There is a story about Vince Lombardi – the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach who led the team to several Super Bowl victories – that has become part of football lore.
It is said that, after having won the championship the previous season, he opened the next year’s training camp with what surely seemed a simple, and unnecessary, declaration. As he stood before his players he held up a pigskin and declared, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
The moral of the story is simple. No matter how successful you become, you never outgrow the need to master the fundamentals. For men of the gridiron, success is grounded in being able to recognize a football. For a society, success is grounded in being committed to some ethical fundamentals.
When it comes to ethical living, neither the concept, nor the fundamentals, are products of our age. Thousands of years ago the author of the Bible’s Psalm 15 did the ethical equivalent of holding up a football when he declared some basics every society must honor by putting them at the center of its personal and civic behavior.
In introducing the life of an upright person, the author of Psalm 15 laid out three foundational ethical commands: Walk blamelessly, do what is right, and tell yourself the truth.
To walk “blamelessly” is simply to refrain from doing the wrong things. The first commitment of an ethically moral life is a commitment not to do what you know is wrong.
This demands you put a higher value on doing right rather than doing wrong, even if doing wrong appears to offer some benefit.
Am I the only one who thinks too many of our leaders today, in all fields, act as though doing the wrong things is okay? And have you noticed that, even when their behavior is exposed as being wrong, they find a way to rationalize it into being not only right but laudable?
The second basic ethical principle speaks to the other side of the coin. Instead of doing what is wrong, do what is right. Do what is righteous, correct, honorable, and morally and ethically good.
It just seems so simple to me, kind of like Lombardi’s football. Gentlemen, this is wrong, and this is right. Telling the truth is right. Lying is wrong. Taking a bribe is wrong. Exposing wrongdoing is right.
The last of the three ethical basics in Psalm 15 provides an essential piece of the puzzle. The original Hebrew translates it as “he who speaks truth in heart.” Here we come to understand a basic truth: You won’t speak truth to others if you don’t speak it first to your own heart.
And that also rules out any rationalization of wrong-thinking and wrongdoing. Speaking truth in your heart means refusing to tell yourself the lies you must believe to act wrongly.
It is not overstating the case to say every wrong deed begins with a lie we tell ourselves. We turn wrong into right, or at least consider it acceptable, by first convincing ourselves that some benefit of wrongdoing overrules the fact that it is, quite plainly, wrong.
Somewhere along the line we seem to have lost our belief that wrong and right do exist, that wrong is wrong and right is right, and that we can’t rationalize wrong into right regardless of how many lies we tell ourselves. Too bad Vince Lombardi is no longer living. We sure could use a strong leader to remind us of the ethical basics we all need to be successful as people, friends, neighbors, and citizens.
David W. Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” publishes Saturdays in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal.