Friday 22 November 2002

Moral dilemma

“I want to ask your opinion,” Amy said as she cleared away the plates in the Chinese restaurant tonight. “I’ll bring tea and you tell me.”

Amy has a fourteen-year-old son, Brandon, and a nine-year-old daughter, Brittany. Inexplicably, since I have no children of my own, Amy frequently asks my advice about child-rearing. (I’d love to offer some advice about choosing Chinese names for Chinese-Australian children but I’m too polite.)

She poured the tea for me and continued: “Brittany’s friend, Kelly, stopped going to church six months ago. Last week Kelly asked Brittany if she’d vote for her to be class prefect. What do you think she said?”

I had no idea. In February, Amy told me she was disappointed that her daughter had rejected the opportunity to be a prefect herself. “Good for Brittany,” I replied. “You should be proud of her for having a strong enough character to make up her own mind.”

“What did Brittany tell her friend?” I asked.

“She told Kelly she’ll vote for her if she came to church from now on. What do you think?”

“I’m not sure that was the right thing to do,” I replied. To be honest, I thought Brittany had acted manipulatively—out of a misguided desire to please her parents and the minister of her church. And it seemed out of character, given that she’d had no qualms about disappointing her parents and teacher by rejecting the chance to be a prefect.

Amy was surprised at my response. “I thought she did the right thing,” she told me. “It’s important for Kelly to go to church every Sunday.”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but what’s the use of her going to church if she’s only doing it to become a prefect? God wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

“That’s not true. God would be very happy if Kelly goes to church.”

“Let me put it this way. Going to church is no indicator of good character. Plenty of bad people go to church regularly just as lots of good people never go at all. Brittany should vote for Kelly because she thinks she’ll be a good prefect. Whether or not she goes to church doesn’t matter.”

A group of eight came into the restaurant.

“I have to see to these customer,” Amy said. “We can talk more about this next week.” She hurried away to attend to the group.

As I sat drinking my tea, I recalled my last year in high school, when the senior students had the responsibility of electing the school captain. The popular choice was a boy named Terry Dwyer. He was universally admired: easy-going, academically gifted, a good sportsman, and a natural leader. When he won the election, the headmaster called Terry into his office and told him there was a slight problem. It was widely known that his girlfriend, who attended the local State school, wasn’t a Catholic.

“You’ll have to stop seeing this girl,” said the headmaster, Brother Thomas. “Otherwise I can’t allow you to be school captain.”

Terry Dwyer told the headmaster that he had no interest in being school captain on those terms. Previously admired, he was now venerated as a god. The school heirarchy appointed as captain an arse-licking mediocrity whose father was a generous donor to various fund-raising projects. One of the bright sparks in the Modern History class suggested a nickname for the school captain: Quisling, after the Norwegian Fascist leader who collaborated with the Nazis and led the pro-German government from 1942 until 1945, when he was executed.

I feel sorry for Quisling now, though I felt no sympathy for him when I was seventeen years old. Perhaps having “School Captain” on his resume helped him scramble faster up the ladder, though God knows he paid the price.

And I wonder what lesson Brother Thomas imagined he was teaching, by demanding that a principled young man trade his most important relationship for the shabby honor of being captain of a second-rate Catholic school.

I’ll ask Amy, next week.

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Comments

There may be a bare chance that Quisling was ignorant of the politics behind the choice of him by the school hierarchy. (Of course, since you guys were seventeen at the time, I doubt you let him remain ignorant long.)

I've known people who simply don't understand this kind of ugliness. It's very sad when they get disillusioned finally.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 23 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Presto change-o!

Just to let you know your blog has become unreadable in IE 5.2 Mac...

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 23 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

(Nope, completely readable in my Mac with I.E. 5.2 and with Chimera, Jonathon.)

It's surprising how many people seem more concerned with the "appearance" of virtue rather than true virtue, isn't it?

Maybe this is a problem with most school administrators rather than just those in churches. I was always surprised how upset they were over the "hairstyle" of kids who were different and unconcerned about moral character in sports stars.

I suspect it has something to do with being a "petty tyrant," or a "big frog in a small pond."

Posted by Loren on 23 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

There is a deep cultural chasm between the way religion is perceived in the east and west. In the west, it is about *what you believe*. In the east, it is about *what you practice*. Ritual is the important thing in countries like China, not your theorizing about it. This is described in a story in one of Hofstede's books - forgot which one.

Posted by PeterV on 24 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The story was about a Chinese ethnographer doing studies in Holland. The guy talked about how everyone kept quizzing him "what he believed in", whereas in his culture that wouldn't be discussed, what would be discussed is "what you practice".

Posted by PeterV on 24 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour