Category Archives: Christian ethics

Is Protesting for Justice a Christian Act?

Yesterday and today many of my Christian friends, my dear friends, proudly shared selfies of themselves in the streets of Los Angeles protesting for “justice.” I was troubled, not by their choice of causes, but by their untroubled confidence that protest is a noble and Christian thing to do. Hence this afternoon I ask you not whether the cause for which they protested is just but whether protest as an act is a Christian thing to do.

It seems that many good people allow their belief in the rightness of a cause to blind them to the moral ambiguity of the means of supporting it. Protesting, marching, and demonstrating become inherently noble things to do. But are they? What is an act of protest? It is at least an act of speech that includes symbolic actions meant to express aggrieved feelings and convey a message of strong disapproval and anger. It is not a mutually agreed upon dialogue or debate in which one presents one’s reasoned arguments. It presupposes, rather, that dialogue and reasoned argument have been abandoned. By its very nature protest interrupts others and demands that they stop speaking and listen. Protest by its very form embodies a threat of disorder, for it is an act meant to display and exert power, conducted outside the usual political process.  My question is this: Is this form of speech and action a Christian way of speaking and acting when confronted by what one believes is injustice? Ought we not at least ask this question?

In view of these events, I am reblogging today an essay I wrote in 2016. Here is the paragraph in that post that convinced me that I should reblog it:

“Justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

 

“On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice”

(Originally Posted January 1, 2016)

 In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.

True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):

Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.

How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

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“Biology Is Not Destiny”: The Feminist Case Against Male Superiority

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We are now entering the last phase of our dialogue on the subject of gender relationships in society, church and family. Only two presentations to go. In this our eleventh session, our representative of secular feminism Gloria will respond to Abraham’s presentation of neo-patriarchy. Please welcome Gloria to the podium.

Gloria: Thank you. There are so many things I’d like to address in Abraham’s talk, it’s mood of condescension, it’s male-normative perspective, and it’s exaggeration of female vulnerability. My suspicion is that Abraham’s rational and theological arguments are mere rationalizations of the prejudices I just mentioned. I will let the audience decide. Despite my suspicions, I will limit my assessment of Abraham’s talk to its philosophical aspects.

As I see it Abraham’s case rests on his rational analysis of the natural characteristics of women and men. Men are physically stronger and temperamentally more aggressive than women. Women become pregnant, carry babies and provide them with milk from their bodies. These factors make women vulnerable to male exploitation and dependent on male protection. According to Abraham, these facts of nature will necessarily manifest themselves at the social level and, consequently, they justify the social, ecclesial and familial inequalities present in traditional societies. To be fair, I should point out that Abraham admits that particular arrangements will differ from society to society and from age to age. Nevertheless, it is clear that Abraham denies that these natural inequalities will ever be neutralized completely at the social level. Nor should they be, in his view.

Far be it from me to deny the basic facts of biology. Nor do I deny that biological differences will manifest themselves in society. In a one-on-one, unarmed encounter, men have the advantage over women in a fight to the death. And in primitive, warrior societies where the survival of the tribe depends on its effectiveness in battle, I admit there are good reasons for the traditional division of labor between men and women. And I understand that the warrior class (males only) will also demand to be the tribal leaders. Nor do I dispute the overall reasonableness of this demand, since leadership in that setting is about conducting war or perpetually preparing for it.

Like his hero Aristotle, Abraham recognizes that women and men are equal in native intelligence. I think he would also admit that if human minds did not live in bodies or if they could be transferred to unisex humanoid robots, the differences would be overcome. So far so good, but our agreement ends here. From this point on Abraham’s argument goes terribly wrong. The facts do not warrant the conclusions he draws from them. Though he admits that modern technology has made the physical differences between men and women less significant in the sphere of work and war than in the past, he still seems to think that the superiority of the naked male body for war and work (hard physical labor) creates a moral imperative for society to mirror this relationship of superiority and inferiority in all dimensions. Perhaps his belief that God created nature lies behind his assertion that the order of nature possesses the force of law. Some such metaphysical belief must be at work here.

I begin at a different place and argue for a different result. I argue that equality of intelligence between men and women, which Abraham also accepts, creates a moral imperative for us to strive for equality in all other areas. Biology should not determine ethics. Or, as one of my feminist sisters said, “Biology is not destiny!” Unlike Abraham, I do not believe in divine creation. Evolution creates facts but imposes no moral obligations. Hence I do not believe that the factual biological order possesses any moral force. In sum, Abraham allows biological inequality to blunt the moral force of intellectual equality. I argue that it should be the other way around.

