Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. (Matthew 1:19, CEB)
Over the last several weeks, my reflections about conscience have intensified a great deal. In some ways, my research on how freshmen regulate their faith commitment has touched the borders of research on ignoring one’s conscience, moral-decision making processes, and unexpected outcomes of agency that deviates from norms. So, I’ve had some skin in the game that has become, following through on the metaphors here, become a little sun burnt from recent events.
So, I’m wondering what it will take for us—let me be clear: If you have a conscience, you know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. There are some slight cultural variations on this matter of conscience, but there is a remarkable mass of overlap in the world that deserves acknowledgement. (And to the followers of Jesus coming from all Christian traditions, we need trust that… well, that Jesus has our back when we trust Him through our conscience.) And, some of you also know: I really dislike binaries (good/bad, etc.): So, this intensification of reflection on conscience has gone deep.
I realize that some egregious sins have been committed when people claim to follow their conscience; I will cite a few of those in a moment. But, I am thinking of those venial type that claim to justify adultery, lying, and others. While I’m not a fan of the argument for the distinction between mortal and venial sins, I also realize that people do weird acts, without regard for consequences, and they later justify the outcomes trusting that such acts will not deprive them of grace. Obviously: this rendering exposes a flawed narrative: that the freedom God offers in Christ endorses all kinds of disobedience. Theologians better than I have addressed this from a variety of theological traditions, but the outcome is the same: You’re in deep if you ignore your conscience, take up a immoral act, and presume all will be well on the other side with God, because of… you know… “grace.”
So: here’s an incomplete list of recent incidents of people ignoring their conscience:
• DA in Ferguson not sending Grand Jury recommendations to trial on the police assassination of Michael Brown.
• Democratic and other voters failing to show up and vote against Donald Trump.
• Republican and other voters both confirming in Clinton and failing to reject in Trump the “cupidity and mendacity” of the candidates, which, in the case of Trump, is so generative of his racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
• GOP Presidential Candidates groveling their way back into Washington at Trump’s golf course.
• A single juror rejects a guilty verdict for the police officer who assassinated Walter Scott.
I will attend to the last item on the above list. I wonder, like many of you, how on God’s green earth, can someone fail to cast the vote for a guilty verdict on a police officer that: (1) claimed self-defense after (2) firing several shots into the back of a black man who ran away from the officer, and who followed that by (3) dropping a taser near the dying black man with a further claim that it failed to subdue the black man, and (4) all of this was captured on cell-phone video. How could someone fail to cast the vote for a guilty verdict on a police officer with that kind of evidence?
By ignoring your conscience. Or: is it?
Indeed, I have an alternative proposal: that the lone juror did indeed attend to his conscience. I will assume that the juror did the social calculus on participating on a jury that casts a unanimous decision for a guilty verdict on a police office in South Carolina. The result of that math was: My family, my friends, my co-workers know I am on this jury (or they will find out) and they will know that I voted in a way that denies white people the power they have been trying to claw back since before the Civil War. They will know I voted against a police officer. They will know that I voted to imprison and punish a white man.
This juror paid attention to his conscience: “In a letter to Judge Newman on Friday, a single juror said he could not ‘in good conscience consider a guilty verdict.’” Correct.
I suspect that this lone juror did the math: and checked the result to make sure that the solution was correct for his social orbit. This juror paid attention to his conscience: and placed his own sense of comfort and security above weightier matters of justice. He would then be dismissed from the panel, along with the other 11 former strangers, and he could simply refuse to answer anymore questions for the rest of his life… quietly.