My Christian ethics professor was one of the most colorful teachers at the seminary. He was close to retirement when I was in his class. He grew up in North Carolina where he worked in textile mills from childhood through young adulthood when he “discovered that connected to my hands were arms, and to my arms shoulders, and to my shoulder a neck, and to my neck a head with a brain inside it that can think, reason, and imagine.” Henlee Barnette walked out of the mill and went on to college, seminary and graduate school where he earned his Ph.D. in ethics, but he never lost his honest, down-to-earth approach to life. Students in his classes initially thought they had a North Carolina hick masquerading as a professor until they found him adjusting their attitudes in the most persuasive of ways. He warned those who thought they already knew it all “not to scratch too deep because basically I’m a barbarian with a thin veneer of Christianity.” I saw him with a disarming, Andy Griffith demeanor take the cleverest of arguments on ethical issues made by students and professors alike and turn those arguments upside down and inside out. He was gifted with brilliant insight when it came to compelling questions of ethics or theology.
Early each semester Barnett would initiate his beginning ethics classes with this pronouncement: “What you students don’t realize yet is that you have no right to an opinion.” After the debris settled from that bombshell, he would say, “You have a right to an informed opinion, but no one dedicated to the pursuit of truth and justice has a right to just an opinion.”
I have often reflected on the wisdom of that statement. We think we have the luxury of opinions on any issue we wish to consider. But with so much at stake in our world and in people’s lives, on ethical questions we have no right to just an opinion. We owe it to God, our world, others, and ourselves to develop an informed opinion. Once we learn the facts regarding any issue and weigh those facts in the scales of justice and fairness, compassion and love, our informed opinions may be very different from our uninformed or prejudiced opinions. Prejudice, after all, simply means pre-judging a person or an issue with little or no respect for the facts. If it is the truth that will set us and our world free, Christians must be committed to the discipline and integrity of informed opinions. In the current political arenas in which we find ourselves, a dedication to truth (And yes, there is such a thing as truth!) will serve us, our nation, and our world in wise and just ways.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has from the beginning of its movement placed an emphasis on reason in the determination of theology and ethics. We recognize the Christian faith goes beyond mere reason but in our better moments we also recognize that our faith cannot be irrational. Many ethical issues, some of them quite controversial, face us at this juncture in the history of our denomination and, more importantly, in history of the world, And on these issues, there is a host of opinions. We would serve God, our church, and our world best if we remember that we who are committed to truth in Jesus Christ are not free to have just an opinion on any issue. We are free only to have an informed opinion. And the first step in developing an informed opinion is to realize that we may have something to learn. God save us from the stubborn arrogance to assume otherwise.