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The Doctrine of Moral Equivalence

I am indebted to Dennis Prager’s thought-provoking book Think a Second Time (New York: HarperCollins, 1995) for bringing to my attention the “Doctrine of Moral Equivalence.” The DME is the idea that one cannot or should not make fine distinctions between behaviors considered immoral or unethical. This idea takes many forms.

• You can’t fight violence with violence because all forms of violence are wrong. By this reasoning, capital punishment is wrong because it is responding to a wrong (typically murder) by doing the same wrong (execution).
• All life is sacred. The life of a dog is just as important as the life of a human being.
• A person who steals 10 dollars is just as bad as a person who steals 1000 dollars because a thief is a thief.
• Western capitalism is no more justifiable than Chinese communism since both have committed injustices and have infringed upon human rights.
• Christianity is just as dangerous a religion as Islam since both Christians and Muslims have, over the course of history, slaughtered those they believed to be infidels (unbelievers).
• George W. Bush was just as bad as Adolph Hitler since they both used strong-armed tactics to get their way and because their policies have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.

Prager argues, rightly it seems to me, that this Doctrine of Moral Equivalence is wrong because one can indeed assign degrees of turpitude. The measured violence used by police to protect society is legitimate and not to be compared with the gratuitous violence of a Mafia hit man. A person who makes personal use of supplies at the office is not as evil as the chief financial officer of the same company whose risky and fraudulent activities eventually drive the business into bankruptcy, thereby stealing the livelihood of its employees and the capital of its stockholders. George W. Bush certainly did not committed crimes against humanity on a par with those of Adolf Hitler.

Nonetheless, I believe Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, errs when he implies that Christianity affirms the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. The question arises, “Who speaks definitively for Christianity? Who determines what Christian doctrine is or is not?” Do you quote the Pope or Billy Graham? Jeremiah Wright or Jerry Falwell? Mother Teresa or Jimmy Carter? Obviously, over the centuries many have claimed to speak as Christians or in the name of Christianity, some more stridently, eloquently, and authoritatively than others. But claiming authority does not make it so. Christianity is, after all, as it is in the mind of God, not as it may be half-perceived or half-distorted by its various human adherents.

Nevertheless, in order not to beg the question one must ask, “How can anyone know what Christianity is in the mind of God?” The only reliable answer, to my mind, must lie in the core document of Christianity, the New Testament, since it constitutes the closest thing Christians have to ultimate and authentic authority in Christian doctrine. Any latter-day revision that contradicts the original teaching of the New Testament must naturally meet with skepticism, for if one cannot trust the New Testament as a doctrinal standard, why should one trust anything in Christendom?

The New Testament, plainly and simply, does not teach the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. For example, I John 5:17 states, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” Later Christian writers will clarify by distinguishing between venial sins (wrongdoing) and mortal sins (sins that lead to eternal punishment in hell). In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus concludes that those who intentionally do wrong bear greater responsibility than those who do wrong in ignorance. While ignorance of the law is no excuse and wrongdoing is wrongdoing, nevertheless intentional wrongdoing and ignorant wrongdoing are not morally equivalent.

Luke 12:48 also says that “to whom much is given, much is required.” This conveys the notion that some people are more morally responsible than others simply because they are better educated, more intelligent, more spiritually enlightened, or better endowed with financial resources than certain others. In other words, according to Jesus, both nature and nurture may conspire to create a lack of moral equivalence in the eyes of God. The idea that all human beings are sinful and in need of God’s grace (that is, forgiveness by way of atonement) in no way suggests that all human beings are equally sinful.

Prager’s contention that Christianity espouses the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence derives primarily, it seems, from Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies, which a number of Christians have taken to be an endorsement of pacifism—the belief that it is always wrong to kill. It is Prager’s belief that some people just deserve killing. Among these, he includes Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Charles Manson (Think a Second Time, 192). He believes that pacifism is a logical extension of the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. If it is always wrong to kill, then killing Hitler would be just as bad as killing an innocent child.

His point is well-taken, and I would say that the majority of contemporary Christians, despite the teachings of Jesus, have renounced pacifism for pragmatic reasons. But the question remains, “Is original, authentic Christianity, as conceived in the mind of Jesus and God, fundamentally pacifist?” The answer to this question, I believe, is “Yes.” Jesus recognized that vengeance and retribution will never solve the problems of the world. The Middle East is still held in the throes of implacable hatred simply because both the Muslim and Jewish religions believe in vengeance and in the fundamental idea that some people just deserve killing. For Muslims, polytheists and atheists deserve killing (Koran 9:5; 10:4), not to mention anyone who slanders the prophet Muhammad or denigrates Islam. For Jews, anyone who would deny them the holy land of their ancestors deserves killing, as do those who would attack or kill innocent Jews.

The pacifist ethic of Jesus (loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, Matthew 5:38-48) is a heavy burden for conscientious Christians to bear. But it is not the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. Jesus clearly recognized that some people are guiltier than others and some sins more deserving of punishment than others. Killing is wrong, not because one murder is as unjustified as another but because the mindset that “some people just deserve killing” is ultimately destructive to humanity and leads to the sea of misery in which we find ourselves drowning. It is for God to dispense judgment and justice, not human beings (“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” Romans 12:19 alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35).

It is an article of Christian faith that if we treat people kindly and altruistically, they will eventually respond in the same way and the world will be a better place. If others don’t respond in kind, at least Christians will have done their part to make this world a better place and will have secured for themselves a place in the world to come. As G. K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult; and left untried.”


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 9, 2009 10:15 AM.

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