I envision a society where technology eventually makes all—or nearly all—work depend on knowledge rather than muscle, thought instead of testosterone, and where law roots out all irrational bias against female knowledge workers. As to areas of work where muscle still determines productivity, I believe society should not allow profit to be the sole determining factor for allocating social goods. The moral imperative of intellectual and moral equality should rule out of court any bias against women in hiring for such labor intensive jobs.

Concerning Abraham’s contention that women continue to need male protection, it should be pointed out that everyone, men as well as women, need police protection against violent criminals, male or female. Men murder other men more often than men murder women. Society as a collective is neither male nor female, and it is stronger than any one man or gang of men. Society has replaced big brothers and fathers as the protector of women. Modern family law has replaced the will of father as the law of the household and has outlawed domestic violence, marital rape and other abuses of women.

In response to Abraham’s theological arguments, I have little to add to my case against Sarah’s theological use of the Bible. In response to Sarah, I argued that the Bible cannot be made to support feminism; such support would be redundant in any case. Feminism doesn’t need any help from religion. Indeed Abraham represents the Bible more accurately than Sarah does. Sarah is grasping at straws. Abraham is correct to argue that the Bible supports patriarchy rather than equalitarianism. But I am not moved by either argument, for the Bible holds no authority for me. The arguments between Sarah and Abraham about biblical interpretation seem to me much ado about nothing.

Moderator: Thank you Gloria. I appreciate your contribution to this dialogue. It was invaluable.

Note: The twelfth and last part of this series will be posted on Tuesday, January 24. Sarah will present her response to Abraham.

A Dialogue Between a Secular Feminist, an Evangelical Egalitarian, and a Neo-Patriarch

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Opening Statements

Moderator: I am very grateful that you three have agreed to engage in a dialogue on a topic of intense interest and immense significance for my audience, that is, the ethics of male/female relationships in society, church, and home. Of course, we will not attempt to address every dimension of that issue but will focus on power and privilege, which are at the center of the contemporary controversy. As moderator, I will not take sides but I will attempt to enforce civility and encourage clarity. And I will try to keep you from straying from the topic under discussion. The dialogue will begin with opening statements from each of you. Please state your view clearly, explain your grounds for holding it, and detail some of its practical implications for society, church, and home. The order will be Gloria, Sarah, and Abraham.

Secular Feminism

Gloria: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to explain and defend secular feminism to this audience. And since you seek clarity in this dialogue, I shall begin with a statement as clear as crystal: It is wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to forbid a woman to do something she wants to do simply because she is a woman. Some things are logically impossible for everyone. Some things are physically impossible for everyone. And some things are physically possible for some people but for not others. But anything that is possible should be permissible. Secular feminists recognize as legitimate no law of nature, no social custom, no political legislation, and no divine law that forbids a woman to do what is possible for her. And we condemn every political, social, ecclesiastical, and familial institution that keeps a woman from actualizing her potential the way she wishes.

Having stated clearly what secular feminists assert, I shall explain the grounds or justification for our assertions. Those grounds fall into two categories. The first concerns a view of the self that is presupposed by all modern progressive movements, including secular feminism. The second concerns women’s experience of their own selves as women. The modern view of the self began to surface in the Renaissance, continued in the 17th century Enlightenment and in the 19th century Romantic Movement, and came to maturity in the late 20th century. When you disengage the human self from all external frameworks that impose on the self a preexisting, unchosen, and alien identity—state, society, family, church, and nature—you discover the essential self. This self exists apart from these frameworks and possesses power to create its own identity, that is, to become what it wishes to be. Its essence or one essential property is freedom, the creative power of will. The dignity of the self does not derive from any value system outside the self, from nature or God or society. Its dignity is self-grounded. That is to say, I am related to myself and I am worth something to myself. I value myself more than I value the whole world. Given the power of the self to create its own identity and establish its own dignity, it makes sense for the self to assert its right to determine itself and liberate itself from all external frameworks and forces. In fact, this assertion is the self’s essence and its proper act. And it demands that others respect its self-respect. This then is first justification for secular feminists’ assertion of their right to self-determination against all external frameworks and powers.

