Category Archives: Ethics

The House that “Spite” Built

spite houseIf you ever find yourself in Virginia City, Nevada, take the tram tour and you will hear the story about the “Spite House.”

A resident of the city built a house no more than one foot away from another resident. His purpose? to block the beautiful view the first house had of the valley. It was a house that Spite built.

The house that Spite built in Virginia City, is not the only house of its type in our country. Another one was built in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts. In 1874, Two brothers inherited some land from their deceased father. While one brother was away to war, the other one built a large house leaving only a tiny strip of land to his brother. When the soldier brother returned home, he built a house 10.4 feet wide that tapers to a mere 9.25 feet in the rear. It blocks the sunlight and ruins the view from his brother’s house. To this day it is called “The Skinny House,” This is a house that Spite built.

A path between two homes in Alexandria, Virginia attracted an unwanted amount of horse-drawn wagon traffic and loiterers. The year was 1830. John Hollensbury built a two-story home using the existing brick walls of the adjacent homes for its sides to prevent people from using the alleyway. Yet another house built by Spite.

In the early 1900’s Charles Froling’s land was taken from him by the State of California to build a street. Mr. Froling wanted to erect his dream house on this inherited lot. To spite the city and an unsympathetic neighbor, he built a house 10 feet wide, 54 feet long and 20 feet high on the strip of land the State left for him.

Other houses are on record that have been built by Spite. Do a google search and you will can find them yourself. Click on the “images” search.

The irony of building a house out of spite for one’s neighbor is that they are very impractical. One source observes, “Because actually inhabiting such structures is usually a secondary goal at most, they often have strange and impractical layouts. Once the reason it was constructed or modified is publicized, locals begin referring to the house or commercial building as a spite house.” Such structures become bywords and proverbs, and their owners become known by their ill motives.

Israel became a byword to the nations surrounding them. The Lord forewarned through Moses, “And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away” (Deuteronomy 28:37). Centuries later, Daniel would acknowledge in prayer, “…Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us” (Daniel 9:16).

There are a host of ways to become a byword. You can become one by allowing your actions to be governed by revenge like those who built “Spite Houses.” Or you can forsake God and serve other gods like Israel. Either way, your motives will be evident to by the things you build—whether it be a house or an idol.

In his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, President Reagan said, “Tear down this wall.” If we are guilty of erecting a spite house or any such edifice, we would do well to tear it down also.


Sheri Morris died of a disease that crippled her so severely that in the last 5 years of her life, she could not do for herself. She could breathe, but she could not speak, or walk, or feed herself. She yawned incessantly, and every time she did, her jaw would lock, freezing her mouth in a permanent yawn. She was totally incapacitated. Everything had to be done for her.

Dan Morris, her husband, married her knowing she had Friedreich’s Ataxia, a disease that causes progressive damage to the nervous system (Wikipedia). But he could not resist his attraction to one of the sweetest and most innocent young women he had ever met.

Dan and Sheri were close friends of my family, so we saw the slow but steady decline in her ability to stand, or walk, or talk. On several occasions, I was invited to stay with them in their home. I watched Dan care for Sheri’s every need. He would feed her, wash her, massage her feet, comb out her long brown hair, talk to her, joke with her, and unlock her jaw dozens of times every day and night.

Dan worked from home when Sheri could no longer be left alone. And when he went anywhere, he would load her up in a wheel chair. Sheri was not a heavy built woman by any means, but she was not tiny. Dan would lift her from her hospital bed located in their front room and place her in a wheel chair. He would lift her again and secure her in the car. She went everywhere he went. Dan is a preacher. On Sundays, while he was preaching or teaching, several of the good sisters at the Galt Church of Christ would tend to her.

Dan remembers Sheri asking, “Are you my husband?” and feeling very alone at night, waking occasionally, to unlock Sheri’s jaw. He also remembers asking the perennial and very human question, “Why?”

