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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 5–8 

A Slip in Act or Character? - So What’s the Difference?

Response to “Case Study” by Elmer A. Martens 18/1 (1989): 3–4.

Bryan Born

Did Robert Cleaver act in an unethical manner? Is that the issue, or is the issue primarily one of character? One ethicist contends, “The question of what I ought to ‘do’ is actually about what I am or ought to be” (Hauerwas, 1983, 117). An analysis of the case may show that Robert Cleaver’s moral identity is key in his decision-making.

. . . by covering up the truth Mr. Cleaver has already witnessed to Mr. Gonzalez.

Mr. Cleaver is an ethics teacher at a Christian college. Should ethics teachers be expected to live on a higher plane than other Christians? Teachers will be held especially accountable (James 3:1; Rom. 2:21), but nowhere does Scripture claim that there are varying standards for different levels of Christians. On the contrary, Peter calls for all Christians to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16; also Matt. 5:48).

The seller is Oscar Gonzales, likely from Latin American background. Such an identity raises the issue of cultural influence and values in some non-Anglo cultures, in which side-stepping government regulations is a common practice, questioned by almost no one (although this is becoming increasingly commonplace in Anglo cultures as well). Conceivably Gonzales acted in accord with his community’s values. As numerous {6} ethicists have noted, the community has a powerful impact on how individuals view themselves, and on how they act (e.g., McClendon, 209-39).

Identity, both personal and communal, clearly plays an integral role in the dynamics of this case. Hauerwas says “Ethics. . .is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully” (1982, 33). Is not that the issue here: truth and integrity? Did Mr. Cleaver act in a manner consistent with a Christian profession, which assumes a life of truthfulness (cf. Ps. 26:3; Eph. 6:14; 1 John 3:19), in accordance with Christ, the Truth (John 1:14,17; 14:6)?

However, some might object to this questioning of Mr. Cleaver’s character. After all he never actually said that he did not purchase the car from Mr. Atwell. Cleaver was at fault; Mr. Gonzalez was responsible for failure to pay taxes. Yet is it right to “cover-up” the deceit of someone else? I can well remember sitting in a principal’s office, being asked whether I knew who had stolen a test from one of my teachers. Although I knew, I “took the fifth” and kept my mouth shut. I escaped, but was I truthful? Definitely not, and I knew it. Mr. Cleaver’s discomfort demonstrates that he knew it as well.

Still some might wonder, “What difference does it make?” It was not Cleaver’s fault; he had been trapped by the circumstances. Mr. Gonzalez had initially withheld information and if the DMV clerks really wanted to know the truth they should have insisted on a clear answer. Rationalizations are a dime a dozen. The fact is that Mr. Cleaver deliberately withheld truth.

The Apostle Peter instructs that Christians should not suffer as murderers, thieves, criminals or even as meddlers (1 Pet. 4:15). The definition of “meddlers” (allotriepiskopos) is somewhat obscure but it may refer to a “concealer of stolen goods” (Arndt-Gingrich), a description particularly apt here. Clearly Christians, in almost all cases (except see Acts 4:19; 5:29), should obey government regulations (Rom. 13:1-5), including the payment of taxes (see Rom. 13:6-7). Through his inaction, Mr. Cleaver effectively aided a criminal activity.

The pragmatic question still begs to be answered, “What should he have done?” One may sympathize with Cleaver’s plight. If he admits that he did not buy the car from the person named on the pink slip, then Gonzalez, the seller, will be in some trouble. Cleaver could rationalize. “If I tell the truth, {7} he’ll hate me, and I’ll never have the opportunity to witness to him.” But, in reality, by covering up the truth Mr. Cleaver has already witnessed to Mr. Gonzalez. He has demonstrated that Christian commitment does not affect how one lives. The apostles’ call not to conform to the world’s warped values stands in judgment over Cleaver’s actions (see Rom. 12:2; 1 Pet. 1:14; 1 John 2:15-17).

Should he have told the truth and risked Mr. Gonzalez’ wrath? The issue may not be that clear-cut. John Howard Yoder in his fine book on Christian nonresistance challenges Christians to explore all the options before making an ethical decision (25-36). One option was for Cleaver to tell the truth, thereby causing Gonzalez to pay taxes plus fines, and incurring his anger.

Another possibility would have been for Cleaver to reason with Gonzalez, or when questioned by the DMV clerk, Cleaver could have refused to answer, politely excused himself and explained the difficulty to Mr. Gonzalez. Had Cleaver acted to uncover the illegalities of the situation when he originally felt discomfort, he could have acted then and avoided ever facing the question at the DMV. Presumably he may have lost his opportunity to purchase the car. Are Christians not expected to make sacrifices in order to demonstrate that they are of a different moral character than the rest of the world (“take up your cross and follow me”)?

The subject of virtue formation is also pertinent. As McClendon says, virtues are “excellencies or skills” (104) which are fostered in the community and developed through repeated action. Truth is a virtue, and the truthful person habitually exhibits integrity in their actions. One will not always succeed but

“training in virtue” often requires that we struggle with the moral situations which we have “got ourselves into” in the hope that such a struggle will help us develop a character sufficient to avoid, or understand differently, such situations in the future (Hauerwas, Community, 1981, 115).

As Mr. Cleaver walked away from the DMV building and climbed into his “new” car, the right question for him to ask would be, “What kind of person am I becoming?” {8}


  • Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character. Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
  • _____. The Peaceable Kingdom. Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
  • McClendon, James Wm. Ethics. Nashville: Abingdon, 1986.
  • Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do? Scottdale: Herald, 1983.
Bryan Born is a senior at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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