Do the ends justify the means?

Do they? Here’s another way of asking the same question — are you more concerned with the end result of something, or does the way you get there matter?

If the end result is all that matters, then the way you get there doesn’t. Think about the consequences of this though before you jump in with both feet. If the process doesn’t matter, I wonder, do the people in the process matter?

Here’s an example — the executive orders that have been issued. Trump issued an executive order re-starting the Keystone Pipeline. Obama had issued an executive order halting construction of the pipeline. Both were done by executive order. Supporters of Obama cheered when he did this and critics were upset and claimed that this was an abuse of power. Now that Trump has used an executive order to restart the pipeline, those that support him are cheering and critics who are upset are claiming that this is an abuse of power. I’m guessing that the people who have been openly vocal about this, on either side are more concerned with the end result rather than with the process used — executive orders.

Yet, both of these sides should be concerned with the process. If one president can make a policy with his signature on an executive order, then another can reverse it. It’s very efficient. It’s also one person’s decision. In essence, that one person becomes the law. There’s no need to involve anyone else, make arguments in public, go through the mess of the legislative process, deal with potential compromise or legitimate criticism about a potential policy. Nope, just sign it and poof — it’s now essentially law.

So much for checks and balances. But hey, you got what you wanted right? Never mind what kind of precedent it creates.

In our Gospel reading this past Sunday, we heard Jesus preach the Beatitudes. I’m going to argue that Jesus isn’t making an argument that the ends justify the means here. Based on what I read, I hear Jesus saying that the process matters, because the people in the process matter.

In each of Jesus’ sayings in the Beatitudes, he is speaking in the present tense — “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc. He is referring to people who are these things right now. The second half of each Beatitude deals with the future, but I argue that is not the thrust of each of these statements — it’s the present tense statement that comes first and therefore are emphasized.

Not all of the beatitudes are what you could call “processes.” What they are is something different — they are people who are going through life, experiencing something. This is Jesus blessing people in the midst of life — not just at the end of life or sometime in the future. They are in the process of life right now.

So why does this matter? Go back to the original question — do the ends justify the means?

Here’s a variation of this — Are we as a church going to respond to political actions with political approaches, political rhetoric, and political language that focuses on legalities? Is our primary focus just to get the result that we want? If the ends justify the means, then the answer is it doesn’t matter how we interact with politics because it is the end that matters. If the end is the only thing that matters, then demonizing political opponents and winning are all that is important. Except I don’t think that’s what Jesus taught.

If the process matters, then I think our options are far different. Christianity isn’t only about what happens to us when we die. It’s not just about the end result. It’s also about now — life. It’s about the process of living. Jesus made statements of how we are to live right now. Peacemakers aren’t looking at peace as a destination — it’s a way of life. Being poor in spirit isn’t about the end result, but rather an outlook of how we live and relate with God and others. Being merciful isn’t about arriving at the destination of mercy or waiting for someone else to show mercy first, it’s showing mercy all along the journey of life. The process matters.

If the church is only interested in the end result, then we are no different from any other political movement through human history where victory is a destination and the ends justify the means — which means the enemy and opponent can be destroyed in the process because the process and all people in the process, don’t matter.

When I read the Beatitudes, I see a different story and hear a different message. One where it’s not just the end that matters, but how we get there as well. Because there are going to be God’s blessed along the way.

Originally published at on January 31, 2017.



My name is Matthew Best. I’m an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor who attempts to translate church and churchy stuff into everyday language.

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Pastor Matthew Best

My name is Matthew Best. I’m an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor who attempts to translate church and churchy stuff into everyday language.