The second justification is specific to women. Women are self-creating selves like all human beings but in their own particular way. We secular feminists call it “women’s experience.” Women experience their female bodies from within, and they experience the external world of nature, society, church, men, and family as women. And that experience includes misrepresentation, oppression, exclusion, domination, abuse, and rape. Women’s experience includes the feeling of powerlessness, forced silence, and dismissiveness on the part of men. Women experience being valued only for the satisfaction of male lust, as wombs used for reproduction, as housekeepers, cooks, caretakers for children, and babysitters for immature men. We secular feminists consider women’s experience an authority by which to critique the oppressive structures of the patriarchal past and those that still remain.  More accurately, the modern view of the self, which I described above, is the authority by which oppressive structures are judged to be wrong and women’s experience is the way even subtle oppressive structures are revealed as oppressive for women. (In philosophical language, the first is ontological, having to do with the mode of being, and the second is epistemic, having to do with the way of knowing.) Because of their experience of oppression, women can see things that men cannot see.These two sources together provide a foundation and justification for secular feminism.

The third thing the Moderator asked me to do was to detail some practical implications of secular feminism. I will be as clear in this section as I was in the first. Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil. We also demand that every framework, order, institution, and structure that blocks or inhibits the realization of women’s potential be reformed or abolished. These institutions include all public and so-called private institutions: government, churches, military, clubs, families, societies, and schools. And since these institutions are heirs of a long history of oppression, they cannot be left to reform themselves. There must be an aggressive public policy of affirmative action to move rapidly toward equality. As for churches, they are the worst offenders, not only because of their oppressive practices but, more egregiously, because of their patriarchal ideology dictated by Bible, that ancient patriarchal and misogynous text that ought to have been relegated to the dustbin of failed mythologies long ago but is still revered by uneducated men and the women deceived by them. While I am on that subject…

Moderator: Perhaps this would be a good place to stop, since you seem to have completed your case and are now skating close to the edge of incivility. I think you have given our audience a clear idea of the nature of secular feminism. Your statement was clear, bold, and honest. It will give us something to think about and discuss in the next phase of the dialogue.

Next, we will hear from Sarah our representative of Evangelical Egalitarianism.

Is Social Justice Ministry A Substitute Gospel?

For the past two weeks I have been editing my blog posts of the past 13 months in preparation to publish the third book written in installments on this blog. The title will be A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. As I worked through the chapters I paused at chapter 44 and thought about the state of the churches in the United States and, by extension, in other English-speaking countries. I see so many changes in process and on the horizon. In almost all cases, change is morally and theological ambiguous, that is, it includes some change for better and some for worse. The change this chapter considers is the change in evangelical and theologically conservative churches from emphasis on evangelism and soul saving to social justice works. The criticism of the soul saving model of outreach is that is treats people as disembodied souls rather than as whole persons. Of course, there is some truth to this criticism.

However, in my view, the shift to social justice as the church’s primary outreach to the world also distorts the mission of the church. I see three obvious ways this distortion takes place. (1) The social justice model possesses a strong tendency to play down the need for individual repentance, faith, and conversion. The evil it aims to address is socially systemic injustice rather than personal sin. It views the human problem as rooted in its racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, environmentally exploitative, plutocratic, etc., social structures rather than in each person’s idolatry, ignorance, and rebellion against God. Or, it engages in relieving poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. without engaging in evangelism and establishing churches. (2) It tends to blur the line between the kingdom of God and the world. It allows the church to become an adjunct to the world, functioning as a social agency devoted to ameliorating the world’s ills. Christianity, originally understood as the present, supernatural manifestation of the future reign of God, is transformed into an ideology whose value is based on its usefulness in support of social activism. Christians working for social justice are tempted to root their identity more in a cause held in common with nonbelievers than with a cause exclusive to believers. (3) It tends to utopianism, that is, the naive view that we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth by dent of human effort. It seeks to cure human sin by reorganizing social structures or meeting bodily needs.

A Question for Social Justice Ministries

To what degree does the move from evangelism to social justice represent a loss of faith in power and truth of the gospel and abandonment of belief in the necessity of personal faith, repentance, and conversion? How far does it go to subordinate the body of Christ to the body politic of a nation? To what extent does it replace the cause of Christ with the cause of an interest group?

Hence today I want to re-post the edited version of an essay I posted some months ago. It will be published as chapter 44 in A Course in Christianity:

Is “Social Justice” a Christian Concept?

In a time of increasing emphasis on social justice in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless,” “the widow,” and the “poor” (Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isaiah 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

 

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity of seeking justice morally ambiguous. True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of disdain springs to life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we are trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible rule that we become like what we hate.

 

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous for sure, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We enjoy a highly developed and finely nuanced power for detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge.

 

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself; and the foundation for loving justice more than yourself is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t act justly in all our relationships? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

Christian Morality—Arbitrary, Irrational, Outdated?

