In a fascinating essay in Education Forum, the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Stephen Anderson tells a chilling story of a philosophy class he was teaching on ethics. Wanting an “attention getter” to shock his students into thinking morally, he displayed a photo of Bibi Aisha. She was a young Afghani girl who, aged just 14, was forced into marriage with a Taliban fighter, who proceeded to horribly abuse her. After suffering four years of violence, Aisha fled but was soon captured. Her husband and other family members then hacked off her nose and ears and left her to die in the mountains where she was later rescued by aid workers.
As Anderson told Aisha’s story and displayed the picture of her hauntingly beautiful but marred face, he was hoping his students would display strong moral outrage. But he was shocked to discover that nothing of the kind happened, rather there was a fear of saying anything that might appear critical or judgemental. “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures,” one student stated. Another timorously raised their hand and said: “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” Anderson went on to suggest that we have succeeded in raising a generation of students who have imbibed one key idea: “never judge, never criticize, never take a position”.
His findings are not unusual. A similar phenomenon was recounted by Kay Haugaard, who described how her class of literature students were discussing Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, in which each year the residents of a small, rural town choose one member of their community to stone to death to ensure the well-being of the community and the crops. In 1948 when the story was published, it provoked outrage. But Haugaard found her class responding with sentiments like “if it’s part of a person’s culture, it’s okay”. It was not that her students were unwilling to take a stand on their convictions: rather they had no convictions at all.
The trend seems to be growing. A study by the Barna Group revealed that 64% of American adults and a startling 83% of teens believe that morality is relative, with only 6% of teens willing to say that it is absolute. When asked about how they make moral decisions, 31% of adults and 38% of teens said they do so based on “what feels right for them”. Given that, as Stephen Anderson discovered, criticising another person’s culture or belief makes most teens and young adults feel deeply uncomfortable, we appear to have a problem. As Robert Simon put it, what we have is “absolutophobia”, an unwillingness, if not an outright fear, of committing to any moral position.
More concerning, the Barna study revealed that 16% of teens said they make their moral choices on the basis of “whatever outcome would produce the most personally beneficial results”. At an event in Toronto, I recently met a high school student who waited behind after I had spoken to ask me a question. “I am struggling with a friend of mine,” she explained, “who is a complete moral relativist. No matter how hard I try to encourage her to take a position, nothing works, she insists that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are just personal preferences. Do you have any suggestions?” I thought for a moment before replying: “Next time your friend says something like that, reach across and steal her iPhone. When she protests, reply: ‘You’ve persuaded me that morality is relative. I like your phone, so I thought I’d take it. After all, there’s nothing wrong with stealing phones, is there?’ I wonder if your friend might discover at least one moral absolute quite quickly.” I never heard how the story played out—I hope it may have worked but even if it did, it is hardly encouraging if moral bedrock is only embraced once it personally benefits us.
There was one more disturbing discovery from the Barna study. Many of those surveyed claimed to be Christians, yet of these, only 32% said they believed in moral absolutes. Among the teens who self-identified as Christians, 11% said that they made moral decisions based on what would produce the best outcome for them. One can hear the echoes of Judges 17:6: “Everyone did as he saw fit.” Is it unfair to pick on the Christians in the survey sample like this? No and for this reason: you cannot accuse an atheist of hypocrisy, because they are beholden to nobody and thus their moral relativism is at least consistent. But a Christian? A Christian is one who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one who follows their master even if it hurts. As Jesus himself said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me”.
In front of the main building of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich stands a small, semi-circular courtyard, the Geschwister-Scholl-Platz which is dedicated to the memory of brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl. They were founders of the White Rose resistance group during the Second World War which brought together students and others who were opposed to the evils of Nazi regime. But what was it that animated their activism and caused them to take a stand? It was their faith in Christ.
Neither of the Scholls had been particularly religious during childhood, but at high school that all changed. There they encountered men like Carl Ruth, a Catholic professor who was bold in his denouncement of the Nazi regime, who encouraged them to take a fresh look at Christianity. They began to read the Bible and Christian books and Hans in particular was deeply influenced by the preaching of Bishop Clemens von Galen. On 7 December 1941, Hans wrote to a friend: “I’m thinking of you this second Sunday of Advent, which I’m experiencing as a wholehearted Christian for the first time in my life.” Around the same time, Sophie was recording her journey to faith in her diary. Her older sister, Inge, said of them both: “The Christian Gospel became the criterion of their thoughts and actions.”
