What Is Morality?

The most chilling moment in my recent trip to Eastern Europe came during a conversation with Dr. Zdenek Karabec, the Deputy Minister of Justice in Czechoslovakia.   He was a charming man--keen, quick, sharp. He spoke excellent English, and we had a marvelous time discussing every aspect of criminal justice, from prisons to the philosophy of punishment.   We moved on to the question of what causes crime. People try to explain crime as a result of poverty or racism, I told him. But at root, crime is a moral issue: people making wrong choices.   Up to this point in the conversation, we had a great rapport going. But now, the Minister began to look puzzled. A frown appeared between his eyes.   "Tell me," he said. "What is morality?"   I wondered if he was joking. Or looking for an argument. So I started out cautiously. Morality, I said, has to do with character. It's about internalizing standards of right conduct: choosing to do right even when you feel like doing wrong, until it becomes a habit.   I glanced over at the Minister and to my surprise he was just looking at me, nodding his head as though he was learning something new and interesting.   So I kept going. I explained that you can't have morality without a transcendent standard of right and wrong--transcendent meaning it's not just what the state tells you to do, or what the culture finds acceptable, or what the individual feels is right for him. Morality is what is right by an objective, transcendent standard, rooted in God's revelation.   All this time, the Minister kept listening intently, nodding his head, jotting down an occasional note.   Finally it struck me that his question was simply a request for information. He really didn't know what the word morality means.   I was stunned.   But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. The people of Eastern Europe lived for half a century under a communist government that aggressively promoted a materialistic world view --a world view that says matter is all that exists; there is no God.   But it didn't stop there. Communism also tried to get rid of anything connected with the idea of God: things like justice, goodness, love. In communism, there is the state--nothing beyond it. The state defines what is just, what is good.   Anyone with different ideas is suppressed. Eastern Europeans haven't even been able to get books discussing concepts such as freedom or morality.   They no longer know the language of moral discourse.   On the plane back home, I reflected on my meetings in Eastern Europe and my heart ached over the poverty Communism has imposed there--not just of consumer goods but a poverty of the mind.   And then, I was brought up short by a disturbing thought. How long will it be before Americans suffer the same fate--when we, too, will be asking "What is morality"?   We don't have an officially atheistic government, of course. But we do have a powerful cultural elite that determines what is permitted in public discourse. And discussion of a transcendent moral standard is definitely not on the agenda.   Just watch the TV talk shows. You'll see what I mean.   My meeting with the Deputy Minister of Justice was a glimpse into the intellectual vacuum created by Communism in Czechoslovakia. But it was also a chilling warning of what may well happen here in America.


Chuck Colson



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