How did you learn the difference between right and wrong? Believing at some point that you did know the difference–at least in most circumstances–have you always done what you knew to be right? If you have, good for you. If you haven’t, join the club with most of the rest of us! If you knew what was right and didn’t do the right thing, why not?
One of the plays in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, also known as the “Theban Plays,” is “Antigone.” He has the characters wrestle with and respond to several major ethical crises. They, for the most part, know what is right and what is wrong. The two key questions for his characters are, “Is it always possible and appropriate to do what is right?”, and “If there is a conflict among the authoritative sources that establish right from wrong, which of the authorities does one follow?”
The literary genre of the Theban plays is “tragedy.” Greek tragedy is a dramatic story intended to be performed on stage and in which the “protagonist,” has knowingly or unwittingly done something wrong, and the punishment for the “crime” is outrageously disproportionate to the wrong committed. That’s why it’s a tragedy. One of my students sent me an email a couple of years ago while reading the first assignment in “Antigone” and said, “Dear Dr. Farmer, the only tragic aspect I can find in this play is that you are forcing us to read it.” Made me angry, but I also thought it was kind of clever.
I wrote back and said, “Well, keep reading, and hopefully your opinion will change. If not, you with all your classmates still have to complete the assignment.” What I really wanted to write back to him was this, “Maybe tragedy will become clear to you when you get your final grade for this course.”
I think “Antigone” is masterpiece both literarily and in terms of bringing us face to face with the complexity of ethical standards as well as the authorities that establish what is moral and what is immoral in a given context or culture. I admit that it takes a little more concentration to get into the story than most comic books require, but the effort is highly worthwhile; this would have to be one of several reasons that this play predating the birth of Jesus by more than 400 years was carefully preserved and passed along, generation to generation. Not all of Sophocles’ plays were preserved; there’s a practical reason or a set of them that has a piece of literature lasting this long.
At the heart of the play are four siblings, two boys and two girls. When their father, King Oedipus of Thebes, runs away into a self-imposed exile, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, accept a pattern of sharing the rule of the city-state, Thebes. Women could not be rulers except as backups if their husbands were kings.
Here’s the great leadership sharing plan. Each brother will alternate years of kingship. Eteocles will serve a year; then he will take a break for a year while Polynices serves his designated year. So it will continue, one year on and one year off. Right….
Eteocles is the older son so he goes first. Everybody knows this arrangement isn’t going to work. You know it, even if you didn’t raise sons. The gods of the Thebans knew it. The audiences watching the play knew it. Some form of sharing might have worked, but not this one.
When Eteocles’ first year of kingship was coming to an end, he received a reminder from his brother, Polynices, saying that he, Polynices, was due to take the throne on the first anniversary of their father’s self-imposed exile. Eteocles wrote back, on royal stationary of course, and said, “Thanks for the reminder, Bro, but I really like this job; and I’m going to need more than a year to get the hang of it. You’ll get your turn one of these days, but now isn’t the right time–not for me and not for Thebes.”
“The Hades you say,” popped back Polynices. “Either you vacate the throne as our notorized, certified, legalized agreement provides, or I will assemble my own army. There are many people who don’t like you, you know, and we will run you into exile with our father.”
Eteocles got a huge belly laugh out of that and went on with life just as he’d been doing before Polynices’ pathetic plea for temporary abdication had been read to him. The palace staff laughed along with their king, and life went on as usual…until…until Polynices’ army showed up at the palace one morning threatening to kill everyone loyal to Eteocles and carry Eteocles into exile.
Immediately, Eteocles orders his already standing army to fight back. They did. Sibling rivalry at a peak, Eteocles and Polynices join in the fighting, and no one, absolutely no one, is prepared for what will happen. They strike each other at about the same time, and both wounds are mortal wounds; both brothers die. The throne can no longer matter to either of them, off now in Hades, the abode of all the dead.
Who will rule now? The sisters are mere women and are, thus, incapable of ruling, as we all know. The closest male relative, as there are no more men or boys in Oedipus’ clan, turns out to be his brother-in-law, Creon. Creon was sibling to Oedipus’ late wife and uncle to the two bereaved sisters, Antigone and Ismene, who’d lost both of their brothers in yet another senseless battle.
