The #MeToo movement brought needed light to the darkness of sexual abuse and assault, and underscored a dark principle of human nature: people will often try to get away with whatever they think they can. The public unveiling of sexual selfishness and other evils that typically accompany this brand of egocentrism invites all of us to consider what is good, and why we should do it.
Plato tells a parable of a man who discovers a ring that makes its wearer invisible. With this newfound power, the man kills the king and takes the queen for himself. The ring represents the ability to do whatsoever a person would like to do without accountability (visibility). The point of the parable is that a person will do whatever is in his or her self-interest if there is no accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien later borrowed the ring of invisibility metaphor, offering an alternative interpretation. The power of no accountability (invisibility) was supremely corrupting, but there was a source of goodness that would lead some to destroy the temptation to do wrong when no one was watching, and so [spoiler alert] the one ring to rule them all was destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom. But what is that source of goodness?
Many who have argued for a universe without God have articulated an atheism in which an ethic is present despite the non-existence of God. Usually ethics are derived from some type of collectivism, making the individual accountable to the sentiment or will of the many. Others (like Ayn Rand) argue that good and right are merely those things which benefit the individual, and consequently the individual is not ultimately accountable to the collective.
Bentham’s version of ethics (utilitarianism, or consequentialism) relies on pain as a sanction against wrongdoing. In the case of #MeToo, public embarrassment and the potential for legal sanctions have seemingly been sufficient to at least slow the momentum of expressed sexual selfishness. Some might argue that Bentham’s model is working fine, that reform is happening, and that his brand of collectivism provides all the answers we need. But Plato’s Ring of Gyges principle is still evident: people will do whatever they think they can get away with.
Bentham’s model may be enough to motivate change in external behavior in this instance, but Jesus explained that goodness is not simply about external law keeping. Recall that Jesus’ listeners thought that they could be whole simply by external obedience to law. He challenges them to change their mind about that (Matthew 4:17), and illustrates by saying even if they hadn’t actually committed murder, but had simply been angry with their brother then they were guilty (5:21-22). Likewise, even if people hadn’t committed adultery, if they had looked with lust, then they had committed adultery in their heart and were equally guilty (5:27-28). Jesus taught that ethics was not simply behavioristic, but was rooted in the inner person. He also taught that all were guilty – for who could pass an examination of the heart and mind in comparison to the standard of God’s rightness? As Jeremiah 17:9 put it, the heart is more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick.
While #MeToo has brought attention to an issue that certainly demands our focus, Jesus challenges people to go further than just a behavioral critique. It is not just our behavior that needs to change. Our hearts need a transformation – the kind only provided by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Like the Psalmist once said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” If we expect ethical behavior but deny the Source of ethics, then we have a problem. Paul described it as “holding to a form of goodness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). Those who hold to goodness but deny its true power have a love of self that drives them to all kind of wrong thinking, wrong attitudes, and wrong doing (3:2-5). Thankfully, Jesus didn’t leave His listeners (or us) where He found them – stuck in brokenness and wrongness. Instead, He offered them forgiveness and grace so that they could have true life and not be in deadness even while they lived (Ephesians 2:1-10).
#MeToo is a reminder that not all things that appear fine are fine. We may be able to fool others, and we may even be able to fool ourselves, but we are all accountable to a Creator who knows our every deed and thought. I thank God that He loves us anyway and extends us grace in Christ. This is where ethics derives its true power, and this is what makes loving one another possible.