In 1991 Hollywood produced a comedy entitled “City Slickers,” starring Billy Crystal. In a quirky way it was a wonderfully moral film, focusing on three, middle-aged men from New York City who were dealing with midlife crisis.
As a present from their wives, who are frustrated enough with them to attempt anything, the three are given the gift of participating in a cattle drive through New Mexico and Colorado. And so these three urbanites set off to ride horses through the wilderness.
The comedy part of the film focuses on their inept horsemanship and their naiveté about cattle and the wilderness. The more serious part of the movie tracks their conversations as they try to sort through both their own struggles with aging and the larger mysteries of life.
And one day as they are discussing sex, one of the three, Ed, the character with the least amount of moral scruples, asks the other two whether they would be unfaithful to their wives and have an affair if they were sure that they would never be caught. Billy Cyrstal's character, Mitch, initially engages the question jokingly, protesting its impossibility: You always get caught! All affairs get exposed in the end.
But Ed persists with his question: "But suppose you wouldn't get caught. Suppose you could get away with it. Would you cheat on your wife and have an affair, if no one would ever know?"
Mitch's answer: "No, I still wouldn't do it!" "Why not?" asks Ed. "Nobody would know."
"But I'd know," Mitch replied, "and I'd hate myself for it!"
There are volumes of moral wisdom in that answer. Ultimately nobody gets away with anything. We always get caught, not least by ourselves and by the moral energy inside the air we breathe.
Moreover whether we get caught or not, there will always be consequences. This is a deep, inalienable moral principle written into the very fabric of the universe itself. Universal human experience attests to this. Nobody ultimately gets away with anything, despite every protest to the contrary.
We see this articulated, for example, in the very heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and virtually all Eastern religions in a concept that is popularly called the Law of Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word which means action or deed, but it carries with it the implication that every action or deed we do generates a force of energy that returns to us in kind, namely, what we sow is what we will reap.
Hence, bad intent and bad actions will ricochet back on us and cause unhappiness, just as good intent and good actions will ricochet back on us and bring us happiness, irrespective of what is seen or known by anyone else. The universe has its own laws that assure this.
Jesus was no stranger to the idea. It is everywhere present in his teachings and at times explicitly stated: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6, 38).
In essence, Jesus is telling us that the air we breathe out is the air that we will re-inhale and that this is true at every level of our existence: Simply put, if we are emitting too much carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the air we will eventually find ourselves suffocating on them. And this is true at every level of our lives:
—If I breathe out bitterness, I will eventually find myself breathing in bitterness.
—If I breathe out dishonesty, I will eventually find myself breathing in dishonesty.
—If I breathe out greed and stinginess, I will eventually find myself gasping for a generosity in a world suffocating on greed and stinginess.
Conversely, if I breathe out generosity, love, honesty and forgiveness, I will eventually, no matter how mean and dishonest the world around me, find life inside a world of generosity, love, honesty and forgiveness.
What we breathe out is what we will eventually re-inhale. This is a non-negotiable truth written into the very structure of the universe, written into life itself, written into every religion worthy of the name, written into the teachings of Jesus, and written into every conscience that is still in good faith.
Where does this principle ground itself, and why can it never be violated without consequence? The principle is alienable because the universe protects itself, because Mother Earth protects herself, because human nature protects itself, because the laws of love protect themselves, because the laws of justice protect themselves, because the laws of conscience protect themselves, because God has created a universe that is moral in its very structure.
Being moral or not is not something we can choose or not choose. We don't have that prerogative because God created a morally-contoured universe, one that has deep, inalienable moral grooves which need to be honored and respected, irrespective of whether we get caught or not when we cheat.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.