When Joseph in Genesis 39 was ambushed by the wife of Potiphar demanding that he sleeps with her, his response was more than morality demanded. What interests us in the story is not just the fact that he refused the sexual advances but the reasons he gave for his objection. “How can I do this wicked thing and sin against God…” was his response. A person is deemed moral or immoral based on his behavior and not so much the reasons or motivation for the behavior. Joseph would have been regarded as moral in most cultures and societies but the reasons for his behavior take him to a level far beyond that of morality.
The moral values of any group of people are as good and strong as the reasons that support them. Ethical education has always been the ultimate aim of most cultures and societies. What sometimes appears as immoral and unethical to an outsider may actually be the opposite when judged within the society or culture itself. Even the most barbaric culture has its own moral standards. These standards have kept communities cemented together and guaranteed their survival and security.
Today our society is at the brink of collapse. This is summed up succinctly by Kinoti when he writes, “Contemporary African society is lamenting a moral world fallen apart…(it) Seems to be in a state of near chaos in the realm of morality.” (as cited by Van der Walt). What are the reasons for this moral vacuum? One reason could be that our moral values have been bombarded by waves of relativity and pluralism that the whole moral structure is finally giving in.
In the traditional African society fear and respect of the community was one of the reasons for moral behavior. It is common to hear statements like, “bazakuthini abantu…iintloni ziyamakha umntu”. This loosely translated would mean – what will people say about this? This fear seems to have been the building block of true humanity. This would fit well within the African philosophy of “ubuntu”, “umntu ngumntu ngabantu”, meaning “I am because I belong” not because I think. This philosophy has held African communities for ages but is now becoming irrelevant since the very community where we are supposed to get our identity is fast disintegrating. People are living as isolated atoms in a sea of strangers.
Communalistic morality is difficult to sustain for at least two reasons: One is that the community itself is changing which jettisons the whole idea of moral absolutism. Secondly, the motivation for moral purity becomes totally extrinsic and thereby threatens its consistency and authenticity. Joseph feared a God who does not change. He judges the heart, to him he who lusts is just as guilty as the one who commits adultery. Admittedly, this is more than morality demands, this is the essence of Christian and Biblical spirituality. It is the recognition of the presence of God and the willingness to live according to His will. Indeed the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom…. (To be continued).