The Highest Ethic

The Highest Ethic October 19, 2020

Community is like a large mosaic… a fellowship of… people who together make God visible in the world.

—Henri Nouwen

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.

I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service is joy.

—Rabindranath Tagore


Shared values are not the same thing as shared humanity. Shared values are based on agreements that come from the head. They form the basis of culture. But it’s our shared humanity that is the basis of community. Our shared humanity is rooted in the honest and caring acknowledgment of our firsthand experience. In truth, the ways in which we meet without pretense are the ways we strengthen the bonds that hold us together. 

For example, in the support rooms, and waiting rooms, and treatment rooms I was a part of during my cancer journey, we seldom spoke of our religious backgrounds or our politics or worldviews. We were only there to keep each other company, with sensitivity and honesty, so that as many of us as possible could make it through our world of treatments. The highest ethic has always been the courage to be with each other in our pain and to honor each other’s journey. This is what it means to stand in compassion. 

During the recession of 2008, banks were foreclosing on homes nationwide, making thousands of families homeless. In Chicago, most of the people being evicted were diligent renters who had no knowledge that their landlords were delinquent with the banks. 

In Chicago’s Cook County, law enforcement officers were scheduled to evict residents affected by more than 4,700 foreclosures. This was when Cook County sheriff Thomas Dart put a moratorium on all foreclosure evictions. Sheriff Dart couldn’t support taking the law into his own hands, but, at the same time, he couldn’t put innocent families on the street.

Sheriff Dart said, “It’s one of most gut-wrenching things we do, seeing little children put out on the street with their possessions. And the hard part is that these parents played by all the rules, and they’re being traumatized.” 

In deciding not to evict these people, Sheriff Dart was using the power of his office compassionately rather than being blindly punitive. This is an example of shared humanity guiding an officer of the court, rather than a dispassionate obedience to arbitrary rules. Sheriff Dart reached a moral boundary he couldn’t in good conscience cross. This uncrossable moral boundary isn’t always definable though it’s always knowable. We know when we’re about to do harm, even under the guise of propriety. While ideas help us understand values, stories help us understand each other. 

This leads to another story from modern-day Uganda. In 1996, in northern Uganda, the government placed 1.5 million Ugandans in “protective villages” which were really containment camps. Many Ugandans still live there in small huts about eight to ten feet apart with eight water holes per 30,000 people. 

A painful part of their twelve-year civil war has been the massive abduction of children, turning little boys into young soldiers, in some cases sent to kill their own parents, and turning little girls into sex slaves. John Bryan is part of a refugee resettlement organization called Alliance for African Assistance. He’s met several times with the Ugandan elders who are restricted to these camps. Now that there’s a truce in Uganda, many young girls are returning with small children born during their ten years of abduction. On his last trip, John asked the elders, “What will happen to the young girls coming home?”

One elder quickly said that if a girl had run off and returned pregnant, she would be cast out of the village. This was their tribal law. But the question was put by one Ugandan elder wizened by his captivity: “And what will we do when ten thousand of our children, abducted and abused, return with a generation of our grandchildren fathered by our enemies?” One of the elders stared off, another cried. And in the incubation of that painful silence, a new form of thinking arose that would bring the children home. In this painful opening lies the hope of humanity.

Strangely, a decade of exhaustion from all the suffering has made the warring Ugandans one reluctant family. Mysteriously and painfully, when we deny that we’re of one human family, we’re forced in time to reconstruct our principles in order to embrace and love those who have suffered and survived. This is the bedrock of a shared humanity that places the care of each other as the highest ethic, no matter the hardships we encounter.

These aging chiefs have become reluctant pioneers, because they’ve been forced to widen centuries of tradition in order to welcome the unimagined offspring of a suffering no one thought possible. By facing this challenge, the northern Ugandans have added to the growing knowledge of truth and reconciliation explored by the ethical leaders in South Africa. The Ugandan elders serve as a profound example of the moral tension that can exist between our traditional values and our shared humanity.

When we eat of the heart’s fruit, we sweeten the world. When we do good, our capacity for connection reveals itself. When we endure others without subjugating ourselves to abuse or violence, we create a larger home in which all are welcome. Being wholehearted, we are strengthened by the mysterious fact that we are all that we touch and all that enters us, matured by each.


Questions to Walk With


  • Bring four or five friends together. In conversation, have each of you describe something you have worked on and cared about that you had to build again. How did you face this? How did you do it? What did you learn from this experience? In the next three weeks, identify something in your community that needs to be built again. Encourage each person in your small group to convene a similar group on their own to explore the same questions. 

This excerpt is from   More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World (Atria). 

Visit for news on Mark’s upcoming 2021 webinar. 

*Photo Credit: Shane Rounce


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