Skip to main content

When Church and State Collide: The Governor General’s Dilemma

The recent dilemma faced by the Governor-General of Jamaica, a practising Adventist and former pastor, who was required to sign into law a practice his denomination considers sinful, has highlighted once again the gap between Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I waited with bated breath as I wondered, "Will the Governor General ‘betray’ his own sense of ethics if he signs?" Since then, I had seriously wondered about the concept of morality and about its dispensation. And even questioned the morality of imposing said morality on others who choose not to hold to that particular brand of "morality". The gap between belief and practice has often been the ground on which many question whether the tenets of Christian doctrine are liveable in the ‘real world’. That collision of the sacred [absolute belief that gambling is wrong] and the secular [passing of the bill that allows for casino gambling, which, at the time, awaited his signature] in the scenario presented, has brought to the fore the importance of interrogating moral “absolutes” of Christian ethics as necessary in light of the recent dilemma faced by the Governor General of Jamaica. The ethical challenge the governor-general faced provides, perhaps, an opportunity for ethicists, theologians and students of theology to reflect upon situation[al] ethics and how the ‘church’ can be involved in nation building without coming into outright conflict with the secular national agenda. This essay argues that for Christians to impact the nation, they must be willing to look beyond their "rigidly absolute" ideas of morality for the interest of the majority. Letting go of the notion of ‘absolute morality’ is therefore necessary if the church is to make any significant impact in postmodern times. I offer, below, part of my musings around the idea of morality (albeit a sanitised theologising of the issue).

Though he was unwilling to comment on the Governor General’s (GG’s)Dilemma, current President of the Central Jamaica Conference of Seventh-Day Adventist, Pastor Dennis Bignall was unapologetic and unequivocal about the church’s stance on gambling.
"I will not be able to speak about him (Sir Patrick), I speak for myself and the church. we remain resolutely against gambling,"[1] Bignal said. However, he added that Sir Allen “is serving the nation, and the good book says as servants, you are called to obey who you serve,"[2] adding that Christians should not withdraw from public life since they are needed in this time of immorality.

Sir Allen’s apparent dilemma and Bignall’s comments bring into focus notions of absolute morality and attending implications for service in the context of a secular national agenda.

Bignall recognized the church’s absolute stance on gambling but also acknowledged Sir Allen’s responsibility as a servant of the nation and so found biblical wiggle room to exonerate the GG should he decide to sign. It is this apparent contradiction that causes many to question whether Christianity is relevant and liveable.

Perhaps our notions of absolute morality may do us more harm than good in the long run and may result in the church becoming obsolete. Noted American contemporary philosopher and professor who founded the theory of situational ethics, Joseph Fletcher presented what can be considered a straight forward and logical answer to “ethical problems and decisions in complex circumstances”[3] (such as was experienced by the GG). Fletcher’s position challenged dominant moral traditions and perhaps made the Christian faith appear more pragmatic than perceived by wider society.

Fletcher’s situational method involves “agapeic calculus” or simply put, love (the pursuit of the highest good for neighbour). When applied to formation of public policy, Fletcher argues that the love ethic must form an alliance with utilitarianism’s strategy of doing good for the greatest number of people.[4] It is perhaps the “agapeic calculus” that held the answers to the GG’s dilemma in the scenario described and may hold the answers for future dilemmas.

But does ‘situational ethics’ mean suspension of morality? While ‘situational ethics’ challenges moral traditions it recognizes the foundations of morality. St. Thomas, according to Gregory Stevens views man as,
“created in God’s image because ‘he is endowed with intelligence, free will and a power of actions which is proper to him…having a dominion over his own activity.’ Thus man is distinguished from all other beings in the world, and his uniqueness is seen as rooted in his peculiarly human activity, which is a moral activity by the very fact of being properly human.”

In other words man’s morality is based upon an intrinsic obligation. What the Thomistic theory seems to be insinuating is that for morality to be thrust on upon the moral subject; that is immoral in itself. What is being suggested is perhaps another theological reformation that causes us to interrogate existing moral traditions by asking Fundamental, questions of who determines right and wrong and if there is a moral code does it include some and exclude others? If the latter is the case, what justification is there for an establishment? Whenever one set of people has power to define another, then power is given to that primary group to make the other what they want it to become and that is not just immoral, it is worse than anarchy. For as Fletcher (1966) would argue ethics/morality should be based upon the idea of seeking the greater good of the PEOPLE. Consequently, in whichever situation, including the one the Governor General faced the question of “is the greater good of the PEOPLE being served” is one that needs to be answered before decisions are arrived at. His faith should have no privilege of the greater good. And, should that [his faith] colour his ability to discern this greater good, demitting office is the best option he has.

