Your Highest Moral Mountain – Brad Jersak

Moral Mountains:

Every individual and every tribe or nation lives by a hierarchy of moral standards. These standards can vary dramatically across a population or even within a person, like the peaks in a mountain range. But over time, we tend to see one peak dominate the horizon, reaching upward to a higher elevation than the others. That is not to say the highest peak is always that best. It may only be the most dominant.

In his book, The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Brooks says,

“The first mountain is the individualist worldview, which puts the desires of the ego at the center. The second mountain is what you might call the relationalist worldview, which puts relation, commitment, and the desires of the heart and soul at the center… When your life is defined by fervant commitments, you are on the second mountain.”

David Brooks, The Second Mountain

I find that description helpful and appealing. And yet we must admit that not everyone sees it Brooks’ way or practices this ideal, even when they do. Moreover, our hierarchy of morals isn’t as simple as good or bad, better or best. Every moral peak has a dazzling sunny side and a dark and dangerous shadow side. To illustrate, let’s consider the highest moral value of four great nations.

National Moral Values

Now, of course, when speaking of a collective, such as a tribe or nation, we are speculating and generalizing. Individuals and regions don’t automatically conform to the pattern. But I’m willing to share my observations as one who has traveled and studied America, Canada, Germany, and China. See what you think. Does my theory ring true?

America – Highest moral value: FREEDOM

From its foundations, the great American dream is repeated in its slogans, “Life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness,” “Land of the FREE, home of the brave,” and “LIBERTY and justice for all.”

The sunny side of this value is the hope and active pursuit of the experience of personal freedom, autonomy, agency, etc. It’s a value baked into the Constitution of the nation and the constitution of its citizens. Wherever such freedom is not some person or group’s experience, Americans regard that as immoral. On its brightest days, this freedom echoes Jesus’ statements, “The truth will set you free,” or “Thos whom the Son sets free will be free indeed,” or the NT maxim, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”

The shadow side of this value is when “freedom” becomes a euphemism for self-will, self-centeredness, self-ishness. It is the pseudo-freedom that says, “My way or the highway,” “I’ll do as I please,” and to hell with “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “the Golden Rule” because it’s “My kingdom come, my will be done,” which demands my rights at the expense of others. That’s freedom-without-love.

Canada – Highest moral value: TOLERANCE

Unlike America, Canada was not created through a revolutionary divorce from the British Empire. In fact, it involved the marriage of two cultures, French and English, that chose to opt out of the violent revolutions in America and France. The uneasy union of two historically hostile peoples required a commitment to multiculturalism (versus the American style ‘melting pot’) and tolerance of the Other.

The sunny side of this moral peak is the multiplication of cultures in Canada that co-exist by deliberately making space for and celebrating diversity. At its best, it reminds us that we experience collective peace not by demanding our own rights but by looking out for the interests of others (a la Philippians 2) and even sacrificing personal freedoms for “the common good.”

One shadow side of that mountain occurs when, in our tolerance, we ironically become intolerant of those we deem intolerant. That is, certain streams of society may take it upon themselves to define their own rights and freedoms in their own image, then punish those who don’t conform and confirm. It can be crazymaking and reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, when even one’s thoughts and opinions are policed and condemned in the name of tolerance-without-love.

China – Highest moral value: HARMONY

My direct experience of China was short and intense. But I’m grateful for the frank discussions I had (sometimes in whispers) with the beautiful and brilliant people I met there. Here is how they explained their moral mountain to me.

The story goes that in an agricultural economy with a ginormous population, irrigating crops necessitated a kind of cooperation that shaped farming communities to embrace harmony as a moral value.

Further, China’s history is that warring tribes were finally united by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Qin Emperor, in the early 200s. He ruled with iron-fisted brutality, but the result was a harmony that Chinese people tend to value above revolutionary freedom.

Of course, the sunny side of Harmony Mountain is that a nation can grow strong when they are pulling in one direction and the masses are not devouring each other with partisan polarization. To the degree that social harmony exists, even at the expense of personal freedom, we are reminded that many tribes can co-exist without civil war for centuries on end. Periods of peace and productivity make the nation strong and influential.

But the shadow side of this harmony has been authoritarian rulers that crush opposition movements to enforce the harmony with a boot on the people’s throats. While the communist nations in Europe were tearing down walls and turning to democracy (at least for a while) in 1989-90, we wondered why the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square (1989) never took off. Why didn’t the nation as a whole rise up and take to the streets by the millions as they did in Eastern Europe?

I suspect it’s because deep in its soul, the Chinese populace ultimately values harmony over protest and disruption, even for the sake of freedom. Even when it is harmony-without-love.  

Germany – Highest moral value: EXCELLENCE

Germany is well known for the EXCELLENCE of its high-performance automobiles (Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi), its industrial efficiency, and its famous German work ethic. Again, to generalize, they take great pride in excellence (measured by performance) such that many of my German friends have confirmed that they see it as their highest moral value.

I’m not as sure about the genesis of this disposition, but one can see the sunny side of that mountain when it comes to the power of German excellence in whatever they strive to produce. There’s a drive to perform, not only in the manufacture of material goods but also in music and opera (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Wagner, et al), in sports (Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Michael Schumacher, and many footballers), in philosophy (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Jasper, Husserl, and so on), in theology (Eckart, Luther, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, etc.), and heaps of scientists (not least of which was Einstein). These are just a tiny sampling of the brilliant stars whose creativity and productivity reflect the Creator who gifted them! They have given the world so many riches of excellence.

As for its shadow side, German excellence, transposed to ruthless proficiency, also generated the devastating movement we remember as National Socialism (the Nazis), its cutting-edge war machine, and ultra-efficient death camps. But that is old news of bygone days (we can wish, though we see tendrils still lurking across the West).

Perhaps the more subtle but enduring shadow side is seen in the performance orientation (secular or religious) of individuals who feel they must also measure up but never can. Those with this temperament find that no matter how they succeed, there’s an accompanying, joy-stealing pressure that marks a life of performance-without-love.

God’s Highest Moral Value

These four nations represent redemptive God-given gifts to the world: freedom, tolerance, harmony, and excellence. None of these countries have a monopoly on their radiant gift or its uglier downside. Not every individual in those nations pursues or experiences the alleged value, nor are they always guilty of its vice. I’m generalizing to make this point:

God’s highest moral value is LOVE, because God is love. And God’s greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor. And Christ’s commandments include loving one another as he loved us, loving the stranger, the poor, and even the enemy.

Even God’s greatest gifts become curses when exercised without love. Freedom-without-love, tolerance-without-love, harmony-without-love, excellence-without-love… when we exercise God’s gifts, individually or corporately, without the love of Christ, their misuse becomes oppressive and even deadly. Remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:

  • Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
  • Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
  • Love never fails. …
  • 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13

Now imagine the strength of all these values WITH Christ’s love-ethic steering individual nations! Here is the bold claim of the Jesus Way:

  • The FRUIT of love is freedom.
  • The BYPRODUCT of love is tolerance.
  • The EFFECT of love is harmony.
  • And the RESULT of love is excellence.

With Love (and God IS love) at the helm, the rest will follow.

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