A New Kind of Irony

In the theater, the phrase dramatic irony refers to those situations whose meaning is understood by the audience but not by the characters. In New Testament studies, "Johannine Irony" refers to the moments in the fourth Gospel when the true meaning of a speaker's words is lost on him. For instance, when Caiaphas says that it is better that one man die than the whole nation perish. We can add another kind of irony to the list: New York Times Irony. That's when the "paper of record" is oblivious to what's happening on its front page. We saw "Times Irony" in action this past Tuesday. One headline read "Colorado Court Bars Execution Because Jurors Consult Bible." The story was about a decision of the Colorado Supreme Court that overturned a death sentence for a man convicted of raping and murdering a woman. During the deliberations, jurors, who were told to "make an individual moral assessment," consulted the Bible. The court concluded that reliance on a "higher authority" like the Bible was incompatible with the "rarified, solemn and sequestered nature of jury deliberations." It labeled "extraneous texts" like the Bible a "distraction." The dissenting justices called the Bible "part of the jurors' moral and religious precepts" and, as such, "relevant to their court-sanctioned moral assessment." Now, three inches away from the story about the Colorado decision was another headline, "On Wall Street, a Rise in Dismissals over Ethics." In the aftermath of the Enron scandal and the ensuing legal backlash, corporations have adopted "zero-tolerance policies" regarding "business and personal behavior." The article told the story of the firing of two Bank of America executives. They had heard confidential information that another company was preparing to merge, and they called to see if they could solicit the business. Historically, that would be considered good aggressive sales. Instead, they were called into the boss's office, which was filled with lawyers, read a statement, and told to leave the building immediately. Not surprisingly, they're planning to sue Bank of America for wrongful termination. The "reach for the moral high ground" resulted recently in Boeing's CEO being forced out over his affair with another executive. Marjorie Kelly of Business Ethics magazine calls what's happening "a new kind of Puritanism." I call it "ironic." A court overturns a death sentence because jurors consulted a "higher authority," and corporations fire executives for, in essence, not consulting a higher authority. This isn't "Puritanism," which the Times considers a bad thing. It's a sort of waking up, a realization that regulation and law, however well-intentioned, isn't enough to ensure the kind of conduct that produces confidence in the market. Without the inner restraints created by a belief in some "higher authority," however it's defined, law can never be enforced. Colorado court, please take notice. This need for a "higher authority," which for most people is religiously derived, is lost on the Times. In its universe, it's possible to do a "moral assessment" without knowing why we should be moral in the first place. That's more than ironic; it's clueless.


Chuck Colson


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