Fundamentalists may insist on an absolute morality that is extrinsic; based upon a set of laws that are given by a [supreme] law giver and stands for all time, and across cultures. The Christian faith, they would assert, has moral absolutes, which it must resolutely stand by (and dare I say, find necessary to impose even on the unwilling). Presumably, this bold assertion is based on the presuppositions that we read the bible from a purely prescriptive perspective and that the bible is culturally neutral or we (the collective) even believe the bible. Suppose we all agree that the bible has authority over our lives, how would we respond if we were to explain how this authority is recognized and its contents for us today? Whether or not we accept it, the moral [rigidly absolute] codes in certain epochs in scripture have shifted with passage of time/dispensations, geography, people groups and the revelation of new truth (knowledge). For example, the strict prohibition against males trimming the hair around their temples (Leviticus 19:27) or against those with sight defects who come to the altar of God (Leviticus 21:20) or being given the right to own slaves as long as they are obtained from neighbouring nations (Leviticus 25:44) would never be upheld as moral indictments and permit (appropriately) in these times when proper grooming determines whether we get the job; and so many of us needed “sight aids” and human rights organizations and governments legislating against human trafficking and slavery. Even though the evolution of moral codes in clear in scripture, religion seems to ignore these evolutions and continue to guard rigidly absolute codes and the expense of pushing non-subscribers to the margins of society (an act of immorality in itself - using their standards of-course) Kaiser (1987, 11) seems to suggest that there are aspects of these “absolute” plethora of laws that are not as normative as some may think; that some are culturally contextualized and the task of discerning either/both is quite arduous.[6] Morality, therefore cannot be immutable and rigid when clearly [even] (religious) moral codes have gone through its own evolution. This takes us right back to the Thomistic position that morality is in the heart of the Imago Dei [individual as the image of God].

Am I saying there is no such thing as morality or that morality is not needed? Certainly not! I am convince that morality is a universal innate facility (written in the genetic make up of every human being) that does not need religion for neither recognition nor enforcement. Before religion, people instinctively right and wrong; it was about honouring community (humanity).

The challenge with holding on, with clenched fists, to [certain] religious dogma and attempting to serve within a secular national agenda, as in the case of the GG, is that obscures our vision of the greater good of the PEOPLE. It becomes easier to see one’s self and the interests of others who are like-minded at the expense of those who believe otherwise. Within our moral and ethical framework is there space for otherness and difference; and is there space for inclusion? Those are questions that need to be answered. This is at the heart of situation[al] ethics; seeking the highest good of the [people]. Did the Governor General consider the good of the majority as he looked at the issue before him or was the concern about preserving a moral tradition?

The church will be guilty of becoming narrow through its want for self-definition over others. Paul Tillich, in answering the question of whether church are too narrow, agreed that the church has become narrow and opined that narrowness develops when the church becomes defensive, fundamentalist, refusing to listen to historical inquiry, having non-copernican world-views and refusing to modify one’s world view as we go along.[7] Tillich seems to suggest, like Fletcher, an unconventional, straight forward way of the church making an impact in post-modern times without coming into outright conflict with the secular national agenda. According to Tillich,
“The church must take the secular into itself and transform it, as the old church did when it took all the great values of both the classical Greek and the Hellensitic realm into itself, besides the basic Jewish Strain. This also occurred in the Middle Ages with the Germanic-Romanic tribes; the church took them in. And I do not see any other way of reinvigorating Christianity.”

Tillich’s suggestion of a coalition between the church and the secular finds resonance in Fletcher’s theory of a coalition of the love ethic (agapeic calculus) and utilitarianism in the formation of social/public policy. Without such symbiotic relationships the tensions between secular and sacred will persist; Christians will find it difficult to serve in public life; the Christian’s absolutism when confronted by the often secular national agenda, will present not just a complex situation for the Christian but a situation where the Christian faith may prove to be extraneous and unlivable in the real (meaning post-modern) world. As Tillich asserts narrowness (absolutism) through restrictions of certain philosophical freedoms by the council of Trent in the sixteenth century almost suffocated the Roman Church – a church, which like the Greek churches in their continual openness toward incalculable elements, previously, allowed the development of many schools, including Realists, Norminalists, Thomists and Augustinians. Pope John recognized that if such absolutism/narrowness was maintained, the Roman church would perhaps become completely irrelevant.[9]

