Friday, October 16, 2009

A Kingdom of Conscience

"I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."
- Martin Luther on trial

I teach Church History at Veritas Academy in Phenix City. I let the class watch a movie this week called "Kingdom of Heaven," starring Orlando Bloom. The movie is about the conflict between Christians and Muslims between the 2nd and 3rd Crusade.

The main character, Balian (fictionally based on a historical figure), begins a reluctant hero, but soon becomes the defender of Jerusalem against the beseigeing Muslim army. Balian's arch-rival, however, is not Saladin, leader of the Muslim forces. Rather, it is Guy de Lusignan, the leader of the Knights Templar, who is determined to start another holy war against the Muslims. Guy is married to the princess of Jerusalem and is biding his time until her leprous brother, the king, departs to leave the position vacant.

(Spoiler alert)

At a key point in the movie, Balian is in a position to have Guy and his cohorts put to death. Bailan would then marry the princess and become the next king. Not only would this prevent Balian's own death, but also the impending holy war in which Jerusalem is sure to fall to Saladin. It is but "a little evil to accomplish a greater good." Taking his knightly oath to heart, Balian refuses to take part in such a scheme. When prodded to reconsider, he nobly speaks of the kingdom of heaven, "It is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing."

The movie raises a good question. Is it ever right to do wrong for the greater good? Or do we spoil the "greater good" when it is acheived by the wrong means? As I watched the film, I wanted Balian to kill his enemies. It would have spared the pain and destruction of thousands of Christians and Muslims alike. But I was wrong. That would have been the easy way out. Balian's way was unquestionably and incomparably more arduous, but it was pure. And though the battle was indeed lost, by God's grace many people were spared. And so the question for me is this: would I ever be willing to sacrifice my conscience for the "greater good"?

I pray not, though Jerusalem fall around me. When that time comes, may I be able to say with Balian the words that would later come from Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God. Amen."


  1. I have always found this question puzzling. There is one fairly common thought experiment that I have heard several times regarding this question. (Usually when we are studying utilitarianism in class.)

    Basically it asks you to think of a perfect utopian society. Everyone in this society is in perpetual peace and enjoys an incredibly good standard of living. They have everything they need to live a happy, turmoil-free life... but they then tell you that the only way that this civilization stays the way it does is by torturing a small child. (I know that this makes no sense, but that always seems to be acceptable in thought experiments.)

    Is it right to keep torturing the child in order for every other person to live in total happiness? I am inclined to think that most everyone would answer "no" to that question... but then again, it is hard to say what you would do if you were for some reason the ruler of this society and knew just how many lives you held in your hands..

    To bring it into more practical terms, think about the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan... we knew we were going to kill thousands of innocent people, but we thought we would potentially save many more American lives... It seems like when the decision about something like this involves actual lives and difficult times ahead the obvious moral choice doesn't seem quite so obvious anymore..

    But at the same time, it still really is. It basically goes back to the question of how we should think of human life. Is each one priceless? Is each one supposed to be treated as an end themselves? I would say the answer to both of these is always a resounding "yes"! But often times the obvious choice is not the easy one.

    I hope that I will rarely have to make decisions like this. (Though I am sure on a smaller scale I do more often than I think.), and I can only hope that when I do I would have the courage to do what's right rather than what is easy....

    Long comment. Sorry. haha

  2. Collin, thanks for the comment. Things can get fuzzy on this issue. I like Derek Webb's lyric, "We fight for peace, and He [God] fights for us." Now, I'm not a pacifist, but I do wonder if surrendering conscience for the greater good is ultimately a lack of faith in God. We think there is no way out unless we compromise, but in thinking this way, we are leaving God out of the equation.

    Thankfully, most of us are not (and probably will never be) in a situation where our decisions affect the life or death of thousands. This may or may not make our holding to conscience less impacting in scope, but it certainly does not make it less significant.

  3. This concept kind of reminds me about Saul and the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. Saul was told simply to kill all of them. And we know that Saul justified in his mind that it would be better for God to keep the good things and offer them to the Lord as a sacrifice. The Lord was obviously not too happy with this - it's when he rejected Saul as king.
    I relate it because God gives us simple commandments, like- Love one another. We dont need to start asking ourselves, "But, if we don't love this person then it will be loving all of these thousands of people". No, He said love one another. I think we're better off following his commands exactly, we don't know what is really for our good/others good anyways.