Theology in the Trenches

Does the ends justify the means?
Kathleen Kjolhaug
Friday, April 12, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Perhaps the answer to this question about the ends justifying the means could be discussed on many a level. For example, take the case of not telling the truth. One knows that lying is not a good thing to cover up guilt, but when one is protecting another, is it okay then? Let’s just say if the Nazis showed up on your doorstep looking for Jews that you’d hidden, would it be okay to lie then? I would suggest that the majority would agree that in this case, it would be acceptable.

Although most of us have not been in positions this extreme, it could be said that we could all come up with something like it to compare. For example, I remember well being questioned by a sibling about another when I looked right into the questioner’s eyes and lied. Of course with my fingers crossed behind my back they supposedly served to uncrossed the words which came out of my mouth. Eventually I would come clean as the confessional was merely a block away from boundaries of our front yard.

Truth is, somewhere in life, I’d learned that the end result of my lie really was much more important than the means I’d chosen to save my hide at the moment. Thus, confession cleared up my conscience and readied my soul. After all, one just never knew when that “Jesus go to meeting” would take place, and I wanted to be ready at all times. At some point in my life others had spoken into it in order that I might desire to not only please Him, but to make straight my paths.

Recently, I came across a passage written long ago that puts it yet another way. “Every age and level of understanding should receive appropriate treatment. Therefore, as often as boys and the young, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of ex-communication, are guilty of misdeeds, they should be subjected to severe fasts or checked with sharp strokes so that they may be healed” (Benedict).

As this was written back in the year 500 A.D., I thought I’d get a modern day interpretation to help explain the rationale behind his words. Esther de Waal explains it. “In the context of the world in which he was writing, the severe disciplining of the young would have been considered appropriate. It is for the healing and the growth into freedom that this is applied, his concern here, as ever, is with the ends rather than the means. It is because of those ends, healing and growth, freedom, new life, those positive and life-giving qualities, that I have learned so much from this section.”

Would I agree with sharp strokes and severe fasts for today as a form of discipline? Not in a million years. We’ve come far in understanding what is appropriate and what is not for children. Benedict, who wrote this, used these kinds of punishments sparingly. If you read closely, rather than ex-communicating and banishing those who needed discipline, this type of choice appears to be full of grace and mercy rather than turning the wrong doers over to a world where the danger these young men faced (if not disciplined) was far greater. The last thing Benedict desired was for them to come to more permanent loss of their soul altogether.

The importance of looking at the ends rather than the short term gratification of the means was ever present and preparation for that took discipline, instruction, patience, grace, and mercy.

How do we offer discipline, instruction, patience, grace and mercy to children in this modern day world where instant gratification can often be an end in and of itself?

I believe Jesus Christ sums it up with the second commandment where he asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do I want to be reigned in when I begin to wander? I do. Do I want to be corrected when off course? I do. Do I want to be able to love others in ways I am loved by Him? I do. Thank God “by His stripes we have been healed” (Is. 53:5). We need not receive harsh strokes nor give them out for that matter according to the prophet Isaiah who walked this earth more than 1000 years before Benedict.

Correcting in love would be the correct way to go … so they, too, will know how to correct in love. In the end may we each hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). What a wonderful means to an end that has no end for those who are in Christ Jesus. Amen.

( Kathleen Kjolhaug is a religion columnist.)