The Christian vision of the moral life is often ridiculed as arbitrary, irrational, or outdated. It’s too strict! It’s too serious! And it’s unrealistic about what human beings can do! We hear such things quite frequently in the media and from our secular friends. Sometimes the voice from which we hear such challenges comes from our own hearts. As I explore the specific contours of the Christian moral life, I will keep these accusations in mind, addressing them explicitly or implicitly in every essay.

Arbitrary

Before rushing to defend Christianity it is always wise to turn the tables on the critics to discover whether or not they can defend their criticisms from the very charge they make, in this case, of being arbitrary, irrational, or outdated.  What does it mean to assert that a moral rule is “arbitrary”? The English word arbitrary is derived ultimately from the Latin word for “will” or “willful.” The decisions we make should be informed by reason and wisdom gained through experience. But we succumb to arbitrariness when we ignore or suppress reason and follow fancy or prejudice. We become impatient and decide to “take a chance.” A moral rule is arbitrary, then, when it finds its origin in the whimsical impulse of a single will. Does any aspect of the Christian vision of the moral life fit the definition of arbitrariness?

Irrational

What about the charge of irrationality? The question of the rationality of a belief or action or moral rule concerns how the belief or action or rule is held by the one who asserts it. Is it held for good reasons or poor ones? One acts rationally if one acts for good reasons and irrationally if one acts for poor ones. The question of truth or falsehood is very different issue. It concerns the relationship between the assertion and the real state of affairs. Does it correspond or not? Critics often confuse the two questions.  Are critics saying that Christians hold their moral beliefs for reasons that should not count as evidence? Or are they saying that the moral belief in question is false? Or are they simply hurling thoughtless accusations that mean no more than “I don’t like what you are saying!” or “I don’t get it!”? I suspect that in most cases the last alternative applies.

Outdated

To say something is outdated is to depart altogether from moral categories and move into aesthetic categories. Clothes, hair styles, and carpet become outdated after a while, that is, they no longer appeal to our aesthetic tastes. The process of changing tastes is fascinating. Why do some old things seem outdated while others remain “classic,” or others make a comeback as “retro”? Clearly, fashion is based on some kind of social agreement, seemingly arbitrary in origin, but perhaps subtly articulating some wish or self-image of the age. However that may be, to speak of a moral rule as outdated assumes that it was at one time in style.  And “in style” is not a moral category any more than “outdated” is. Instead of taking the trouble to argue that a moral rule that was once thought to be right, just, and good, is no longer so, the critic misapplies aesthetic categories to moral issues. It’s much easier to dismiss something as “not in style” than to argue that it is wrong. The former appeals to the public’s subjective tastes and the latter can be substantiated only by appealing to a moral law that transcends subjective tastes.

Ends, Means, and Reason in Morality

Human beings act to achieve ends. Morality seeks to guide human actions toward the right ends and right means by which to achieve those ends. Often, a moral vision proposes an ultimate or highest end toward which all actions should be directed and by which they should be measured. All other ends and means should be subordinated to that chief end.  Almost all moral systems assume that individual human beings need to be directed to ends that transcend their private interests and momentary whims and passions. The long term health and happiness of an individual is a more worthy end than momentary pleasure, especially when the immediate pleasure damages the prospect of achieving the long term end. Since no one can achieve the human end alone, the good of the community within which one lives must take precedence over the private ends of the individual. Hence most moral rules concern interpersonal relationships, and seek to promote peace, harmony, and justice within the community by limiting individuals’ pursuits of their private interests when those pursuits seriously disturb the peace of the community.  Reason comes into play in morality through the necessity of making judgments about the relationships of ends and means to each other and to the supreme end of all actions.

Christian Moral Vision—Deliberate, Rational, and Never Out of Date

Christian morality also values reason, proposes a highest end, and subordinates and orders other ends to that chief end. God is the highest good and chief end of all things. And by “God” Christianity does not mean merely a supreme being but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose character and purpose has been disclosed in Jesus. This God is the highest good toward which all our striving should be directed. The second highest end is the good of our neighbor. Our private interests must be subordinated to the good of others, and the “good” of others is defined by and subordinated to the love of God. By the “neighbor” Christianity means each individual we meet and the community constituted by those individuals. How can human striving after God, loving the neighbor, and seeking our own good be harmonized? Or can they?

Christianity envisions a universal community where the highest good of each person and the whole community are harmonized perfectly and directed to the supreme good. This community includes not only human beings; it includes God and the whole creation. God’s purpose in creating will be fulfilled in the formation of this community:

“ [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Jesus Christ is the perfect union of God and humanity. In him, the hostility and distance between God and man has been overcome. Sin has been defeated and death swallowed up in victory. The mystery of God’s will is that God will extend and expand the sphere of Christ to include “all things in heaven and on earth.” Fragmentation and disharmony will be replaced by unity. Given God’s plan to unify “all things” in Christ it should not surprise us that unity, peace, and love are at the center of Christian morality:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Col 3:13-15).

