons have to go to work in the fields every day but 17 year old Joseph struts around in his many colored robe, watches over his brothers, and dreams about the day when he will be greater than all of them.  

This isn’t the best start for a man who is supposed to be one of the heroes of our faith and our misgivings about him are compounded by questions about his intelligence.  I mean, imagine for a moment that you had a vision that one day you would rise to such heights of fame and power that your family would grovel at your feet; would you actually go and tell your family about that vision?  Not if you wanted to stay in their good graces.  In the Broadway musical, “Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,”, Joseph’s brothers shake their heads over Joseph’s stupidity as they sing: 

“The dreams of our dear brother are the decade’s biggest yawn.  His talk of stars and golden sheaves is just a load of corn.  Not only is he tactless but he’s also rather dim, for there’s eleven of us and there’s only one of him.”

We can certainly understand and even sympathize with the brothers’ anger at Joseph.  Joseph has done nothing to endear himself to them: they can’t trust him because he’s a snitch, he’s arrogant and self-absorbed, and he deliberately provokes them to jealousy.  The Bible says that they grow to hate their younger brother and mutter about him behind his back, and so we are not surprised when one day, they get so fed up with Joseph that when he comes to the fields to check up on them, they rip that blasted fancy coat off of his body and throw him naked into a nearby pit and then — and I love this little detail in the Bible —they sit down to eat lunch.  Can’t you just see them laughing over their sandwiches while Joseph yells from the pit, “Wait till I tell Dad what you did!”

We know that Joseph will turn out to be a decent guy at the end of the story but at the beginning of his tale, we sympathize with his brothers because Joseph really is a jerk.  We have all known people whose attitudes and behaviors are more than simply irritating: they are so obnoxious to us that we tense up as soon as they enter the room.  We can’t get them out of our heads and obsess about them, even fantasize about ways to cut them down to size.  The negative feelings that they cause in us are so intense that the word “negative” pales in comparison to the seething distress we experience because of them which is why the Bible uses the word “hate” to describe the brothers’ feelings toward Joseph.  Hate is not a word that we are comfortable using because it is so strong and yet many of us would have to confess that there have been men or women in our lives that have provoked such profound negative feelings in us that we have wondered if this is what hate is.  Women who have been abused certainly might describe their feelings toward their abuser as hatred; victims of crime or terrorism may hate those who inflicted such harm on them; I have seen divorces that became so acrimonious that the partners admitted feelings of hatred toward their ex-spouse.  The repugnant feelings that Joseph’s brothers had toward their preening self-centered younger brother are not at all alien to us and I think the Bible deliberately evokes our sympathy toward the brothers because it wants us to ask, “Did those strong feelings justify what they did to Joseph?” 

Does the fear or loathing we feel about a person justify violence toward that person?  To put it more broadly, this story confronts us with the difficult question: what role should our emotions play in the way we behave toward others?  What role should our emotions play in our moral decision making?

Some of you older folks might remember Sam Donaldson who was a reporter for ABC for almost five decades.  Donaldson was a pitbull of a reporter and showed little deference to politicians regardless of their party affiliation.  One writer called him “an equal opportunity nuisance.”  Donaldson covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and then his Presidency, gaining a reputation for his critical and aggressive questioning of Carter.  Donaldson himself tells the story of a time during the height of the energy crisis, when he traveled with President Carter to a small village in India to see how the village solved its energy problem.  The village was using composting to produce methane gas: farmers in the area brought their cow manure to a large pit near the village and the methane gas from the manure was siphoned off to light the village lamps.  President Carter and his aides, the reporters, and the Indian officials all stood on the lip of this manure pit inspecting the process and as they peered at the huge pile of cow poop, Donaldson turned to Carter and said jokingly, “If I fell in, you’d pull me out wouldn’t you, Mr. President?”

“Certainly,” Carter replied.  Then he paused and added, “after a suitable interval.”

The Bible goes out of its way to show that Joseph was a difficult kid: it elicits our sympathies for the brothers’ irritation and we are inclined to forgive them for throwing Joseph into that pit for “a suitable interval,” but as we continue to read, we see the brothers’ hatred so consume them that they decide to rid themselves of Joseph forever.  They sell him to the Ishmaelites, and conspire to convince their father that Joseph has been killed by wild animals.  When the Bible describes Jacob’s heart wrenching grief over the loss of Joseph, our sympathies begin to change and the story tugs us toward that deeper question of what role our feelings about a person should play in the way we behave toward that person.  Maybe the brothers were justified in the way they felt toward Joseph but did those feelings justify the violence that they visited upon him and ultimately upon the heart of their own father?  The answer would appear to be self-evident — “Of course not.  Of course the brothers’ violence wasn’t justified,” we want to say.  “Of course the way we feel toward someone should not be the determining factor in the way we behave toward that person.  That’s why we have moral laws like the Ten Commandments,” we argue, “because if everyone just went around doing what ‘felt’ justified, we would have anarchy.  Feelings,” we conclude, “are a terrible basis for moral decision making!”

And yet what seems obvious and reasonable when sitting here in the calm of the sanctuary becomes much less obvious in the midst of the chaos of our emotions.  In fact, we justify our actions based on our feelings all of the time.  

Last week, a white woman in Arkansas pulled a gun on four boys who were going door to door to raise money for their football team.  She made them lie on the ground with their hands behind their backs threatening to shoot them if they moved while her husband called the police.  Her justification?  

“[They] were African American,” she said, “and I know this residence to [be] white.”  She told the police that she was afraid for her safety, even though neighbors testified that the boys had done nothing to elicit such fear except have the wrong skin color.  Nevertheless, in the woman’s mind, her fear justified her violent reaction, so much so that even after the police arrived and things were sorted out, she told the boys that it was their fault for making her afraid and they should be more careful in the future.  (The police didn’t agree and arrested her.)1

We can condemn this woman for justifying her threats of violence toward those boys based on her fear which itself is based on her racial bias but our actions are based on our feelings all of the time.  For thousands of years, philosophers proposed various rational rules that they believed should be used to make moral decisions, recommending that we put aside our unreliable emotions in order to make reasoned decisions about our behavior.  Social scientists have discovered, however, that in spite of philosophy’s best efforts, human beings continue to structure our moral thinking around our feelings, even when we think we are not.  For example, if the idea of aborting a baby feels like murder to you, you are likely to argue that life begins at conception.  Your rational beliefs about what constitutes life arise from your gut feelings about abortion.  Conversely, if the idea of telling a woman that she has to carry a baby to term no matter how it affects her body or her future feels authoritarian and repressive to you, you are likely to argue that life does not begin at conception.  Your ideas about when life begins are likely to be formed in response to your feelings rather than visa versa.  As I said, this often takes place at a subconscious level but it explains why Facebook arguments in the culture wars never accomplish anything because even if someone could prove that another person’s beliefs are logically in error, that other person will most likely just change their justifications for those beliefs rather than the beliefs themselves because our beliefs are not grounded in reason but in feeling.  I have not known any evangelical Christian who was argued out of his or her belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin.  I have been in a lot of debates about this issue and no matter how airtight my biblical exegesis may be, no matter how irrefutable my logic, no matter how convincing my theological arguments are, never once has someone said to me, “Oh, I see what you mean.  OK, I guess I was wrong.”  On the other hand, I have known numerous evangelicals who did change their beliefs about what the Bible says on the issue of homosexuality when they became friends with a gay person or had a family member come out as gay.  Their feelings about homosexuality changed, and usually as a result, their thinking about it shifted.  

I’m sure that some of you highly rational people out there are mentally arguing with me right now saying, “Maybe other people base their moral thinking on their feelings but my moral thinking is based on pure reason or on my rational study of the Bible.  I do a lot of reading and I have a good brain and I am able to analyze scripture, or philosophy, or whatever, and I act accordingly and never let my emotion affect what I believe.  Those people who hold opinions different from me are the ones deluding themselves, not me.” 

Yeah, been there; thought that, but the reality is that all human beings interacts with the world through our hearts and our emotions as well as through our brains and unless you are a robot or a psychopath, your feelings will affect your moral decision making, your moral values, and the way you choose to behave toward others.  You can’t escape it.  

So we are back to where we started.  Joseph’s brothers hated him, and if our moral behavior is influenced by our feelings, were they justified in throwing him into that pit?

Our guts — our feelings — say no, they are not justified, but in this case, those feelings are leading to the right moral decision, not the wrong one.  In fact, at the end of the Joseph story, the brothers have done a complete 180.  Instead of being consumed by jealousy, they are now consumed by concern for their father and as a result, they do everything they can to protect their youngest brother Benjamin even though, like Joseph, Benjamin is favored by their father.  And in the end Joseph to turns himself around.  He comes down off of his high horse and he weeps before his brothers, forgiving them, and reconciling with them.  Over the years, Joseph’s arrogance and self-centeredness have been worn away, and the brother’s jealousy and hatred have ceased, and they discover instead feelings of passionate warmth toward one another and a shared fervor to create a life of peace for their elderly father.  There is just as much emotion at play in the last chapters of the Joseph story as in the first chapter.  Their sudden morally upright behavior isn’t the result of their learning to think rationally instead of emotionally; it is that the feelings in which they ground those moral decisions have changed.  Instead of feelings of hatred and jealousy, it is now compassion and empathy that is informing their moral behavior and thus they are now able to act in morally upright ways with one another.

The Bible recognizes that human beings will always ground our moral decision making on our feelings and so what the Bible does it give us stories that will help us to develop our feelings of empathy for those who suffer, feelings of comfort and acceptance toward the stranger and foreigner, and feeling of kindness toward even those who disturb us.  We see this especially in the teachings of Jesus who was constantly trying to develop his followers’ capacity for empathy by asking them to enter into the worlds of those they had previously despised or avoided:

“Who helped the man on the road to Jericho?,” he asks them.  “Who was the good neighbor?  It was the Samaritan who you claim to hate.” 

“You condemn this woman for her sin?” he asked the crowd.  “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  

“Who is more favored in God’s eyes,” he said in his parable, “the sinner who admits his sin or the Pharisee who is arrogant about his own righteousness?”

He ate with tax collectors, forgave prostitutes, invited children into his presence, reached out to the wounded and the sick and the poor.  If you followed Jesus, you were forced to hang out in the company of innumerable people who normally disgusted you or repelled you or made you afraid, and after awhile, your feelings about them changed, and your moral thinking about them shifted as a result. 

The story of Joseph tells us that if we want to change the world from a place of hatred and fear to a place of peace and compassion for others, we need to begin with ourselves, increasing our own comfort with those who are different from ourselves by deliberately stepping into the shoes of others instead of avoiding people who make us uneasy.  We need to seek greater opportunities to develop empathy in our children helping them to see the world through the eyes of others.  And we need to put aside our rational well thought out arguments, and love people into the change we seek.  Speak to their hearts, not their brains because it is our hearts that shape the world.

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/16/black-teens-were-fundraising-their-football-team-then-white-woman-held-them-gunpoint/