Now-King New-King Creon rules that even though Eteocles should have abdicated the throne after a year, he was still the king until the formal shift of power took place; therefore, the late King Eteocles would be given the full, fancy state burial reserved for kings alone. Polynices, and remember that both of these young men were Creon’s nephews, was a criminal, having broken the law, and he was not entitled to any funeral at all; in fact, his body was to be left outdoors to be picked over by the vultures.
Antigone says to her uncle, the king, “No, sir. That is not right. I will give my brother the burial any human being deserves, which–by the way–is the will of the gods and goddesses.”
“You defy my order, niece or no niece, and I’ll have you executed so you can join both of your brothers in Hades!”
Antigone asked her sister, Ismene, to help her with the burial, but Ismene said, “Oh, I wish I could. I loved Polynices dearly, but I can’t go against the law of the land.”
Antigone asked her, “Which law binds you? Divine law or human law?”
Antigone followed through on her promise to bury her brother decently, and Creon also followed through on his promise to order her execution. While in prison awaiting the executioner’s arrival, Antigone said that she would not give her idiotic, power-hungry uncle the pleasure of presiding over the execution of the first person to break one of his laws. She would take her own life, and she did.
By the way, just so you know how this part of the story ended, Antigone’s finance saw her dead and killed himself in grief. His mother found him dead, and she killed herself as well. Oh yeah, the dead fiance was Creon’s son, and his mother was Creon’s wife. I guess he showed Antigone who was boss, huh?
The issue before us today is not encouragement to do the right thing, the ethically correct thing, in isolation even though a number of thoughtful folks have said something to this effect: your true moral values are reflected in what you do when no one is watching–or, at least, when you think no one is watching. The issue before us today, as the play, “Antigone,” frames so perfectly, is, “Will we do the right thing when people are definitely watching, and we know that there could be or will be negative consequences for ourselves, and, perhaps also, for those whom we love?”
On the first two Wednesday evenings in November, we will take up the ambitious project of summarizing the core content of the book of Revelation. Yes, we’re going to hit the highlights of a twenty-two-chapter biblical book in two one-hour study sessions. You could call what I’m about to tell you an important part of my sermon today, or you could call it advance publicity for this study I’m going to teach. The next time Mr. Cushing or one of his counterparts predict the end of time, I want you to have some ammunition for discounting biblically what they say and not just tossing it aside because yet another prediction of the end of time sounds silly to you; you don’t need the Bible to discount such scare tactics, but it’s interesting to be able to refute with the Bible what such people claim to be taught by the Bible.
So, in the book of Revelation, which was written some time between 90 and 96, near the end of the first Christian century. Domitian is the Roman Emperor, and while many of those first century roman emperors got along nicely with the Jews over whom they ruled, Domitian despised the Christians. He believed himself to be divine as most of those first century emperors did, but he made much more of his presumed divinity than did many of the others. He had statues of himself, grand monuments, constructed and erected in several pivotal areas of the Roman Empire. Periodically, a call to worship the emperor would be issued–via gong or town crier or blast of horns, and when that call was heard every citizen of the Roman Empire, the Romans as well as all the people over whom Rome ruled, had to fall down before the statue of Domitian and, in so doing, worship or appear to worship the Emperor. As you can well imagine, there were several ways the Christians and other non-Romans had of looking at this challenge. We’re only concerned with Christian responses at the moment.
Some of the Christians said to themselves, “There is no God but one, and we will go through the motions of this silliness just to keep the peace. We know, though, that Domitian is not one of several gods or the one and only deity. Bowing before his statue means nothing more than bowing before Domitian himself when he is paraded around in his luxurious chariot; it’s a sign of respect to a political leader. You can hate the guy’s guts and still bow before him to keep yourself out of jail. We choose the expedient alternative; that doesn’t mean we love God less than any one else.”
Other Christians, and Jews with them by the way, said, “If we bow down before that statue of Domitian, we are showing honor that belongs to God alone. We are violating the commandment that says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ We will not bow down to Domitian or any statue of Domitian. We don’t want there to be any confusion in anybody’s mind about where our allegiance lies.” These are people who suffered for their faith in God, and there evidently were hoards of them, so many of them in fact that those who refused to bow down and stayed out of jail were fearful the Christian movement itself would die out. Eventually, the typical Christian believed that Domitian would win out, and Christianity, as with their martyred loved ones, would cease to exist.