The implications for reflection and practise of situation[al] ethics in the region presents for us an opportunity or “paradigm” for engaging our society around a greater moral code – “agapeic calculus”. Fleshed out, it embodies Thomistic notions of morality that respects the Imago Dei in every human being enough to refuse to impose codes of conduct on him/her. If we cushion our world view with this understanding and depart from here, answering the complex question of the GG’s delimma, of abortion, of sexuality and gender, of euthanasia, of the use of ganja and many others may be less difficult to answer and may create less conflicts as we answer same.

[1] Gary Spaulding, “Casino Bill Stumps GG,” The Gleaner, May 2, 2010, accessed January 8, 2010,

[2] Ibid

[3]James F. Childress, introduction; Situation Ethics: The New Morality , by Joseph Fletcher (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966), 2


[5]Gregory Stevens, “Moral Obligation in St. Thomas,” The Modern Schoolman Volume XL, Number 1 (1962): 2-3.

[6]Walter C. Kaiser, Jr, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Michigan: Zondervan), 11.

[7]Paul Tillich, Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue, Edited. D. MacKenzie Brown (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1965), 94

[8] Ibid, 95

[9]Paul Tillich, Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue, Edited. D. MacKenzie Brown (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1965), 93


  1. Well written, may I take and place on my blog while directing back to you?

  2. You certainly may, Ms. Jarvis. Thank you for stopping by and for your feedback

  3. Damion, I find the post to be self contradictory - speaking about teleological outcomes but insisting on deontological ideas - agapeic calculus determines the end - agapeic calculus is the necessary approach.

  4. Uncle David, I see no contradiction, actually; unless you read deontological ethical principles as moral absolutism. As a deontologist i may purport that the consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make lying the right thing to do as an absolutist I may hold that lying is wrong even if good comes out of it... As I read Deontology, there is no contradiction with the teleological approach, which is about outcomes... I guess you can call me a deontological-teleologist... much like the rational-empiricist who sees his epistemic source as not lying in any singular theory...


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


"They need to get their priority in order."

"They do not have money to send their children to school but they have time to put in hairstyle!"

"I am not sorry for them at all. They too wicked."

These are among the value statements we make against people living in economically depressed conditions. We speak with such contempt when it comes to the poor and how they "adjust their priorities." We, with our well-thinking selves, impose upon those we presume ourselves to know better than, a set of values and priorities we "know" to be good for them, so that they can get their lives in "order".

It was from this position of "awokeness" and perhaps being "well-intentioned", then President of the West Jamaica Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Pastor Glen Samuels, spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2016. He did so to great chorus, as his audience erupted in laughter and loud applause, approving what was a v…

The Wicked Woman We Love to Hate!

Choose a Caribbean island - any one. There's a mother who's just beat her child with the first thing that her hands fall on. The Caribbean is inundated with narratives of mothers who dare not spare the rod and spoil the child - mothers who dig up ants nest and put their child to kneel in it, on a grater with their hands tied behind their back; mothers who use a hot iron to burn the hand of their thieving child; mothers who go into schools to box up the disrespectful child for answering back teacher and bringing shame to her name.
These are the things that Caribbean mothers do. They do this, not necessarily because they are wicked, but in the name of discipline.

We are a people who have learned violence. It's become part of our social DNA. Our parents learned that violence was how transgressors are taught to do better and behave better. They learned such violence from their parents, and their parents from theirs and their parents from the plantation. The whip is what we le…


Social Media, and in particular twitter, has become a space for spewing caustic and vitriolic effluent at people with whom we disagree. I am sometimes amazed at how people feel so empowered and emboldened sitting behind a screen to descend into the bowels of utter nastiness to express dissent to something that someone else posted. It is worse now that we have 280 characters instead of 140. It means that the nastiness is times two. But social media can be and has been used as a source of good. I have been the beneficiary of deep friendships and formed a formidable network of people who have supported and pushed me along in my professional and personal life.Yet, we do not hear many stories about the power and reach of social media. In this post, I want to speak about a quiet Superhero that I encountered on social media.

I had been working in three vulnerable communities in the last couple of years on a urban disaster risk reduction project being implemented by Habitat for Humanity Jamai…