The only time I ever confessed in Mafia was one year at summer camp. (Mafia, for those of you who don’t know, is a super awesome strategy game. Not the actual mob.) Let me set the scene for you: I was playing with my cabin and the guys from our brother cabin. One guy in particular was a bit out of place.
To give you an idea, picture a clean-cut, super conservative sixteen-year-old with a Biblical name (we’ll call him Nathaniel), a polo shirt, and a hopeless crush on me. (Don’t ask.)
Someone finally talked Nathaniel into playing Mafia, though he wasn’t sure a game based on killing people was ethical. During that first round, it just so happened that I was one of the Mafia. I had used my usual charm and sort-of-fake logic to convince everyone I was completely innocent, as usual. (Hey! What is that eye roll for?)
The game was nearing the end—I was the only Mafia left alive. There was only one person who still suspected me. She was relentless in her accusations, sure that I couldn’t be trusted. (A position, that, I will admit, is reasonably safe.)
Is it just me, or does it always seem that as soon as you’re sure you’ve got it made, something goes wrong? Because right as I was about to win it all, Nathaniel spoke up. “Everyone, it’s not Amy,” he insisted, “I know it isn’t. She wouldn’t lie.” At this point, I was staring at him, shaking my head and hoping he’d get the message to just stop where he was at.
The kid kept going. Of course. “I’d stake my own honor on the fact that she’s not the Mafia,” Nathaniel continued, proving that love is not only blind, it is also foolishly unaware of how the fifteen-year-old object of its affections is glaring at him and wishing he’d go home.
Of course, at this point, I interrupted him. “Nope, I’m the Mafia,” I announced. “Sorry—kill me now, everyone!” And they did. Other than a few hurt looks, Nathaniel got over it, probably figuring I had repented by confessing my lie and was in right standing before God by the time we got around to roasting s’mores around the campfire. What he didn’t know was that he forced me to consider for the first time: when I decide what’s right and wrong, how do I factor in what is hurtful to other people?
In retrospect, this is an amusing story. At the time, though, it made me consider: what if some issues of right and wrong aren’t as clear-cut as I once thought? What if lying in Mafia is sometimes completely morally acceptable…but at other times, isn’t? How do I come to conclusions about ethics when fiction and deception and intent and motives and other people’s morality are all part of the overall picture?
On one hand, I will not let anyone swear on a Bible during a game of Mafia. On the other, I do believe that Jesus would have played Mafia with his disciples if he had come to Earth today. (Which leads into a whole discussion about whether Jesus could limit his omniscience, that, for now, we might need to table.)
But all of that aside, the point is that Mafia is a great case study for how you process ethics in general. For example, I’ve used this logic on: Did Bonhoeffer do the right thing when he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler? In what situations is drinking alcohol acceptable, and when might it not be? Why do I like Survivor but not The Bachelor? (Seriously. Exact same logic. Ask me sometime if you want details.) Yes, it’s just a game. But there is no such thing as an insignificant moral decision. Our character is the sum of all the tiny little choices we make every day, and the whys behind them. That’s something, I think, that is very important to remember.
You can walk away from discussions like this and decide that it’s not worth it. Just make things as simple as possible: never lie, even in a game. Never kill anyone, even in self-defense. Never break any of the rules we make without really thinking about them. But I don’t think this is the right approach. As Christians, we can hold to absolute truth while still acknowledging that issues are complex and people are broken and sometimes it’s hard to know what is right and what is wrong. I think we should. I think we must.
Use this logic, though, and you’re in danger of sounding like you want everyone to make up their own morality, based on their emotions or their justifications or their motivation. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that sometimes, the Holy Spirit is more helpful than a one-size-fits-all rule. Sometimes, you have to use discernment to know whether to exercise your freedom or defer to your weaker brother, whether what you say will hurt someone even if it really shouldn’t, if God is telling you to act in a way that’s different from what might be culturally acceptable. Balance. Prayer. Discernment. That’s the secret.
Word to the wise: discernment is hard. Maybe it’s supposed to be. Maybe in a broken world, the struggle to know what is right is meant to make us long for the day when righteousness won’t be a struggle. We’re doing the best we can, here on earth. But there’s always this weary, frustrating sense that we’re not quite there.
Or maybe it’s simply a matter of learning to trust God more—to rely on him instead of our artificial rules, to seek after what’s right instead of expecting it to come easily, to search the Scriptures diligently instead of wishing they’d just explain themselves. Nothing that’s truly worthwhile comes without effort. Nothing.
Will you always get it right? Not a chance. Sorry. Sometimes, the Nathaniels of the world will still feel hurt, or you won’t be able to explain why Star Wars Mafia is inherently more ethical than normal Mafia, or someone will be a sore loser and forget that it is just a game. (Trust me. This will happen.)
Have faith, though—taking the time to think about ethics is worth it. It really is. And, if you know me in person, you should stop by for a game of Mafia sometime. It’ll be fun.