Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Exodus 1) transports me to a candlelight ceremony at the Oakley Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, circa 1971. It was neither Holy Week nor Advent nor did it involve any other kind of religious ritual; I and my fellow Boy Scout Troop 22 greenhorns were getting promoted into the rank of Tenderfoot (the first earned rank, and as it would turn out, my last). I loved much about scouting, and I loved the gruff old scoutmaster we had during that formative first year in the program. He instilled in us a great love for hiking and camping, taught us much about environmental stewardship and skills of whittling and first aid. It didn’t hurt that he played a mean guitar and fiddle and could dance jigs and tell great stories around the campfire. But by the time I met all the requirements for my Tenderfoot rank, Troop 22 had a new scoutmaster. The Methodists who hosted the program couldn’t tolerate the old woodsman’s habit of imbibing a bit of bourbon before breaking out the fiddle on our camping trips.
A new King had arisen in Egypt, as the good book says, who did not know Joseph. The new Pharoah of Troop 22 was everything the old one was not. He was harsh, a stickler for rules, protocol, pomp and circumstance and character education. The Tenderfoot induction ceremony involved my reciting the Scout Law, which I had dutifully memorized: A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. Instead of letting me plow through the list of character traits, though, the new scoutmaster had me say one at a time and light a candle, and with each word he gave a veritable sermon on what that virtue meant. As he expounded on the meaning of Trustworthy – to be someone others can readily rely on to be honest and truthful at all times – my mind wandered and I realized that I wasn’t so sure I trusted him. As for being Loyal, I realized that I was harboring some serious loyalty to our old leader. By the time he got around to Reverent, I was remembering how the old leader had seemed to appreciate my budding capacity for irreverence at some of the pompousness present in the program. After the ceremony, I and a few other Tenderfeet who shared these misgivings mounted what amounted to my first attempt at community organizing; we worked to get my home church, Gashes Creek Baptist, to start a competing troop and employ the favored but de-throned Pharaoh as our leader. It didn’t fly; the church wasn’t ready to start an ecumenical war in the community, with battle lines drawn over personnel matters in Scouting. Even in failure, though, the experience taught me a valuable lesson on ethics. Developing character is not about undergirding yourself with a simple set of memorized virtues or principles; it’s about learning how to negotiate among conflicted virtues and principles, competing values and loyalties.
People of character throughout history have demonstrated skill at such negotiation, with choices to be loyal and trustworthy to one set of people necessitating disloyalty and deception toward another. The heroic actions of many people who harbored Jews in the midst of the rampant anti-semitic violence of World War II are prime examples. Miep Gies, Oscar Schindler, Corrie Ten Boom, and the villagers of Le Chambon are among the more famous examples of people who would not have passed the Tenderfoot test of being trustworthy and loyal, at least from the perspective of the SS guards who came to their door inquiring about the location of Jews. Their subversive practice of devout dishonesty and sabotage had deep roots, going back to the time of Moses’ birth under the new Pharaoh. The new emperor had nothing but disdain for the Hebrew people, and felt threatened by their growing presence. So he called in a couple of women that he felt sure could be trusted – the local midwives. If you don’t have confidence in your health care practitioners, you’re in trouble. He issued them a new set of protocols for their birthing work: kill all the baby boys. Ah, there it is; Pharaoh went and demonstrated the limitations of character education and virtue ethics for Shiphrah and Puah. No adherence to a set of memorized core values would help them out in this situation. They were suddenly beset with competing values: loyalty and obedience to the commander in chief or loyalty and helpfulness to the families they served. Honesty was not the best policy for these women when they were summoned back to the palace, having failed miserably at the assigned task. To put it simply, they lied through their teeth. Pharaoh fell for the whopper, Moses survived, and as a result the midwives are canonized in scripture. Perhaps if given the opportunity Shiphrah and Puah would encourage the good folks at the Oakley Methodist Fellowship Hall to tweak the Scout pledge just a little, to make it more of a preparation for real life: A good Scout (like a good midwife) knows when to be trustworthy and loyal and obedient and reverent, and knows when it’s far more appropriate to be scandalously shady. Break out the fiddle and open a bottle; I’ll dance a jig and drink to that.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.