Domitian had all sorts of punishments he might choose for the disobedient ranging from beating to imprisonment to execution. What would you have done had you been one of those ordered to bow down before the statue of Domitian? A part of me agrees with the those who bowed down. I’ll play the Emperor’s silly, self-aggrandizing game and keep my life. If I bow before a graven image a hundred times, I still believe in one God and in one God alone. Another part of me, though, says, “I cannot deny my devotion to God who is living love, God who is life-source, life-force. I could do more for the Jesus Movement alive than dead, but if I bow down, there’s a level at which Domitian wins anyway. I can’t have anyone thinking I endorse in any way his claim to be one of the many Roman deities.”
I’m not sure who first asked this question in my hearing. The person might have been an evangelist preaching a revival at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church or a Friday morning chapel speaker at Carson-Newman College; the question, though, stunned me and stayed with me, “If you were charged with being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
So, here’s the real crux of the matter. Doing the right thing can bring harm to you and to those whom you love. That’s exactly what I described with Domitian. Those who bowed down before the statue and made their grocery lists while they were detained in that manner, in time, went on their way and were left alone by Domitian and his Department of Homeland Security. Those who refused to bow down before one of several of those statues set up throughout the vast Roman Empire would likely suffer the consequences I’ve already described; to make defying him less likely, Domitian might also take your aging parent or your child and put her or him in line to be executed. You would live for now, but your dear one would die.
There’s a tragic connection in long-held Christian doctrinal views that doing good brings good to the one who did good. That’s a perfect formula for doing good for bad reasons; doing good, presumably for someone else but that really brings honor or privilege to you, is a pitiful motivation for doing good.
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or a follower of Jesus or someone intrigued with the teachings of Jesus minus issues of faith and doctrine, at the heart of the religion bearing a title some bestowed upon him–creating a word he never heard and a movement in which he was never involved except to the extent that he hoped to reform Judaism–is this amazing man who did nothing but good, and in exchange for his goodness received government endorsed beatings and whippings, humiliation, and ultimately Rome’s cruelest method of execution.
Does that fit in with your karma theology? Do good, and good will be done to you. Really? How long do you have to wait? Next realm, maybe? Do bad, and bad will boomerang back to you. Really? How long, the psalmists kept asking God in worship, will the righteous suffer and the wicked win the big prizes such as big bucks and better health and lavish lifestyles?
No one has ever answered that question to the satisfaction of much of anyone. Rabbi Harold Kushner made a grand effort in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but that very good book just didn’t do it for a lot of folks because it was honest. “We don’t know why,” said the brilliant rabbi who himself lost a child to untimely death.
If you’re going to do the right thing for the right reasons, for realistic reasons, you’re going to have to forget about rewards beyond the satisfaction of doing the right thing as an end in itself. You’re also going to have to make a place in your theology for the reality that really bad circumstances can visit those who consistently do what they know to be right.
With echoes of hatred of immigrants ringing in our ears, we hear again the magnificent story of two Hebrew midwives who dared to do anyway what the mighty pharaoh forbade them to do. Mentioned in only one place in Hebrew scripture, Shiphrah and Puah, nonetheless, established themselves as great heroines of the faith by defying the murderous pharaoh in power. Many pharaohs before theirs had loved the Hebrews and allowed them to develop themselves personally and work to have their professions flourish. These were pharaohs were remembered a Hebrew named Joseph and what he and his fellow Hebrews had done to enhance life for the Egyptians, including Joseph’s service to his pharaoh as CFO of the nation. Joseph managed the money of the nation into which he was not native born superbly, and Egypt flourished–more, likely, than another nation around them. The pharaoh and the Egyptians had Joseph to thank for their prosperity.
Years passed, and people on the whole didn’t keep up with their history so they, a large number of the Egyptians, began to see the Hebrews as a threat to their safety and their prosperity. The pharaoh in power at the time was as guilty of this distorted perspective as his least informed subject so he made a series of major decisions without having enough information on hand, something that has never happened in the United States. Our presidents have never and would never act on inaccurate or inadequate information, but the pharaoh we have in mind today wasn’t as careful or as thorough as our fine line of presidents; and as a result he began to fear and then to dislike the Hebrews who’d worked happily and productively in Egypt for generations.
