>In 1966 Joseph Fletcher published a book that caused much discussion and debate inside and outside the church. The book, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), caused a furor because Fletcher was advocating a new form of morality, a morality based on individual responsibility in which a situation decided whether an action was right or wrong.
Fletcher developed the argument of his book by saying that “any act, even lying, premarital sex, abortion, adultery, and murder, could be right depending on the circumstances.” To Fletcher, when love reigns, love dictates what must be done. Thus, when a person is confronted with a moral decision, the solution is relative. The most loving thing is the answer to the problem. The introduction to Fletcher’s book quotes him saying: “Rising above any creed, this renewed morality of loving concern is based on agape, the love of which only God is capable, but which every man must endeavor to emulate. Just as Jesus defied convention to make decisions on the basis of particular people and particular circumstances, so must modern man.”
The most fascinating aspect of the book is the way Fletcher uses stories and anecdotes to illustrate situation ethics. Of the 126 stories and illustrations in the book, 86 are in the area of private morality and 36 are in area of sexual ethics.
Today, almost fifty years after the publication of the book, many people have never heard of Fletcher’s book and only a handful have ever read it. It is for this reason that I have selected two cases to illustrate what situation ethics is all about.
In this post I will present the first story. Then, in a few days I will post the second story. I welcome your comments and reactions. At the end of the story, I will give the guidelines for your response. Before I tell you the story, I want to introduce what the Bible says about the sanctity of marriage.
The Theological Imperative
The Bible says: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). The seventh commandment was given to protect the sanctity of marriage, to promote the happiness of the family, and to ensure the stability and permanency of a marriage.
The following story was given by Fletcher (pages 164-65) to illustrate a case of sacrificial adultery:
As the Russian armies drove westward to meet the Americans and British at the Elbe, a
Soviet patrol picked up a Mrs. Bergmeier foraging food for her three children. Unable even to get word to the children, and without any clear reason for it, she was taken off to a prison camp in the Ukraine. Her husband had been captured in the Bulge and was taken to a POW camp in Wales.
When he was returned to Berlin, he spent weeks and weeks rounding up his children; two (Ilse, twelve, and Paul, ten) were found in a detention school run by Russians, and the oldest, Hans, fifteen, was found hiding the in a cellar near the Alexander Platz. Their mother’s
whereabouts remained a mystery, but they never stopped searching. She more than anything else was needed to reknit them as a family in that dire situation of hunger, chaos, and fear.
Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned through a sympathetic commandant that her husband and family were trying to keep together and find her. But the rules allowed them to release her for only two reasons: (1) illness needing medical facilities beyond the camp’s, in which case she would be sent to a Soviet hospital elsewhere, and (2) pregnancy, in which case she would be returned to Germany as a liability.
She turned things over in her mind and finally asked a friendly Volga German camp guard to impregnate her, which he did. Her condition being medically verified, she was sent back to Berlin and to her family. They welcomed her with open arms, even when she told them how she had managed it. When the child was born, they loved him more than all the rest, on the view that little Dietrich had done more for them than anybody.
Does the decision of Mrs. Bergmeier to be impregnated by the guard justify the violation of the sanctity of her marriage?
I welcome your comments. If you want to comment on this post, I am going to ask you to abide by the following guidelines:
1. Your comment must only address the question I raised and the issue presented by the story.
2. Be brief and to the point. Do not preach a sermon.
3. No personal attacks will be allowed. Respect the comments of other readers.
4. If you are going to react to a comment by a reader, respond with respect and dignity.
5. Any comment that does not abide by these guidelines will be deleted.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary