Keller versus Keller

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August 04, 2019

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

That was Paul preaching to the baptized in Colossae. If he were preaching to the baptized here, he might quote our Prayer Book: “We were buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection.”[i] Set your minds on that.

Then Paul lists some earthly things we need to bury, beginning with “fornication” and ending with greed. Fornication is a mean old word that once was abused and now is mocked. The word in biblical Greek is porneia, from which we get “pornography.” Off-screen, porneia is sex unconstrained by love. Bury that, says Paul.

Greed is our thirst for more, which could mean more power and attention, or most anything. Money is the main attraction, as Jesus warns in Luke. A man asks him for help in an inheritance dispute. According to the law (Deuteronomy 21:7), the oldest son receives a double portion. This man, presumably a younger son, asks Jesus to overrule that statute, which seems unfair. “An unjust law is no law at all,” he might have said, anticipating Augustine. Jesus keeps the dispute at arm’s length: “Who made me your judge?” Now Jesus tells the sad story—at least, I find it sad— of the wealthy farmer who dies on the day of his retirement. “I will say to my soul . . . you have everything you need. Eat, drink, be merry!” daydreams the gentleman, just before he croaks.

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

Thus says the Lord.

Porneia and greed are on the old list of seven deadly sins. (Sloth, anger, pride, gluttony, and envy are the other five.) Sins are passions unconstrained by habits of mind and spirit, called virtues. Virtue is a good old word that now is often mocked. It shouldn’t be. Virtues are to sin what healthy habits are to sickness, the ounce of prevention that can save the pound or more for a cure. Thomas Aquinas listed seven virtues. Four are philosophical, three are theological––“philosophical,” from Aristotle: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, and “theological,” from scripture: faith, hope, and love; philosophical for the mind and theological for the spirit.

Prudence is forethought. “If I do this, I will probably get that.” Prudence is our first defense against the dark arts of porneia. Without prudence in sex, people get hurt.

Temperance is what Goldilocks was looking for in bowls of porridge—the mean between too little and too much, too cold and too hot. Greed is an intemperate regard for money.

The cultivation of the virtues has been called the cure of souls. They cure like both medicine and salt. Passions are the fuel that power us through life, while mind and spirit are the scouts who climb the tall tree to see what lies over the horizon and plot our course. Our lives do consist in an abundance of these emotional, mental and spiritual possessions—and they don’t croak when we do.


I am back from SUMMA, Sewanee’s high school theological debate camp. Our aim in SUMMA is the cure of souls through stimulation of the heart and cultivation of the mind. SUMMA was my idea. My theory was “debating can lead to clearer thinking, and clear thinking opens pathways deeper into faith, and hope, and love.”

This year we debated the morality of civil disobedience: “Resolved, civil disobedience is morally justified.” There were two stipulations for purposes of this debate. First, that civil disobedience would be understood to exclude violence and potentially to include obstruction of traffic, occupation of buildings, and non-payment of taxes; and second, that the question of its moral justification would be confined to the United States after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. That meant we would not be debating whether civil disobedience was morally justified here under Jim Crow, or in Hong Kong today.

All students take turns debating both “the affirmative” (for) and “the negative” (against) the resolution.

Let me try that. Since there is only one pulpit, I will debate against myself. You be the judges.

My affirmative case for civil disobedience rests on faith in God and the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote:

A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in the eternal and natural law.[ii]

Dr. King affirmed that obeying just laws is our moral duty. Unjust laws, however, “are no laws at all,” according to St. Augustine, and we are justified in disobeying them. On that point, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dr. King agreed. Jesus did too, breaking laws, for example, that would preclude his healing on the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” he explained. That is true for any law.

King’s disobedience was temperate and prudent. By temperate, I mean non-violent. He did not want to let things go too far. By prudent, I mean tactical, with a sharp eye out for practical results. He needed the tension caused by civil disobedience to achieve the results he got, which saved our country.

Dr. King was challenged: How do we know when laws are just or not? Those laws are just, he explained, that appreciate the value of the human soul. Just laws help humans rise to our potential. Unjust laws are those that work the other way. They damage souls,  and for the love of God and humankind, we disobey them.

Now I switch sides for the negative rebuttal.

My faithful case opposing civil disobedience, in the United States, after 1965, accepts Dr. King’s criterion: just laws are those that recognize the value of a human being. Our constitutional democracy, the law by which our laws are made, is just by that criterion. There have been few if any, forms of government that rely more deeply on humanity than ours, which reserves to us the authority and responsibility for making the laws by which we all will live.

Opposing civil disobedience, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech he gave in 1838, to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, emphasized the virtue of American democracy. 

We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.

Democracy was young and its success is not guaranteed. Outbreaks of civil disobedience were becoming common. Lincoln shared his fear that disregard for law would undermine our system. People would lose their democratic faith.

If the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.

Lincoln warned, with Napoleon in mind, that such were the times when people start looking to an emperor to save them. For democracy’s sake, he argued, we have a duty to obey the law, bad laws included, while working to better them through our democratic institutions.

Let every American, every lover of liberty . . . swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

The name of that speech is “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” To improve our institutions, which Lincoln did like no else before or since we must respect them even with their flaws.

For the affirmative, I had claimed that non-violent civil disobedience is temperate. For a negative rebuttal, I now point to riots on streets adjacent even to peaceful, lawful marches. So often, temperate resolve is overwhelmed by anger. Also: occupations and obstructions are coercive. If I take over your office or block your car, I am physically preventing you from going where you will and doing what you would. What if you insist? Push comes to shove.

Nor is it prudent to make disobedience a norm. Turn about is fair play. If your group gets its way through civil disobedience, mine may try it next, and then another, and another: anti-tax, animal rights, pro-life, pro-choice, second amendment, first amendment, black lives matter, law, and order—the list would grow, tying society in knots.

Yes, the laws we make are all too often flawed; but our law for making laws is just far above the norm. Respecting law gives democracy its due, which serves the common good. That is my case for the negative position.

In SUMMA debates, the affirmative is given the last word. So, returning to the case in favor, and rebutting my last argument, I point again to Dr. King.  Out of respect for this society and our way of making laws, he accepted the legal penalties for his disobedience. The law was honored even in the breach. That is why he wrote his case for disobedience from jail, and it was how he aroused the conscience of the nation. He saw the moral cost to civil disobedience and paid the price. Clear thinking harnessed righteous passion in the service of the common good. That way, civil disobedience is justified.

Judges, the decision is up to you.

Concluding, I have one more thing to say.

Like human laws, laws of nature do not fully embody the eternal purposes of God. In today’s service, we are praying for a baby boy who died still in his mother’s womb, for no reason doctors can discern, two weeks before her due date. In last Sunday’s service, we remembered, as we do every year at this time, a baby boy who had died only shortly after birth, from a genetic condition that made that his early death was inevitable. Knowing the condition, his mother had carried him to term courageously and lovingly. These heart-breaking deaths were unjust by any faithful measure.

It is so important to our faith that Jesus was a healer. His miracles were epiphanies, where the higher law shone through. Easter is the great epiphany. God’s highest law is love, we learn and see that this law overrules mortality. Set your mind on that, says Paul. Trust these babies to it. Ben and Henry are their names.

“Set your minds on things that are above.” That above reaches all the way to heaven, but its starting place is in our souls. Prudence, justice, temperance, and courage get us on our feet and walking. Faith and hope pick up the pace.  Love lifts the torch and breaks into a run.


[i] Book of Common Prayer, p. 306

[ii] Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, cited in Nemeth, p. 93