Virtue Signaling: Law without Grace

About 3 weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a lecture at Oklahoma Christian University – my Alma Mater. For the past 5 or 6 years in the month of February, OC has brought in leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to come and speak to the university about their experiences This year, they brought in the famous Andrew Young, who was one of Martin Luther King’s confidants and close friends, and who was on the balcony with King when he was assassinated. Young would later go on to become an Ambassador to the UN and mayor of the city of Atlanta.

Andrew Young, who is quite aged now, sat and told us story after story about the Movement, his role in it, and his subsequent roles afterwards. It felt like sitting in my grandparent’s house, hearing them recount the old days.

He opened up the evening with an observation that resounded in my head the entire night, and has been for the past few weeks. Looking to the current political mire in Virginia and the governor around which it is centered (although these days, after 3 weeks it’s probably not considered current), Young observed that the culture at large was being too condemning toward the governor.

Now before I go further, click the link to see the picture causing the controversy. The same Andrew Young who got beat up by the KKK in St. Augustine is the same Andrew Young who says we are being too harsh on the governor.

Let that sink in.

I wonder how many people who are decrying the evil of the Virginian governor have even had dealings with the KKK.

By and large, we as a culture have forgotten (or maybe have never known) what it means to be virtuous. So we have opted for something that passes quite nicely as virtue, namely virtue signaling by condemning before understanding or hearing, and even more so – condemning without extending grace. Our culture is applying law without grace, and it is a crippling our ability to be virtuous. When I cannot say anything wrong or offensive for fear of exile and alienation, I will soon not be saying anything at all.

Now whether or not you’ve heard of virtue signaling, I’m sure you know what it is. Here’s an informal definition: the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. And here’s the sentence associated with the definition: “It’s noticeable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things.”

Look, I’m not saying what the governor did was “not wrong.” It most certainly was wrong, but I’m suggesting that if we hold every public figure to a standard of perfection, there will soon be no one to lead us. For we have all screwed up and fallen short of the cultural moral standard, much more so of God’s standard, and we cannot virtue signal our way to a moral society. Beyond simple virtue signaling, we as a culture (and in many ways, as a church) need to re-find our virtue. It is precisely a virtuous mindset that is required in this particular cultural moment – a moment where judgement and forgiveness, law and grace, are able to exist side by side in tension.

But what exactly is a virtuous mindset – and where does it come from? And how does one begin to bring such virtue into practice? I cannot answer all these questions in this short blog, nor would I be qualified to even if I did have time, but allow me to provide some diagnostic questions that begin to lead one in the way of virtue.

I would argue that finding virtue comes from first answering the questions: Who do I want to be? Who am I going to be? And what is this situation provoking me to become?

If all I ever want to be is right, then I will find myself condemning everything that is wrong. If all I want to be is loving, then I will seek a more nuanced position when I encounter someone or something that does not meet the “standard.” Being virtuous begins with defining a “who” that I want to become. And for the Christian, the good news is that we have access to that standard in the person of Jesus.

I believe that such an understanding of virtue, and one of the most effective ways for discovering my identity come from understanding who I am in light of what God says about me. In the Bible, I see Law and Grace existing side by side. In the Bible, I see an alternative community being built around the idea of who we are becoming as individuals before God, not what we have done 20 years ago. In the Bible, I see complex situations handled by imperfect people, and more often than not, no amount of law giving or law referencing help navigate the issue.

In fact, according to the Bible, we cannot ultimately navigate these problems apart from someone who came to show us the “way,” to be the “way” for us. It is precisely what Jesus did for us on the cross, and his resurrection three days later that frees us to ask the hard questions, to dive into complex situations and to become virtuous in the process. He covered over everything we ever did that was wrong, and everything that we ever will do – even if it involves dressing up in a KKK or blackface outfit.

Because of this truth, that everything I’ve ever done has already been covered and forgiven, I am now free to explore this great, wide and wonderful world without fear, because I am going into it with the mind of Christ.

Because of this truth, I don’t have to virtue signal my way into good-standing.

Because of this truth, I can freely find who I was meant to be and simultaneously live a life where it’s not about me.

The featured image is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s, Justice from The World of Seven Virtues. As one might expect, Justice stands in the center, blind with sword in hand, as scenes of justice are enacted all around her. There is a Latin inscription at the bottom of the etching that says, “The aim of law is either to correct him who is punished, or to improve others by his punishment.”

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