Moral Conjuring Tricks

Five million dollars: That's how much money the U.S. is offering for information leading to the capture and trial of Serbian president Milosevic and his partners in war crime. The United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal has indicted Milosevic for crimes against humanity, and according to the Washington Post, going after him is the right thing to do. Efforts to punish Milosevic are not revenge, the Post hastens to explain. Instead, it "represents a search for justice and accountability." Well, most of us, of course, applaud that--Milosevic IS a monster who ought to be punished--but the case raises awkward questions for the modern world: by whose law will he be tried? Is law, especially international law, even possible in a world that rejects the idea of absolute truth? Cast your mind back to the Nuremberg trials, which introduced the term "crimes against humanity" into our lexicon. Nuremberg set an important legal and moral precedent: that there exists a standard of decency legally binding on all nations, irrespective of culture, creed, or history. By charging Nazi leaders with "crimes against humanity," the United Nations implicitly rejected notions of moral and cultural relativism. Instead, we declared a universal moral standard--one that superseded political boundaries and national sovereignties. But today, more than 50 years later, do we still accept the idea of a universal standard binding on all nations? What gives the international community the moral authority to sit in judgment on Milosevic-- or anyone else for that matter? The answer is that there no longer is any moral authority, because the leading nations of the world have rejected the basis for that authority-- ultimately, the law of God. Without a basis in divine law, human law is only a matter of opinion, imposed by force. The late legal scholar Arthur Leff put it this way: Without the ultimate warrant of divine revelation, all claims to authority are vulnerable to "the grand 'sez who?'" "Ethnic cleansing is wrong," we say. To which Milosevic and his ilk respond, "Sez who?" "Raping and massacring civilians is wrong," we say. Sez who? If it's merely my opinion versus yours, claims to international justice are really nothing more than a power play. This is a vivid illustration of what Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson calls the "modernist impasse." The modern mind demands freedom from moral restraints for individuals, but then demands a strong moral code for society in order to justify punishing barbarians like Milosevic. But that conjuring trick just won't work. You can't deny a transcendent moral order when it's inconvenient, and then try to pull one out of a hat when you do need one. The modernist impasse provides Christians with a wonderful apologetic opportunity. When people tell us that they're horrified by the bloodbath in Kosovo, we can explain that they must face an uncomfortable fact: Condemning the bloodbath requires us to submit to an objective moral standard--a standard that judges our own lives as well. And painful though it is for today's liberal, that means acknowledging that there is an absolute moral standard--one that comes from God Himself and binds us all.


Chuck Colson



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