I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I am a nine year old standing in the lunch line at school. I can hear the lunch lady asking my peers in front of me if they want white milk or chocolate milk. Unlike my friends, I didn’t see myself as having a choice between white or chocolate because in my family, chocolate milk was a no-no. Too sweet, my parents told me. It would inevitably lead to cavities. So for years, even though I felt jealous of my peers as they slurped down their chocolate milk, I remained obedient—it was always white milk for me.
Then, just like that, it all changed. For reasons I can’t explain, it dawned on me that day that my parents weren’t standing in line with me. How could they possibly know if I chose white or chocolate? I felt this rush of adrenaline that comes with new-found freedom, independence and maybe a little bit of rebellion.
As it turned out, I ended up not liking the chocolate milk. It was, in fact, too sweet. (Don’t tell my parents they were right.) I also realized that while my parents weren’t there to punish me, they were still shaping my conscience and guiding my actions from a distance, or they were at least trying to.
I’ve thought a lot about this lunch room memory this summer as I started to prepare for this new worship series we are calling “Voices of Conscience.”*
Precisely what is a conscience? Does everybody have one and if so, are we born with one? Is conscience fixed or malleable? Is it always trustworthy? How are our consciences influenced by the attitudes and values of our culture? And finally, is there such a thing as a Jesus-shaped conscience? Or a Mennonite conscience?
No matter what our answers are to these questions, I believe developing a healthy conscience or moral compass requires a lot of maintenance. Our conscience is not always reliable or infallible. I tend to agree with others that while we should always listen for what our inner conscience tells us when it comes to discerning what is right or wrong, we should not blindly follow our conscience. Rather, real moral growth and maturity lies in examining our conscience, evaluating its promptings, purging it of negative influences and error.
Peter W. Marty writes this in a recent article in Christian Century called Conscience means knowing together:
The word conscience, from the Latin conscientia, is formed of two words, meaning “knowing together.” That’s a clue that it’s best to think of conscience not as an inner voice but as the ability to think and act with outside help. Parents, teachers, and coaches all contribute to the shape of our conscience. So do formative events. So does God. God in Christ Jesus helps form followers into particular kinds of human beings.
Forming a conscience shaped by the moral compass that was Jesus is what I hope we will consider in the weeks to come at Rainbow.
As Peter W. Marty reminds us, the stakes are a lot higher than whether to choose white or chocolate milk. “It’s time to start renewing our own conscience by asking the right questions,” Marty writes.
“As Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?” We have the work of conscience cut out for us in America.”
Yes we do.
*Voices of Conscience is the name of a traveling exhibit that is being developed by the Kauffman Museum, Bethel College, KS. It will premier at the Muted Voices Symposium October 19-22 at the National WWI Museum in KC. Rainbow Mennonite Church will be the first exhibition stop on a year-long exhibition tour around the U.S. This exhibit will remember the witness of peace-minded people against the First World War, 1914-1918. The exhibit will lift up the prophetic insights and the personal courage of WWI peace protesters suggesting parallels to the culture of war and violence in our world today.