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Sociologists tell us that the vast majority of the world's population distinguishes right from wrong on the basis of a social conscience. In other words, their understanding of what they should do in a given situation is dictated by what other people would think of them if the others knew what they had done, said, or thought.

This conscience can produce feelings of guilt even when no one is looking, thus giving the impression that the person really does have a conscience. But while people operate at this level, the "voice of God" within them is really just the voice of society. Society is their god. Only rarely do any of us ever function at a higher level of morality. Even in the face of death, most people will continue to follow the social conscience rather than drop it and go for something better.

For me as a Christian, this is an important concept to understand. The social conscience is the "broad way" and the voice of God is the "narrow way". The social conscience keeps us in line by keeping us "respectable" in the eyes of the masses; but it counts for nothing in the face of eternity and in the eyes of God. In fact, the social conscience is the whole basis of hypocrisy. It says many of the right things, but it acts only on the basis of public opinion.

Most friendships do not progress past the social conscience, which is why such friends will almost always let you down when it counts most.

One of the reasons that the social conscience says the right things, is that it seeks to imitate those few rare individuals in a society who have had a true moral conscience in the past. Christ referred to this when he said that the Pharisees built memorials to the prophets of the past at the same time that they stoned the prophets of the present.

Someone has said that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. In other words, society hypocritically honours the truly virtuous people of the past by teaching the ideals that they taught. But when those ideals start to cost too much, society shows how vicious (i.e. full of vice) it really is, and it starts throwing stones at the very people it will one day honour.

When we understand this, then it is easier to understand how so-called Christian societies which have turned against God still seem to operate at a higher level of morality than societies which are not Christian. In India, for example, where faith in a God of some kind is still almost universal, there is little or no shame in being caught telling a lie. Honesty is not a strong part of the Indian social conscience, because it is not a strong part of the religious teaching. But in Western society, where atheism is rampant, a President could be impeached for telling a lie... if it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she deliberately did it, in an attempt to mislead the public. Does it mean that Western society is more Christian? Not really. It just means that Western society has, in the past, been exposed to more Christian teaching about the importance of honesty, and thus it has developed a more sophisticated form of hypocrisy, at least in this one area.

The social conscience operates on the basis of what is "politically correct". This rather new sociological term describes a whole new cluster of values which has grown up in recent years, most of them still retaining some vestiges of Christian truth, but at the same time steering people farther and farther away from God himself. This new ethic can actually make us feel righteous for taking a stand which is opposed to genuine Christian teaching, and it can make us feel guilty for doing what is actually right in the eyes of God. It can, for example, make us feel righteous for tolerating sexual immorality, and it can make us feel guilty for disciplining our children. It can also make us feel guilty for criticising hypocrisy in the church or for asking for two cents for a Christian tract, or just for being poor.

The Bible tells us, "If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart." Apparently, this is a reference to the social conscience. We must learn to tell the difference between it and the voice of God. The social conscience is always reacting to social pressures, in an effort to escape condemnation, while the true conscience acts in positive obedience to the voice of God.

So where do we get this social conscience? It starts with our families, but it comes from school teachers, religious leaders, friends, employers, and the media as well. However, they all rely most heavily on our families. It is what our parents, our spouses, and our children think of us that will ultimately pull most of us into line. We want so badly to be accepted by someone, and usually these family members are the most significant people in our lives.

So is it any wonder that Jesus said, "If anyone wants to follow me and is not willing to hate his or her father and mother and wife and children for my sake, they are not worthy to be one of my followers"? He was calling on us to shake off this social conscience and replace it with a higher conscience. And he uses terminology which is most shocking in a supposedly Christian culture. He uses the word "hate".

Because love was the fundamental, ultimate teaching of Jesus, it was inevitable that any culture which was to be strongly influenced by his teachings would develop a social conscience which paid serious lip-service to love.

