The Second Proposition: “The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else." (Joseph Fletcher)
Love Replaces Law
Jesus was once asked which of the commandments was the most important. His response surprised the people gathered around him:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
There are 613 commandments in the Torah (aka Pentateuch = First five books of the Old Testament in the Bible). The most well-known set of commandments in the Torah are the Decalogue; more commonly known as “The Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20:1- 17). As a Christian Situationist, Fletcher has to address the matter of these extensive religious and moral laws. Taken literally the question begs: Do we serve the interests of love by living according each of these commandments, or do we serve the interests of love when we put them to one side? Fletcher’s argument favours the latter response because there were times when both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were prepared to put aside the law, in order to serve the greater interests of love (see Mark 2:27-28 and 1 Corinthians 10: 23-26).
Tablets of Stone
"There can be, and often is, a conflict between love and law." (Joseph Fletcher)
If love is not served by a literal following of the Ten Commandments, then how is the Situationist to respond to their demands? Fletcher offers the following ‘revisions’:
- “You shall have no other gods before me” - More of a tautology than a command. If you worship Yahweh then you will (naturally) not have faith in any other gods. A fact of faith, rather than a prohibition.
- You shall not make for yourself an image…” - Is this to be taken literally? What about the icons used in Catholic and Eastern Christianity and the many varieties of religious art which have inspired, enhanced worship and drawn devotees closer to the Divine? Are these ALL wrong?
- “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord” - Are we to take no oaths? What about when priests and married couples make promises in God’s name? Maybe this command is more to do with prohibiting the use of God’s name for magical purposes or for false oaths (unless love’s interests are better served by doing so).
- “Remember the Sabbath” - Is the “Sabbath” here referring to Saturday (Judaism) or Sunday (Christianity)? Is it even possible for this law to be kept? Are nurses, surgeons, doctors, and even the police to stop working too?
"The last six of the commandments… are more “ethical” in the ordinary non-theological sense of the word [and all] but the fifth (Honour your father and mother) are universal negatives. But situation ethics has good reason to hold it as a duty in some situations to break them, any or all of them." (Joseph Fletcher [brackets mine])
Even the prohibition “Do not kill” is regularly compromised by Christians when they eat meat, argue in favour of self-defence, support Just War, advocate capital punishment and support mercy-killings (Euthanasia). We should note that even after this prohibition was given Jews continued to offer blood sacrifices in the Temple, and even Christians argue that the death of Christ was something demanded by God as a means to forgive sin (“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” - Romans 3:25). If we are commanded not to kill, how do we explain these things?
So it seems that due to the problems and inconsistencies in trying to literally keep the all of the commandments, Fletcher advocates we accept only one Law, this being the law of love:
"There is nothing outside a situation which by going into it can prejudge it." (Joseph Fletcher)
Neither Nature Nor Scripture
"Legalism is legalism whether it rests upon nature or upon Scripture. Both kinds are quicksand." (Joseph Fletcher)
Christian ethics has historically been grounded in either Scripture or natural law. In terms of the latter, the idea here is that through a careful study of nature we can deduce a Divinely established order of things, and from this understand how we should act.*
Fletcher argues that whilst we may deduce a natural order of things from nature, this is not to say we can know how to act on the basis of this**. To suggest otherwise is to commit the Naturalist Fallacy (Is-Ought). If anything nature reveals quite opposite from that of moral certainties, for when we consider the history of humanity throughout the ages we see that there have been no universal laws held by all persons, all the time. Instead we find certain platitudes have been held, such as “Do good to all”, but no specific agreement on what “The Good” is, or how we should specifically act. Even Scripture invites a variety of responses and interpretations to the different commandments in it, and as such this undermines the notion that we should take them literally and treat them as universals to live by.
*The classic example of Christian ethics and natural law is the Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion. Without the use of any contraception, sexual intercourse can lead to pregnancy. Thus, the argument goes, God’s natural order of things is that sexual intercourse is primarily intended for procreation, and as such anything which hinders this (or prevents it from ending in the birth of a baby) is contrary to the Will of God and morally wrong.
**Fletcher cites the example of a Federal Judge in the US, who used natural law to argue in favour of racial segregation on a golf course. He suggested that segregation was justified, because in nature we observe that no birds of a different kind will rest together on the same branch of a tree.