Ducking into a confessional booth with a turkey in his arms, a man said to the priest, “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I stole this turkey. Would you take it and assuage my guilt?” “Absolutely not!,” replied the priest. “Please, father,” the man persisted, “I want to give this turkey to you.” “No,” the priest answered even more emphatically than before. “As penance, you must give the turkey back to the person from whom you stole it.” “I tried,” the man responded, “but he won’t take it.” “If that is the case,” the priest answered, “then it is all right for you to keep it and enjoy eating it.” Thanking the priest, the man hurried off. When confession was over, the priest walked back to his residence where he discovered that someone had stolen his Thanksgiving turkey.
Silly story... and only a joke... but it makes a point. The point is that we can attempt to cut corners and try to justify our behavior. We can even convince ourselves that the behavior is not that far off the mark, or that it is really somebody else’s fault. But at the end of the day, if we have to struggle or become creative to justify things we have said or done, then in all likelihood they are unjustifiable.
A man I know said he never feels guilty about passing along gossip or stating judgments about someone else so long as he swears the person with whom he talks to secrecy. My guess is that whoever shared the info with him swore him to secrecy, too. And the one with whom he shares it will pass it along, swearing someone else to secrecy. You get the point. It’s difficult to make something good out of that which is not.
Recently at an event, I heard a presenter say, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but...,” and then she went on to make a statement that was met with resounding push-back from individuals in the audience. A friend of mine who was also in attendance said, “If you begin a statement with, `I probably shouldn’t say this,’ then you’re probably right!”
That’s what conscience is, you know? It’s an inner voice reminding us of the difference between right and wrong... or even between right and that which doesn’t quite feel right. As such, conscience is a pretty good internal barometer. Ancient biblical writers believed that the voice of conscience is often the voice of Spirit, God’s way of pumping the brakes for us before we do or say something that could have unfortunate consequences.
I used to tell my children, “You never have to worry about undoing what you didn’t do in the first place.” Though not as eloquent as words which we read in scripture, that advice was still biblical. Isn’t that what “Love your neighbor as yourself” is getting at? Isn’t that what “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” means? Isn’t that what “Let you `yes’ be `yes’ and your `no’ be `no’” suggests? Isn’t that what “If you say you love God but are unkind to your neighbor, you lie,” implies? Faith is more than intellectual. It is also behavioral. As my grandmother used to say, “There is no wall between believing and behaving.”
I think that advice is applicable to all of us in our personal relationships, in our professional endeavors, in our politics, in our passions, in our priorities. If we have to work at justifying our words or deeds, or if we have to be creative in rationalizing them, then maybe they can’t be justified. At some point, it just makes more sense ethically not to steal the turkey to begin with.