That One Time I Confessed In Mafia

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.

I don't think we even need to discuss whether this kind of Mafia is ethical.

I don’t think we even need to discuss whether this kind of Mafia is ethical.

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.

I have so many friends who love this character in Star Wars Mafia.

I have so many friends who love this character in Star Wars Mafia.

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.

10 comments

  1. I’ve played mafia via message board on a number of occasions. I can conform that the game is an absolute thrill to play.

    I can’t say I’m in agreement on Jesus playing Mafia if had existed in his time, though (I’m open to hearing your argument on why he would, though).

    Also: “Why do I like Survivor but not The Bachelor? (Seriously. Exact same logic. Ask me sometime if you want details.)” As someone who is similarly a fan of Survivor but cares little to nothing for Bachelor, I’m interested in your own logic on the matter.

    1. My argument for Jesus playing Mafia is basically that if it would have been a sin for Jesus, it would be a sin for us too. And I don’t think it’s sinful (since the rules of the game allow lying–kind of like how fiction books allow “lying,” but everyone agrees on the rules that they know fiction stories aren’t true).

      As for my Survivor/Bachelor logic, the short version is this: Survivor is a game with rules that make it play like a game. The Bachelor is supposed to be about love, and that was not meant to be a game.

  2. Love this because it’s so true. Discernment is one of my struggles. I just tend to be loud and happy, especially when I’m with people I love, and even more so when I’m nervous. Horrible character trait: I have no idea what to say to this person so open mouth and spill out words.
    I’ve had to learn that awkward silences are better than a lack of discretion and discernment. Thank you for this reminder again to keep working at it. And know, ethics are never cut and dry. For instance, saying you wouldn’t kill someone even in self-defense, basically says you will kill yourself in that situation. It’s not easy. 🙂

    1. Oh, that sounds so very familiar! I spend most of my time with my foot in my mouth, I’m afraid.

      I love your thoughts on awkward silences as well. This is so true…and yet so hard for me to remember.

  3. I think we (the intelligentsia of our generation) get kicks out of not thinking, “the 9th commandment means we have to tell the Gestapo that the Jews are in the basement or the Jericho police that the spies are under the flax or whatever.” Cause that’s too flat. We like nuance and grey. And fair enough, it’s there. And yet I often find myself doing such a good job of explaining a text that it no longer means what it says at all (normally this only happens in my head and then I have the chance not to inflict my logic on other people but sometimes it happens out loud, to my shame).

    So, Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship: In Chapter 3 he’s saying something that I’m pretty sure you’d agree with but I think it’s a really healthy caution. Bonhoeffer imagines a father who sends his child to bed: [quote]

    The boy knows at once what he has to do But suppose he has picked up a smattering of psedo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: ‘Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: “Go out and play.” … Are we to treat the commandment of Jesus differently from other orders and exchange single-minded obedience for downright disobedience? How could that be possible?

    It is possible because there is an element of truth underlying all this sophistry. When Jesus calls the young man [the rich young ruler] to enter into the situation where faith is possible he does it only with the aim of making the man have faith in him, that is to say, he calls him into fellowship with himself. In the last resort what matters is not what the man does … it is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ.

    [end quote] Earlier Bonhoeffer was imagining the rich young ruler saying “Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.”

    And we, according to Bonhoeffer are often like that: [quote]

    If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it’, we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are, but cultivate that inward detachment.’ Again, if he were to say to us: ‘Be not anxious’, we should take him to mean: ‘Of course it is not wrong for us to be anxious: we must work and provide for ourselves and our dependants. If we did not we should be shirking our responsibilities. But all the time we ought to be inwardly free from all anxiety.’ Perhaps Jesus would say to us: ‘Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ We should then suppose him to mean: ‘The way to really love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.’

    [end quote] And I feel like it’s true. We recognise the flaws of black and white type of interpretations (that it is possible to be rich and love Jesus) but we fail in that we muddy the waters with grey when we should be making them clearer. The litmus test for me is often, “does this type of argument lead to me saying the opposite of what is obviously meant.” And too often that’s where I end up…

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