Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth As it Is in Heaven. Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those
Who Have Trespassed Against….
“But what if someone wants you to kill them and eat them?” my friend asked. I think that that was the moment I realized I was no longer a liberal atheist.
My husband and I were at a dinner party shortly after we got married, and someone brought up a recent news story about a man in Europe who had been killing and then eating other men. What turned the subject into a debate was that he met these guys in some kind of “Kill Me and Eat Me” internet forum, so the victims opted in to the whole thing. Because of this, most of my friends at the party declared that the killer had committed no crime.
“I think it’s fine,” a friend’s husband announced. “In a way, the guy’s a hero. These other dudes wanted to be killed and eaten, and this guy was the only one who would do it.”
After doing a reality check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I began laying out the case that the man was not a hero, and had in fact done something horrible. After a few more back-and-forths, I grudgingly admitted that my friends’ case was not totally unreasonable. I mean, the victims had signed up for it — he even let people go who changed their minds in the beginning steps of the macabre process. But something within me screamed that this was wrong in the most dire sense of the world. And I even got my friends to admit that they thought so too.
“Yeah, you’re right, it does feel wrong,” the gal across from me said as she sipped her merlot. “At first I had the same reaction you did: it’s a deplorable crime against humanity. But then I thought it through, and realized that it was fine.” Ultimately, they said, what’s right and wrong is up for individual people to figure out for themselves.
It was one of my first lessons that reason can convince you of stuff that’s stupid and wrong. It also primed me to be receptive to the idea of the Natural Law, which I would read about a few years later when I began exploring religion. I came across C.S. Lewis’ magnificent book Mere Christianity, where he makes the case that the truth about right and wrong is written on every human heart. To those who would say that morality varies widely by time and place, he responded:
But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like the are to each other and to our own…Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him…Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.
This is what I think of when I hear the word against in the Our Father. It’s popular these days to scoff at the notion that objective Right and Wrong exists, to pretend that we have no notion of such a thing. It is usually only when someone goes against it that we suddenly realize that the Natural Law exists, and that it’s a horrible thing when someone violates it. And the more personal the situation, the more we realize it.
Borrowing my friends’ reasoning that there is no such thing as true right and true wrong, I could have announced at the dinner party that my personal philosophy was that “survival of the fittest” is the highest aim of humanity. I may have even gotten some folks to agree that it was a valid, reasonable view. But when I started grabbing the hosts’ belongings and putting them into my trunk, challenging them to a contest of strength to determine who gets to keep the stuff, I think they would have pretty quickly said that I was wrong — not wrong because their personal, subjective opinions happened to contradict my actions, but wrong because what I was doing was objectively, unconditionally wrong. C.S. Lewis continues:
Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, the next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they broke was an unfair one. But if treatises do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong — in other words, if there is no Law of Nature — what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?
It’s easy to quibble with the idea of Natural Law when it’s all theoretical. But we feel the truth of it on a visceral level when someone goes against it — when they trespass across the boundary of Right and Wrong — especially if they have done so in a way that impacts our own lives. Rarely are we more in tune with God’s truth about what is truly good, with the beautiful code of conduct that is inscribed on every human heart, than when someone has trespassed against us.