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The morality supermarket

By Roderick Hewitt, Contributor

THE EVOLVING social landscape of Jamaica increasingly allows each individual to pick and choose his or her idea of wrong and right. Morality has become a commodity that is for sale. It is marketed like a supermarket product and advertised according to the taste of the clientele that is targeted. An increasing number of Jamaicans are embracing the new type of morality where they can advocate for rights but not necessarily the responsibilities that accompany such rights. Such persons want to make up their own minds about what going on in Jamaica and the world around them but not necessarily to do anything about it.

People are no longer willing to trust institutions like church and school to determine their moral values and attitudes. Out go the rules that were linked with a vision of how society should be ordered. In come the new rules that are 'not shackled by the old order'. The question that we must all answer is how can our nation survive if every individual must choose his or her own loyalties? What are the consequences for this moral option?

Because morality has been reduced to an economic product it is now regarded as an opinion and not a matter of fact! In our ever-increasing post-modern society, our opinion shapers in politics, economics and the media offer us situational and selective morals. Our emerging moral order, therefore, has no agreed centre. The authority for morality, if it exists, is now the individual. Out goes loyalty to country and local community. Where community loyalty exists, it is called garrison, a military camp where a 'new élite' use drugs, guns and corrupt politicians to maintain order through force and fear.

About 50 years ago, theologian Elton Trueblood claimed that his American society was becoming a "cut-flower civilisation." He pointed out that "as beautiful as cut flowers may be, they die because they are severed from their sustaining roots." The young man at the corner of Kings House and Hope Road who sells cut flowers to passing motorists seems to be doing good business as he offers a charming smile before convincing the drivers that it is worth investing in his beautiful cut flowers. The flowers are beautiful but in the final analysis they have a very limited shelf life. After a few days, they fade because they have been removed from the source that gives them life.

It could be argued that what we are offering to young people today are cut-flower morals. We are offering morals that give them individual freedom unaccompanied with communal responsibilities.

Moral crisis

This crisis in our moral order has a religious dimension that is linked to the cultural heritage of missionary Christianity in Jamaica. It perpetrated an understanding and practice of salvation that focused on body-related morals and acceptance of one's fate. The dominant message that was preached asked for changed persons without sufficient emphasis being placed on changed circumstances in which persons live. There was an overriding bias in preaching with the need for 'personal salvation' at the expense of not giving sufficient attention to the issues that concern the well being of the 'whole person and community'. The result was that a theology developed that reinforced a low self-esteem of people and led them to view their development as gifts from others.

Deep in the psyche of Jamaicans is this uncritically accepted estimate of our human nature as "people are born bad." Even though we speak a lot about the mercy and grace of God, somehow it is not deemed to be 100 per cent applicable to the Jamaican moral order because we have been falsely led to look down on our culture and ourselves.

If we continue to tell ourselves that we are fundamentally morally bad, as if we are genetically designed to be the way we are, then we are to be pitied as a people. If we are to develop as a society that operates reasonably well, then it necessitates a moral reconstruction in which we take risks in assuming the best about our people - not the worst. Only so will we cultivate an environment of tolerance and acceptance.

The fundamental change that is taking place in our culture has far-reaching consequences for the church's ministry and mission. At the core of Christian ethics is an understanding that God, not man, establishes correct moral rules. The Judaeo-Christian heritage has bequeathed us with the "Ten Commandments". They are not primarily human constructs, but facts that God has revealed about himself and his order for the world.

There was an assumption in the past that the Judaeo-Christian vision of moral order as outlined in the Ten Commandments underpinned the identity of our nation. The Commandments represented much of what we stood for as a people. They symbolised our reliance on a source of moral authority higher than ourselves. It now appears that we have thrown out this code as that which guides the moral order and have replaced it with anything goes secularism.

Our children are now offered "cut-flower morals" with no understanding of the roots from which they came. We should not be surprised with the confusing signals that they are receiving. We tell them to love rules when others must obey them and hate them when they are required to obey them. Only by reconnecting our children with the moral capacity of making the right choices in life will we be able to halt the growing lawlessness in our society.

The Rev. Roderick R. Hewitt is Minister of the Hope United Church.

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