Dan cared for her till the very end.
* * * * *
Genuine love, according to the Bible and centuries of Western thought, is characterized as benevolent. Love is motivated by a desire to do what is in another person’s best interest without being poisoned by ulterior motives. Shakespeare argues that even when the one loved may have changed (even for the worse) your desire to do what is in their best interest remains on course. “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,” and “It is an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken;/It is the star to every wandering bark…” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). Genuine love is also characterized by the desire to be with the beloved.

When I think of love as defined by the Bible in passages like 1 Corinthians 13, I think, first and foremost, of Jesus of Nazareth and the love God commended toward us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). But I also think of Dan and others like him who have acted out the very meaning of love.
Dan still preaches in Galt, CA and is married to a sweet and supportive wife, Bethel. They have a son named “Morro”. The Lord continues blessing his latter days. Thank you Dan.

A Different Light

Figure by Pegaso Miniatures, Painted by Andrea Terzolo

I paint historical miniature figures. I decided to take one to my mentor for critique. Satisfied with what I had done so far, I took the figure to my car. Between the house and the car I put my glasses on to see what it looked like in the bright light of the sun. Words escape describing how disappointed I was. It looked absolutely horrible. I was shocked. I had trouble accounting for the difference in appearance until I recalled all the literature I had read on lighting.

How could different kinds of light make the same thing appear so many different ways? Could light be that important?

In the light of my mentor’s shop, it looked great again. He was very complementary. When I told him what I had experienced he just laughed it off. He told me that competitive painters usually try to paint their figures in the same light by which the figure will be judged in competition.

Things look different under different kinds of light. We have two lamps in our bedroom. They both give off different kinds of light. That’s because two different kinds of bulbs are in those lamps. I never noticed the difference before, but I see it now. It never mattered before. It matters now.

So, under what kind of light should you paint? The answer varies from painter to painter. But if you are entering a competition, you had best paint your figure under the same kind of light it will be judged under.

Our lives are like the miniatures I paint. Under one light, the light of the world say, we may look very respectable, but under the light that comes from the Lord, we may look very different. Then again, if we shape our life by the light of the Word of God, we may look very different when assessed by the world’s light, or lack thereof.

The Scriptures, in particular John’s Gospel, do not contrast different kinds of light. The contrast there is between light and no light, or darkness (e.g. John 1:1-5; 12:35, 36). The world abides in darkness. The source of light is God and His Son. Jesus Christ is the light of the world (Jn. 8:12).

My point is this: while there are different kinds light that produce varying results, there is only one light by which we will be judged. It is under that light we must view, weigh, and assess our lives because it is by that light our lives will be judged (Jn 12:48).

Moral Authority

The ancients believed in something, for practical purposes, we will call moral authority. By moral authority, I mean a kind of authority that is not derived through appointment, but authority that is obtained by virtue of character. In other words, the individual is respected for their moral integrity without needing to appeal to academic degrees or appointments.

The idea of moral authority was discussed when rhetoric was taught by the ancients. (Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.) Aristotle, for example, wrote a book on rhetoric. In it he argues there are three key ingredients that constitute an effective persuasive speech. They are logos, pathos and ethos.

Logos pertains to the reasonableness of any speech. Is the conclusion supported by the premises given? Pathos pertains to passion. The corresponding question here is, has the speaker sufficiently affected the emotions of the audience? Ethos pertains to the character of the speaker.

Of Ethos, Aristotle writes, “Persuasion is achieved by the speakers’ personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily that others: This is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true when exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided… his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses” (Modern Library, p. 25).

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul appeals to his moral authority. He reminds the church that he did not come to them in word alone, or in vain, or of error, or motivated by uncleanness, or of guile. He did not come pleasing men. He did not use words of flattery, or a cloak of covetousness. He did not seek the glory of men nor preach the word of men. It is here that he writes, “we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2:6-8).

Who has that kind of authority over you? And over whom could you exercise such authority?