Making Sense of Moral Outrage

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This is a time of moral outrage. Anger and animosity quickly and easily spill over from one person to the next, often in violent outbursts. Riots and looting have been recorded and reported from the streets of several major U.S. cities. Bitterness and condescension is lobbed from one side of the aisle to the other on Capitol Hill. Brawls between strangers are seen in stadiums and ballparks. Acrimonious and hostile arguments with no end in sight are the norm for social media. What could possibly be the root cause of this constant fighting, ugliness, and vitriol?

On the surface, these may seem like stock examples of modern-day quarreling as reported in the 24-hour news cycle. However, the issue runs much deeper than that. The flared tempers and propensity to fight are signs and indicators that are pointing to something much more substantial than mere differences of opinion. The problem is more significant than subjective preferences. It is a matter of pointed disagreement over perceived objective standards. The fighting is a sign that ethical boundaries have been crossed and consciences have been offended. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, famously opened his study of the moral argument for the existence of God by utilizing the illustration of common, everyday quarreling. Speaking of the individual who would dare to object to the way he is being treated, Lewis wrote, “He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.” He continued, “Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are…”

The heart of the matter, according to Lewis, is that it does not make sense to say that someone is in the wrong unless the ability to be in the right can actually be understood and also can be reasonably accomplished. Further, it does not make sense to say that men can create or invent their own morality. Lewis called this objective standard of morality, “A thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.” Thus, the discord and antagonism arises when two parties cannot agree on moral standards. It may be that both parties agree (whether implicitly or explicitly) that moral standards do in fact exist, they just disagree about where to draw the line.

Many are angry and looking for someone to blame for their discontent (James 4:1-3). What is often lost in the wave of bitter emotion is that the quarreling points to something deeper. People know that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and they want others to acknowledge it too. The best hope for peace with each other and satisfying peace of mind is found in the Christian system of ethics. Christianity is the true story that explains the existence and importance of moral values. We do not invent our own morality; it is outside of us and must be discovered. However, due to the fact that God is real and is the personal source of all value, it is well worth the effort to seek (Matt. 6:33; 7:7-8)!

Bart Warren
South Green Street church of Christ
Glasgow, KY

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