Individualism has some profound blessings to give the world. Free markets, the freedoms of speech and religion, the marketplace of ideas, are all gifts of individualism. The faith statement of individualism is that I have autonomy: the right to choose what happens to me.
Now if I lived on an island by myself and my actions had no effects on others, then I should be fully autonomous. Free from responsibility and, somehow, miserable. Being the very social beings that we are, if I lived alone on an island, I would wish I wasn’t alone.
Then another person, maybe my wife, is added to my tiny world and I am overjoyed. I am no longer alone! But problems arise quickly. Who gets to canoe today? Why should I be the one who collects firewood? Why do you snore so much?
The dilemma is intense. While I desperately want this other person there, they cramp my style.
The broadly accepted modern solution is consent. The way we get the most out of our island is to work together and do things we agree to. We take turns. We learn boundaries (which is basically saying we learn what is yours and what is mine). Consent is very functional. If everyone is consenting, then no one is complaining.
Eventually, we decide that consent is not only functional, it is the basis of morality. Centuries ago, the argument for what is right and wrong was based on our understanding of God and what he wanted. You and I might consent to something, but he had veto power over the decision.
With the marginalizing of God, the only thing we have left to appeal to when someone wrongs us is that they violated our autonomy: we didn’t consent.
A good example of this is Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill 29-year-old in Oregon. She has a glioblastoma, which will take her life in the next several month. With the laws of Oregon supporting her, she will take her own like on 11/1/14. In her recent campaign for more legal suicide laws, she justified her decision by saying:
“I believe this choice is ethical, and what makes it ethical is it is a choice,” she says. “The patient can change their mind right up to the last minute. I feel very protected here in Oregon.”
Her proof for the rightness of her decision is her autonomy. She argues it is right because she had a choice and because it was a choice, it is right.
Another example is when nude images of Jennifer Lawrence and many other actresses were hacked off of their phones recently. Many of these actresses had posed for nude pictures before and they had been published, yet they are outraged. Jennifer Lawrence put it this way
“Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world. ”
Of course it is an outragious violation of Ms. Lawrence to steal images of her to be ogled at by countless men. But her argument is solely based on her lack of consent. Had she consented, then displaying her nude images would have been fine.
Despite being such advocates of consent as the basis morality, we still want to hang on to objective moral authority when we need it. When Janay Rice chose to remain with Ray Rice after he punched her in an elevator (knocking her unconscious), we shook our collective heads. When she forcefully defended her husband after her was suspended by the NFL, we were aghast.
On what ground were we so stunned by Janay Rice’s decision. It certainly wasn’t consent, she was choosing to stay with him. We start fumbling with terms like “cultural expectations” and “it’s just not right.” When pressed, we might even invoke the name of God.
But this is picking and choosing. How is it that abortion, gay marriage, and sexuality are only about consent while physical abuse is different? We want to be free from any restraint for ourselves but are ready to explain to someone else why they shouldn’t smoke on their front porch.
If morality is not based on an objective, unmoving standard, then there is no morality at all. You can try to base it on cultural expectations, but this quickly becomes a mere voting contest where 51% tell the other 49% what to do. Democratizing morality is really just another form of oppression.
The Christian view of God being the maker of right and wrong is not popular until we are harmed. I don’t want God invading my choices, but I would really prefer he limited yours. We define freedom as unlimited choices when real freedom is protection from my own heart. What individualism tried to do is to protect me from you. What it could never do was to protect me from me. That’s why consent will never work as the lone basis of morality. It assumes that what I want is good and right: that I will make wise choices.
There is a long Christian tradition of distrusting my own heart that is so wise, so countercultural, and so timely. As Paul says:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. Romans 7:15-25
The cross of Jesus stands tall above us all and assumes our foolishness and forgives. It is strength for our weakness, healing for our sickness. Individualism could never do this. Consent, to my heart, is just a tool to get what I want without too much fuss. It could never change what I wanted.
Christ alone condemns my sin and forgives it at the same time. Freedom is not unlimited choices, it is making my desires congruent with His. It is the congruence of our hearts with the heart of our maker. It wanting to do what is right. That can only happen if God changes our hearts.
Consent is a band-aid we use to cover the deep wound in our souls. It masks some of the more ostentatious sins in our hearts, but it can never heal our hearts. For that, we need a healing much deeper and a physician much more powerful. By God’s grace, that is just what he provided.