Christianity envisions a moral community that in the present age strives for the unity, peace, and love that will characterize the perfect divine/human community that God will bring about at the end. Every action that Christian morality forbids is forbidden because in works against this community. And every action it encourages promotes this community. And this ordering all things toward their end of union with God in Christ is where Christianity’s use of moral reason is most evident.

Conclusion

Perhaps a rational and thoughtful person could argue that the Christian moral vision is based on a false view of the highest good and ultimate end of human life. And we might wish to take seriously an attempt to argue that Christianity ranks goods in the wrong order. But the charge that Christianity’s moral vision is arbitrary, irrational, and outdated can be dealt with rather swiftly. Clearly Christianity’s moral rules are neither arbitrary nor irrational, since they are based on the Christian community’s experience of God’s revelation in Christ’s resurrection and its hope for a future perfect community. And, if they direct us truly to our chief end, they are certainly not outdated.

Next Time we will examine envy, covetousness, and jealousy, showing what they are, how subtly they touch all our relationships, and how they fail to embody the future unity of “all things” in Christ.

A Good Human Being is Hard to Find and Finding a Good Christian is Even Harder

 

Jesus summarized our duty to God in the command to love God with our whole being and our duty to other people in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But what does it mean to “love God”? And what does it mean to “love your neighbor”? Sadly, many people within our culture are so alienated from the Christian way of understanding human life that they do not know the answer to these questions. Some even reject the idea of there being a right answer. In the previous two posts, I began to explore what it means to love our neighbors.

Paul charts the course for us in his ethical teaching. In last week’s essay,  I quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where he lists 7 things love does and 8 things love won’t do in relation to others. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul does something similar; but here he relates the love command to the negative provisions of the Ten Commandments:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul makes it clear that love should never be defined in a way that makes breaking the commandments the loving thing to do. Never! In coming weeks I plan to explore in detail some ways in which the Bible’s moral commands show us how to love our neighbors.

Today, however, I want to pursue a related set of questions: is the Christian moral vision recognizably “good” by all people of good will and sound reason? Is there a universal moral law? Or, is there such a thing as “a good human being”, and would a person who lived according to Christian moral vision be “a good human being”?

The New Testament writers clearly assume that to a certain extent everyone recognizes the difference between good and evil and right and wrong. And there is a huge overlap between the Christian vision of a good human being and the pagan vision of a good human being. I shall quote a few examples:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:3-4).

Paul speaks here of the Christian’s relationship with those responsible for maintaining the civil order. No society can tolerate murder, robbery and theft, lying under oath, armed rebellion, and other anti-social behaviors. Consequently, everyone recognizes an honest, truthful, faithful, peaceful, self-controlled, and helpful person as a “good human being.” The angry, murderous, thieving, lying, out-of-control person is universally condemned as a “bad human being.” In Paul’s view, Christians have even more reasons and more power to be “good” in the area of social virtues than pagan do. Clearly, pagans do not think the distinction between a good person and a bad one is arbitrary. The virtues and behaviors that make a good person good are recognizably good and beautiful.

Peter also assumes that the difference between a good person and a bad one is universally recognizable, and pagans know the difference:

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (1 Peter 2:11-15).

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed (1 Peter 3:13-14).

As did Paul in the earlier quote, Peter assumes that everyone recognizes the difference between behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the stability and welfare of a society and those that do not. The “good lives” of Christians refute the false accusations of some pagans. Indeed, Peter envisions Christians as model citizens that outdo the pagans in embodying the highest social virtues.

Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and other Greek and Roman moralists agree that a good human being should possess the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These virtues are also praised in the New Testament along with many others that are implicit within them or consistent with them. I think one can argue that Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard than even the highest pagan moralists do. But the most pressing issue in morality does not center on its ideals but on our failure to live up to those ideals. The pagans have high ideals but fail miserably to live up to them.

Hence the first imperative of the Christian moral vision is to become good human beings in the universally recognized sense. Christians don’t live by a totally alien and weird morality. We should at least live up to the best pagan morality, displaying prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. We should be kind, helpful, trustworthy, gentle, compassionate, honest, peaceable, faithful, patient, and generous. How can we rise to the heights of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us if we’ve not internalized the more basic virtues? By all means aim to become a good Christian, but understand that you cannot be a good Christian unless you are also a good human being.

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