Rarely will a leader keep such attitudes or anxieties to himself or herself, and the pharaoh certainly did not. He rather enjoyed building up a movement to promote hatred of the Hebrews. There weren’t enough old-timers around to remind their pharaoh and their fellow citizens that the Hebrews had been very good for Egyptian economy and Egyptian international relations.
He finally decides with his paranoid personnel agreeing with everything he proposed to turn the tables on the Hebrews. As for the Hebrews already established there, they could stay, but not as respected members of society; henceforth they’d be slaves. And most despicably of all, that pharaoh planned what was supposed to have been a low key genocide.
The story teller tries to emphasize how many Hebrews were in Egypt at this time, but if only two midwives were needed to assist with the births of Hebrew babies, the crowd couldn’t have been too grand. Whatever the facts are about the actual Hebrew population as recorded by the Census Bureau, in reality there were probably many fewer Hebrews in the land than the paranoid pharaoh grasped.
He called for a meeting with the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and this is what he ordered them to do as the all-powerful, not to be questioned ruler of the land in which they lived and had lived for some time. “Remember that you are now my slaves, and keep in mind what happens to slaves who are disobedient to their masters. There are two new, but very simple policies about birth practice for Hebrew babies whom you deliver. When a Hebrew woman is on the birthstool, the second you see that the baby she is birthing is male, kill him. If the baby is a girl, you must let her live.”
The midwives certainly feared the pharaoh, one of the most powerful persons in the whole world, but they also feared their God when the divine standards were not upheld. They knew instantly that there was no way they were going to kill any Hebrew children or any Egyptian babies either if they should ever be called on to assist in the big houses and the palace.
As the months passed the pharaoh noticed what he thought were more and more cute little Hebrew boys running around, and he called Shiphrah and Puah to ask, “What’s going on here? There should be fewer and fewer little Hebrew boys around, not more and more.”
They lied to the Pharaoh because it was the right thing to do. Do you see that? They might well have sacrificed their lives, but they weren’t going to have a hand in the pharaoh’s inevitable response–to call for a mass murder of all the little Hebrew boys. So, they lied, and they told the pharao, that they had tried time and again to grab those slippery Hebrew infants as they exited the birth canal, but just as they got focused on that here would come another Hebrew woman in for help with her delivery. Add to that, some of the Hebrew women were so strong that they’d just stop in the fields for a few minutes, deliver their own babies, and get right back to work, the way good slaves did.
Disappointed with their explanation, but unable to refute it, the pharaoh made his plan the law of the land. Every Egyptian and every Hebrew dwelling on Egyptian soil were required to throw any little Hebrew boy or infant into the Nile to drown. The little girls were not to be harmed in any way.
The lie told to this pharaoh kept the faith of Shiphrah and Puah in tact and protected the lives of innocent children as well. These midwives, perhaps the only two even named in Hebrew or Christian scripture, go down in the faith hall of fame for doing the right thing even though their lives were on the line no matter what they’d decided to do.
There are any number of pressing issues in our world that need a champion or a team of champions. Who will speak out and up on behalf of so many struggling and helpless individuals and groups? I don’t like this quote from Dr. King because it disturbs me so profoundly, but I’ll say it to you in this context; and we can all be disturbed together: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” In the same vein, Holocaust survivor and brilliant writer, Elie Wiesel, said: “Neutrality only helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
I’ll tell you something else I don’t like because it’s too true and requires way too much of me. Joseph Fletcher was an Episcopal priest and theologian who founded the theory of situational ethics. As you heard in one of our earlier readings, Fletcher believed there was absolutely no list of ethical rules or norms that applied in all places and times, something Enlightenment thinkers, and many others since them, longed for. Professor Fletcher said that there was one and only one ethical norm that applied to every situation one would face in life, everywhere and one hundred percent of the time: the rule of agape love. The Greek language, both its classical form and its more common or koine form, had a few words for love since not all love is the same kind of love. Agape love, though, which humans were charged to emulate as did Jesus of Nazareth was God’s kind of love, selfless and unconditional love that would always take whatever action was possible on behalf of anyone in need. It’s not an emotional word or concept at all; we can and we must act in love, taking risks and making sacrifices for the well-being of others, even those we don’t like.
See why I don’t like the idea? Yet, you and I are sent into the world with a mandate always to do what we know to be right founded on nothing less than agape love.