Moral outrage is the antithesis of morality. Yet it’s everywhere present in our world today and is everywhere rationalised on the basis of God and truth.
We live in a world awash in moral outrage. Everywhere individuals and groups are indignant and morally outraged, sometimes violently so, by opposing other individuals, groups, ideologies, moral positions, ecclesiologies, interpretations of religion, interpretations of Scripture, and the like. We see this everywhere: television networks outraged at the news coverage of other networks, Church groups bitterly demonising each other, pro-life and pro-choice groups angrily shouting at each other, and politics at its highest levels paralysed as different sides feel so morally indignant that they are unwilling to contemplate any accommodation whatsoever with their opponents.
And always, on both sides, there’s the righteous appeal to morality and divine authority (however explicit or implicit) in a way that, in essence, says: “I have a right to demonise you and to shut my ears to anything you have to say because you’re wrong and immoral and I, in the name of God and truth, am standing up to you. Moreover, your immorality gives me the legitimate right to bracket the essentials of human respect and treat you as a pariah to be eliminated – in the name of God and truth.”
And this kind of attitude doesn’t just make for the angry divisions, bitter polarisations and the deep distrust we live with today within our society; it’s also what produces terrorists, mass shootings, and the ugliest bigotry and racism. It produced Hitler – someone who was able to capitalise so powerfully on moral outrage that he was able to sway millions of people to turn against what was best inside themselves.
But however much it tries to justify itself on some lofty basis – religion, morality, patriotism, historical hurt or personal injustice – moral outrage remains the opposite of genuine morality and religious practice. Why? Because morality and religious practice, properly understood, are characterised by the opposite of what’s seen in moral outrage. Genuine morality and genuine religious practice are marked by empathy, understanding, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, respect, charity and graciousness – all of which are glaringly absent in virtually every expression of moral outrage we see today.
In trying to draw us into a genuine morality and religiosity, Jesus says this: “Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20). What was the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees? On the surface, theirs was a very high virtue. To be a good scribe or Pharisee meant keeping the Ten Commandments, being faithful to the prescribed religious practices of the time, and being a man or woman who was always just and fair in your dealings with others.
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