As they began to work out the implications of their faith, they became increasingly convinced that they needed to take a stand against the Third Reich. With the help of one of their university professors, Kurt Huber, the White Rose group was formed and they began distributing leaflets explaining the evils of Nazism. Their materials caused a storm and the Gestapo began actively hunting for the publishers. On 18 February 1943, Hans and Sophie brought a suitcase full of pamphlets to the university, leaving piles of them in corridors for students to find when lectures finished. They had a few pamphlets left and deciding it would be a shame to waste them, they climbed the stairs to the top of the atrium and flung them into the courtyard. Unfortunately they were spotted, the authorities called and the group were rounded up and arrested by the Gestapo. Four days later they were tried before the Volksgericht (“The People’s Court”), found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by guillotine.
Asked at their trial why they had carried out their actions, Sophie replied simply: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start”, whilst Kurt Huber gave a lengthier statement:
You have stripped from me the rank and privileges of the professorship and the doctoral degree summa cum laude which I earned, and you have set me at the level of the lowest criminal. The inner dignity of the university teacher, of the frank, courageous protestor of his philosophical and political views—no trial for treason can rob me of that. My actions and my intentions will be justified in the inevitable course of history; such is my firm faith. I hope to God that the inner strength that will vindicate my deeds will in good time spring forth from my own people. I have done as I had to on the prompting of an inner voice. I take consequences upon myself in the way expressed in the beautiful words of Johann Gottlieb Fichte:
“And thou shall act as if
On thee and on thy deed
Depended the fate of all Germany
And thou alone must answer for it.”
A few years ago, a colleague of mine was travelling in Pakistan. During the trip he met a Pakistani Christian pastor who had been arrested many times and horribly tortured for his faith. He rolled up his sleeves and showed my colleague the scars that he carried. As they talked, the pastor asked, through an interpreter: “What it is like for Christians in the West?” My colleague, slightly embarrassed, replied: “The greatest fear most Christians in the West have is embarrassment. They are afraid of looking foolish, so most do not talk about Jesus.” The pastor replied with tears in his eyes, through the interpreter: “Such a church is dying.” Then the interpreter paused and apologized: “I am sorry,” he said, “I interpreted that badly. What the pastor actually said was: ‘Such a church is already dead.’”
How different might our culture look if Christians were prepared to live out our lives as followers of Jesus Christ as if we really meant it? If we daily demonstrated our willingness to take a stand for Christ no matter what consequences might follow? Unlike Hans and Sophie Scholl, Kurt Huber, or that Pakistani pastor, we are not yet, at least in the West, likely to face imprisonment, torture or death. But what about being willing to sacrifice our reputation, our popularity, our chance of promotion, our easy, comfortable middle class existence? Or are we, if we are entirely honest with ourselves, more tempted to choose the path of personal benefit?
The only answer to moral relativism will only come not from better education strategies which, at the end of his essay, Moments of Startling Clarity, is all that Stephen Anderson had to offer. Rather cultural transformation must begin with personal transformation and that will only happen when people really see what the gospel looks like when it is lived out. What our country, our culture, our world needs are Christians who are willing to display the character of their convictions, no matter what the cost.
 Stephen L. Anderson, ‘Moments of Startling Clarity: Moral Education Programming in Ontario Today’. Education Forum Magazine, Fall 2011.
 The account is reported in James Emery White, A Mind for God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006) 76-77.
 ‘Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings’, The Barna Group.
 Robert L. Simon, “The Paralysis of ‘Absolutophobia,’” The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 27, 1997
 Luke 9:23.
 Inge Scholl, The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943 translated by Dorothy Sölle (Hanover, NH: University Press) 101-102.
 Cited in Richard Terrell, Christ, Faith and the Holocaust (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press , 2011) 100.
 Cited in Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief & Behavior During the University Years (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996) 170.