Pulling the Lever

Preparing for the Moral Dilemmas of Elections and Trolleys

By Jeff Laird

Tomorrow, the United States will select its next President. The campaign has been one of the most divisive in U.S. history. Details aside, suffice it to say there is significant disagreement within the Christian community over how to vote in this election. Rarely has a contest presented such an awkward, uncomfortable set of circumstances for Bible-believing Christians. It's a real-life example of a moral dilemma. Scholars often explore ethics through such predicaments: imaginary situations where all possible responses seem to violate a moral rule.

A classic "moral dilemma" is the Trolley Problem. In this quandary, a train car (trolley) is barreling down the tracks, heading toward a group of five innocent people. You, alone, are close enough to the switching lever which can divert the runaway car and save those five lives. However, this will divert the car onto another track, where it will kill one innocent person. What do you do? Pull the lever, or not? Oh, and keep in mind that in the real world, you have to make this choice right now. If you re-read this sentence, it's too late.

The point here is not to attempt a definitive answer to the dilemma. There are several reasons for this. The first is the old adage that "hard cases make bad law." In other words, real-life situations are not nearly so black-and-white, nor so restrictive. Trying to make a blanket statement about what's right or wrong in that case is unwise. The other reason is that there are legitimate scriptural arguments in favor of either choice, or even the decision to stand by and do nothing.

The more instructive point about the Trolley Problem, as it pertains to Christians, is what it says about making ethical decisions under pressure. Experiments routinely find that people tend to make different decisions when under duress than they do in moments of calm. This is why police and military personnel practice the "correct" reactions over and over before they go into the field. Stress can cause you to make choices you never would have done, given the chance to think things over with a clear mind.

This, naturally, is something the Bible already tells us. Proverbs 20:18 says that those who wage war successfully do so with planning and advice. Second Peter 3:10-18 reminds us that we know what struggles we will face, so we should be prepared in advance for them. In John 16:4, Jesus specifically says that He is giving us advance warning of what is to come, so we won't be surprised by it. Mark 10:19 records Jesus telling His apostles not to worry about what they will say when confronted; but this is because they'd been training with him in discipleship. Jesus' instruction not to worry was for the moment of crisis. Their advance preparation allowed them to rely on the influence of the Holy Spirit, rather than be anxious about their own ability.

As it applies to the situation currently facing the United States, this effect has already had an impact. How many believers gave little or no thought to what they would do if their preferred party nominated an extraordinarily poor candidate? Or, if the other party nominated an extremely noxious candidate? Who the current nominees are is beside the point: is this the kind of scenario we took seriously before it became reality? If not, then we're faced with the pressure of trying to decide how, or if, to "pull the lever" in the midst of all of that angst, emotion, and confusion.

In short, a Christian should consider ethical and moral choices before they are confronted with them, and decide how they will respond. Then, when the moment comes, they can fall back on sound strategy, and godly principles, rather than an emotional reflex. Can we anticipate each and every single possible scenario? No, of course not. However, much of the angst, stress, and bickering over this particular election has more to do with Christians trying to solve the Trolley Problem at the last minute than relying on principles they'd long-ago decided to follow. This is not to say it's been easy, for anyone, but there is no doubt that the spiritual and moral conflicts of this election caught a lot of believers off guard.

Just as with the Trolley Problem, it's impossible to claim there is one, definitive, absolutely "correct" answer of how (or if) to "pull the lever." The best response a Christian can have to this kind of dilemma is humility and grace (1 Peter 3:8; Colossians 3:12). We should acknowledge that the scenario is, in fact, a difficult one. No one has an infallible answer to how that should play out in real life. Whatever answer we choose should be the result of careful, consistent application of the Scriptures. Likewise, we need to be patient and loving to those who disagree.

This election, like the Trolley Problem itself, is an example of why certain moral or ethical choices need to be outlined before temptation or crisis strike. This is especially useful for younger Christians in drawing boundaries to avoid things like drunkenness, premarital sex, and so forth. Making those choices when calm and focused is much better than trying to decide when we're in the fire of temptation.

Setting our own personal boundaries before we are faced with the crucible of a train-wreck election, as we are now, means whatever decisions we make are more likely to be in line with God's will. The process will never be easy — but clear thinking is much easier kneeling at the throne of grace than standing next to the trolley tracks.

Image Credit: Thank you for visiting my...; "This way or that now that is a dilemma"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Current-Issues  | Political-Issues

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Published 11-7-16