Nevertheless, Jesus knew that even the concept of love would become perverted in such a society. For having lost personal contact with God, the source of all true love, they would substitute family love and erotic love for his divine love. So he calls on us to "hate" the counterfeit in order to return to the genuine. He calls on us to "hate" our families and our spouses in order to love God.

All real change in the world (whether for good or for evil) comes from people who stop trying to please the masses, and who start operating from some inner set of values. The masses are "nice guys", and the masses are lukewarm. The two go together: being nice guys and being lukewarm.

The masses are kept in line by fear of being caught. But the real innovators lose all fear of what society will think, and they start marching to a different tune. The real innovators are either hot or cold, with great potential either for good or for evil. They have broken out of the restraints that society puts on them and as a result, they have the freedom to do whatever they choose, whether it be for good or for evil.

Of course society does not look kindly on such people. They are seen as reckless and dangerous. Society recognises that they cannot be kept in line through fear, and so the average person fears the innovators instead. They warn their children to stay away from them. They refuse to read anything written by such people.

Understanding the social conscience helps us to understand how and why the churches can say such "right" things at the same time that they react so strongly against the teachings of Jesus. As Jesus himself pointed out, they hate those of us who promote his teachings because they hate Jesus; but they would never openly admit to the truth in that statement.

And the churches continue to say so many right things because someone somewhere in their past did the same things that we are doing now, thus teaching them what is "right". Of Jesus himself, they say "Lord, Lord!" louder than anyone else, at the same time that they disobey everything that he taught.

People who have been confronted by uncomfortable truths and then run away from them continue to have a social conscience even after they turn from the truth. Their social conscience is often stronger than that of the rest of society, for they have actually confronted some truth or truths that others have not seen. At times they may even preach the truth which they have rejected, because it makes them feel morally superior to others. But, unless they are willing to actually practise it, they will end up despising the one(s) who first exposed them to the uncomfortable truth. So be prepared for such rejection if you want to speak the truth!

Whether it is backsliders, church leaders, families and friends, or just the general public, when we understand that they are all controlled by a social conscience, we can actually learn to "manipulate" them in the same way that Jesus did with the multitudes. The Bible says that he "knew what was in people." (John 2:25)

Jesus taunted the religious authorities at his arrest by saying, "Why did you have to sneak out here under cover of darkness to arrest me? You could have arrested me at any time when I was teaching quite publicly in the Temple each day." (Luke 22:52-53) In other words, they feared doing publicly what they planned to do secretly, because they feared public opinion. They and the public gave lip service to the things that Jesus said and did, so that by their own teachings they had no grounds for arresting him. Jesus knew this, and he often used the multitudes to keep the Pharisees in line. (e.g. Luke 19:47-48)

Most of the people who donate to worthy causes, do so because of a social conscience. They rarely give unless directly asked. Secretly they would rather not give, but they are plagued by thoughts of what people would think if they did not give (or even by what they would think of themselves if they did not give). Because of that, they give... usually as little as they can get away with, and still be considered "respectable" at the same time. This explains why public fund-raising is so popular. It heaps attention on those who do give, so that their charity dollar buys maximum glory for themselves.

The spotlight of public opinion has much the same effect on people, whether it is turned on a thief in the act of picking someone's pocket, or just someone talking behind another person's back. In both cases, people have a social conscience which causes them to flinch from the light. This is why Jesus said that the person who does not commit adultery merely out of fear that they will be found out is just as guilty as the person who has actually committed adultery. He judges us on the basis of what we would do if we knew we could get away with it.

Hans Christian Andersen captured some of this concept in his story, "The Emperor's New Clothes". In the story, everyone lied and said that they liked the king's new clothes, in order to be seen by everyone else as being respectable. Of course, when the truth came out, they were all exposed for the liars that they were.

When you learn to recognise just how much of what goes on in the world around you is happening merely because of the social conscience, and when you have learned to overcome your own fear of public opinion, you become a spiritual giant in a world full of moral dwarves. Just pray that you will use this advantage wisely and lovingly, to help free others from their fears.

(See also The Id and the Superego)
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