By David Hegg
Years ago I suffered a through a bout of vertigo as a result of an inner ear dysfunction. Fortunately, my symptoms were moderate and of short duration. Yet, for a few days I suffered greatly from a lack of balance. Each time I stood the room seemed to take on a definite slant. I felt myself being pulled to one side as my mind tried to make things right. After veering and stumbling, and finally falling several times it became apparent my best choice was to remain prone until the medicine took hold. I needed to regain my balance. I had lost my equilibrium and nothing would be right until it was once again operational.
From time to time in our society we see individuals and groups acting out of balance. It shows up as a senseless act of gun violence, vandalism, riots, looting, venomous verbal tirades and myriad other examples. When these scenes play out on our television screens what we’re seeing is a loss of that moral equilibrium known as self-control.
The classical virtue of self-control is the foundation of moral equilibrium. Aristotle had it right in book seven of his monumental work The Nicomachean Ethics. He described self-control as the ability, arising from within, to resist all temptation to do wrong after concluding, through logical analysis, what was right.
Later, the Christian theologian, Paul of Tarsus, expanded on this thought by insisting self-control was actually the fruit of a deeper set of convictions concerning right and wrong. Where such convictions are missing, or inconsistent, the result will most often be a lack of moral equilibrium. In simple language, those without a rational, reasonable moral center will have little defense against the temptations to evil so prevalent in our world.
But today self-control is becoming more and more challenging to develop for two reasons. First, there is a cosmic shift going on concerning the validity of those moral convictions historically agreed upon by members of every society. For example, respect for authority has been a bedrock conviction throughout time, beginning in the family where children are to honor their parents as those in charge. From its genesis in the family, respect for authority flows out into the school, the market place, and society in general as we recognize order and authority go together, and must be respected if there is to be progress rather than pandemonium. But respect for authority is no longer a given. This foundational element of society is being ridiculed, and we’re paying the price.
Secondly, and perhaps more sinister, the virtue of self-control, based on an inner set of carefully reasoned convictions, is now being described as the enemy of self-expression and the dangerous tool of those attempting to silence individual rights. We know freedom of speech is something we all must defend. But the freedom of criminality, clothed in the destruction of life and property, must never be allowed.
Unfortunately, these two challenges to self-control feed on one another. Where core convictions that promote self-control are absent, self-expression can take on a destructive manner. But far worse, for those who see self-control as a harsh restraint on personal expression, the greatest examples of self-expression will be those most over the top, most outrageous, and most destructive.
As a society, we’ve grown used to the outrageous fashions, lyrics, opinions, and antics of the entertainment elite. They began playing outside the lines long ago and we just smile and shake our heads. But now we’re seeing many follow their lead in more unhealthy ways. In the past few years, and most recently in the riots following the presidential election, we have seen “outside the lines” violence on our streets by those who are intentionally throwing off all self-control for the purpose of self-expression.
The acts are troubling enough, but more so is the apparent absence of any set of moral convictions that would restrain those involved from destroying property, and pubic peace. Are there challenges that need to be addressed in our country? Absolutely! But without a shared basis of moral convictions, our union will continue to fracture into smaller divisive groups.
Civil disobedience has a long and storied history in our country, and the right to protest and seek redress of grievances is foundational in our democracy. But when civil disobedience is no longer civil, and when respect for authority and love for neighbor are jettisoned in support of a cause, that cause no longer deserves serious consideration.
Where rational core convictions do not support a robust expression of self-control, both individuals and society are at great risk of devolving into a chaotic mess. As Americans we have a duty to look first to ourselves. Ethics begins at home, and in the heart. Let’s get to work. We simply can’t afford to lose our equilibrium.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.