Category Archives: Ethics

Are Christian Ethics Conservative or Progressive?

Coming to Terms:

First, I better clarify what I mean by “conservative” and “progressive.” I’m not referring to any specific set of policies as held by Republicans or Democrats, or even to politics in general. Instead, I’m referring to a view of ethics as it relates to history. When I ask if Christian ethics is “conservative” I’m asking if it primarily looks to the past, looking either to maintain or go back to an earlier ethic? When I ask if it is “progressive” I am asking whether it looks to the future, looking for a progression in ethics to some ideal state.

The Case for Conservatism

Most people tend to associate Christian ethics with conservatism, and there’s good reason why. The first leg of a conservative ethics is the doctrine of Creation. When God made the world, he made it in an ideal state. There was no human sin or suffering. We lived in a perfect relationship with one another and with God. A conservative ethic aims to help us understand what life was like before sin entered the world and then act accordingly.

The second leg of conservatism is revealed law. God has clearly revealed aspects of his moral will and he cannot lie. Therefore, we are not permitted to add novelty to these commands. We cannot “progress” pass prohibitions against murder or adultery or lying or theft. The laws were there from the beginning and they are bound up in the unchanging character of God. These immutable moral laws are thus worth “conserving.”

A conservative ethic is based on Creation, and assumes that God’s moral law helps us live rightly within that created order, or restrain sin so that less damage is done to it.

The Case for Progressivism

Whereas a conservative ethic is based on Creation, you might say that a Christian progressive ethic is based on the future Kingdom of God. Yes, God created the world, but we’re not going to get back to Eden. Instead, we’re asking God to bring the Kingdom of God – some future reality – into the here and now. The aim of the Christian progressive ethic, then, is to imagine what this future reality will be, and then act accordingly.

In terms of moral law, a person more bent towards the progressive view of history would notice that there are shifts within the law given throughout Scripture. Much of the Old Testament law was not so immutable after all. The sacrificial system found fulfillment in Christ (and being obsolete was done away with). Circumcision was replaced (either by baptism or faith, depending on your theological leanings). Dietary laws were likewise made null. Some laws seem to be given for a specific time and place, bound up either in the cultural context of the day, or in the theocratic nature of Israel. The question, then, is whether those progressions continue in light of the present and the future, and how much?

Some problems for both conservatives and progressives

Both strict conservatives and progressives as described here face some major challenges. Conservatives look back to creation, but outside of a few chapters in Genesis, that idyllic state is lost to us. The fact is that we live in a world sin, and even our own moral perceptions are marred by sin. Often conservatives choose some later development – perhaps ancient Israel, perhaps the early church, perhaps an earlier time in American history – as the point to which we should return. But the problem with this is obvious. Sin has been a constant force throughout history. There is no “ideal time” to which we could return. The only real historical developments are the way in which sin changes form. In terms of the written code, strict conservatives face two challenges: First, it is not exhaustive, so we must always attempt to correctly apply broader principles to current events. Second, what should we do with the “progressions” we see throughout Scriptures listed above?

But strict progressives face a similar problem. Less is known about the future than the past. Ideals of the Kingdom of God can only be perceived in its relation to Creation and the sin that has marred it. Furthermore, once allowing for a progression within the moral law (or within the written code), are we then left with moral chaos? If the past systems can always be overthrown, who is to say whether overthrowing it is a good or a bad idea? If you think a certain moral revolution is in order, on what basis is it good? If it’s based on some prior principle, haven’t you reverted to a conservative mindset after all?

Resurrection and Moral Order

resurrection and moral orderOliver O’Donovan’s thesis in Resurrection and Moral Order is that Christian ethics depends on the resurrection as the event which brings these two trains of thought together:

“In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is here affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other.”

Again:

“From the resurrection, we look not only back to the created order which is vindicated, but forwards to out eschatological participation in that order.”

As O’Donovan sees it, the resurrection is God’s affirmation, or vindication of the created order. The created order is the reality with which all people need to reckon. In the resurrection God makes it clear that he is not abolishing this created order, but is affirming it. But in the resurrection God is nevertheless doing a radically “new” thing, a true novelty. Furthermore, in Christ’s resurrection we, through the Spirit, can look forward to our resurrection. Indeed, we participate in that resurrection now through faith, having been raised with Christ in a spiritual sense. The resurrection, therefore, allows us to look backwards to creation, and forwards to new creation.

But the forward-looking aspect is not an overthrow of the past. The created order is not abolished, not are the laws of Israel or anything within the written code, but is fulfilled. They are not contradicted, but set within their proper context – both historical and theological. God does not “go back” on his previous word, but his word is clarified in light of the present and anticipated fulfillment in the future.

Because there is an unbroken relationship between creation and the kingdom of God, we see each other more clearly. We can understand creation more clearly because we see in Jesus the first fruits of the new creation. And we can see the future kingdom of God more clearly because we understand that what we are looking for is not demolition, but a redemption.

The test case of marriage

Helpfully, O’Donovan applies this concept to the concrete topic of marriage. A conservative ethic looks back towards Adam and Even in the garden as its template for marriage. But a progressive might point to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Does this mean that marriage can be radically altered beyond the creation mandate? Can we progress “beyond” marriage as understood in the first chapters of Genesis? O’Donovan understood it in this way:

“Humanity in the presence of God will know community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation. But the coexistence of the two within the Christian church did not mean the loss of integrity of either. Each had to function as what it was, according to its own proper structure. The married must live as married, the single as single. Neither would accommodate itself or evoke in the other an evolutionary mutation. Marriage that was not marriage could not witness to the goodness of the created order, singleness that was not singleness could tell us nothing of the fulfillment for which it was destined.”

In other words, in a Christian ethic based on the resurrection, marriage is affirmed as marriage, affirming the created order, and singleness is affirmed as singleness, pointing to a future transformation in the kingdom of God.

What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on Government and Church

Programming note for regular readers: I have made an update to my post “A pro-life perspective on the 2016 Election“. Also, after this post I will be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks. I’ll be on a family vacation and/or focusing on other projects.

Disclaimer 1: In summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view I am not saying that I am in complete agreement with it.

Disclaimer 2: This is a summary of Bonhoeffer’s view based on his chapter “State and Church” in Ethics and not on the whole of his work. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar so my summary is limited.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The basis and task of the government

Bonhoeffer begins his chapter by exploring the basis of the government. He summarizes three basic answers.

The first answer is to find the basis of government in the nature of man. This is the ancient Greek/Aristotelian answer. It sees the state as “the supreme consummation of the rational character of man.” The state naturally arises from human nature and is the “ultimate purpose of human life.” Using biblical language we could say that state is part of “creation.” This view has difficulty, however, in moving from the voluntary and natural “community” of “man for man” to the necessity of “government”, which represents the “coercive power” which exists over the state as “man against man.”

The second answer, then, is that the basis of government is in sin. In this view, the need for government – and the necessary element of coercive power – arises only because of the fact of sin. In other words, it is necessary because of the Fall. In this view, the task of the government is to use its power in order to be “the protector of outward justice.” The power from the government is “from above,” that is, it is given by God himself. It is “order in the world, an order which bears the authority of God.”

This second answer is where much of Christian theology stops, but Bonhoeffer presses further. He suggests we must add a third answer, that the basis of government is in Christ. Bonhoeffer bases government in Christ principally because he bases everything in Christ, and this is no less true of all powers and authorities. Christ is the ruler over all other authorities and therefore all authorities and powers, including the civil government, exist for the purpose of serving him. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that each government ought to serve Christ willingly but that, even when a government doesn’t do that, the nevertheless end up serving him unwillingly. For instance, it was the will of God that Jesus should be crucified. When the Roman government killed Jesus, it was failing in its task to protect outward justice (since the death of Jesus was patently unjust), but it was also unwittingly serving the greater purposes of God. Indeed, it was only able to crucify Jesus because Jesus gave it authority to do so.

This leads Boenhoeffer to summarize the task of the government as follows:

“The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

How does the government serve Christ?

The task of the government is “to service Christ by establishing and maintaining outward justice.” Does this imply either the possibility or necessity of theocracy? Does Bonhoeffer’s perspective lead to the idea of a state church? While the idea that a government “serves Christ” might seem to indicate this might be the case, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bonhoeffer does not have a theocracy, or a Church run State in mind.

The reason for this is that Bonhoeffer views the roles of the state and of the church as quite different. The role of the government is limited. Its task is simply to establish and maintain outward justice. That is to say, it has the power of judicial authority. But what constitutes “justice”? This is not a question Bonhoeffer answers completely but he does insist on basing it in Christ. So, he says, the “goodness” promoted by the government “cannot in any case be in conflict with Jesus Christ” and “One might therefore, say that in this case natural law has as its foundation Jesus Christ.” The government knows about this goodness/justice then, “primarily from the preaching of the Church.” In other words, Bonhoeffer does not base the “outward justice” which the government is tasked with maintaining in what might be called “natural law” but in a sort of “natural law” which is informed by and proclaimed in the church.

But this is not to say that the government can be Christian or theocratic. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that in order for a government to serve Christ within its sphere and within its task it must be religiously neutral. Its role is to leave space for the preaching of Christ. Its task in not the creation of a Christian order, but of maintaining an order which leaves room for service to God.

The Government and its relationship to marriage and labor

Government’s role is primarily that of preserver. It is not, itself, life-giving or productive, but guards life by sustaining outward justice. It is only one of several God-given institutions and, Bonhoeffer notes, “finds already in the world which it governs two institutions through which God the Creator exercises his creative power, and upon which it must therefore, in the nature of things, rely; these are marriage and labour” (italics added). These two institutions are unique in that they are life-giving and productive. They are also unique in the sense that they are what we might call “pre-political.” They “possess their own origin in God, an origin which is not established by government.” They exist prior to the state, prior to government.

The role of government in relation to these two institutions then, is limited. Governments task is, first and foremost, to acknowledge these institutions. They are not entirely “hands off” but only interact with these institutions to the degree which is necessary to their task, to maintain outward justice. The government’s task is “regulative and not constitutive.” Bonhoeffer continues,

“Marriage is performed not by the government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, art and science, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision, and within certain limits… to its discretion.”

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is careful to say that the government’s limits are critical. To extend beyond these limits in regards to marriage and labor is to “forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.”

The Government and its relationship to the church

As stated above, to say that the government acts in service to Christ does not imply either a church run government or a Christian state. Bonhoeffer states, “the dominion of Christ over government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over the government.” Instead, the government acts in service to Christ by “securing an outward justice by means of the power of the sword.” If the government does what it is intended to do “the congregation [community of believers] can live in peace” and perform its duty of proclaiming the good news of salvation.

With this basic principle in place Bonhoeffer notes that the government may still make claims upon the church and, likewise, the church makes certain claims upon the government.

The Government’s Claim on the Church: The government’s claim upon the church is obedience to its laws (assuming, of course, that they would not force the person to sin against Christ, the ultimate authority). The Christian is expected to practice this obedience, understanding that in acting in this way they are acknowledging the authority which God has given to the civil authority. “As a citizen a Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way.”

The Church’s Claim on the Government: The church’s claim on the government is only that it should fulfill its role as government. “Her aim is not that government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc. but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.” In particular, this means that the church seeks what we might call “religious freedom” and Bonhoeffer refers to as “protection for the public Christian proclamation against violence… against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Christ.” That is not to say that Christianity receives a special privilege. The government “affords protection to every form of service to God which does not undermine the office of government.”

Conclusion:

Bonhoeffer touches on a few more topics: What is the best form of government? Under what conditions is the being of the government (i.e., legitimacy) completely undermined? What happens if the government is completely undermined and fails to complete its task? Etc. But I do not have time to address each of these here, and none of these are fully developed arguments anyway. His argument continuously points back to his primary thesis, namely, that the governments task is that of maintaining outward justice by the power of the sword, thus serving (willingly or unwillingly) Christ, from whom all authority comes.

Implications for today?

I will have to only tentatively put these implications forward. Bonhoeffer lived in a different age and the government under which he spent much of his time – Nazi Germany – was far different from my experience in Democratic America. However, Bonhoeffer spent much time in America and it does seem as if his description of government was at least partially impacted by his time here. And so, I want to conclusion with a few observations.

  • Bonhoeffer believed that the government had a necessary and noble task. He believed that it had a role to play in the service of Christ – the preservation of the goodness of God’s created world and the institutions therein. He probably would have disagreed with those who only expression negative views of the government.
  • Bonhoeffer believed that government performed its task best when it knew what its task was and he believed that its task was limited. It played the role of protector and preserver, not the role of creator. To that extent he believed in “limited government” though that shouldn’t necessarily be understood in terms of liberal and conservative.
  • In regards to marriage: I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with those who argued against the court’s redefinition of marriage. He likely would have seen this as an overstep of the government’s role and as a failure of the government to properly “acknowledge” marriage in its created order.
  • In regards to “religious freedom” Bonhoeffer would likely be a big supporter. One of the main ways in which the government serves Christ, and one of the primary claims of the church on the State, is that the government protects service to God and the proclamation of the gospel. The limit of “religious freedom” for Bonhoeffer would be “outward justice.” The government does have a regulative role, even in matters of church, if basic justice is under threat.
  • In regards to the role of the church and the individual Christian, especially in relation to a less-than-ideal government: First, the individual Christian’s task is to obey the government whenever possible as though serving Christ. Second, the task of the Christian is to serve within his own sphere of influence and thereby indirectly serve the government in a productive way. Third, it is the task of the church, to proclaim the gospel. In doing so, the government comes into a clearer understanding of the outward justice which it is called to protect or, is it may be, is called to task for failing to carry out its God-given role.

Moral proximity and the cry of the global poor

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor

will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

This is a distressing verse in the age of globalization. In this age we are all aware, not only of those who are poor within our families or neighborhoods, but of the countless who suffer in poverty all around the world. Furthermore, we are all within technical reach of many of those in poverty and most of us have the means with which to provide for them out of a first-world abundance. I know someone who sponsors one of those poor children through Compassion International. This is all well and good, but this person also has the means to sponsor two, three, or even ten more children, assuming they were willing to sacrifice their standard of living or cut back on retirement savings. Does this person have a moral obligation to do this? They know the need (“hear the cry”), have the financial means, and have the technological capability, to do it. What justification could be provided for not doing more? And, at what point would such an obligation stop? Would it continue so long as one person has abundance and another has need? In other words, as long as there is someone in poverty, is abundance morally inexcusable?

These are exactly the sort of questions which John Schneider addresses in his book The Good of Affluence (and are much broader than I will attempt to address in this short post).

One way to answer this is to consider the principle of “moral proximity.” This principle, according to Schneider, “states simply that our moral obligations in economic life are greater or lesser in proportion to their moral proximity to us.” This is similar, says Schneider, to the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity “which means that social problems ought to be handled first by the people and agencies nearest in location to them rather than by remote ones.”

What does this “moral proximity” look like? In ancient Israel it meant Israelites had primary duties first to their own families and then tribes and then to their religious community as Jews. They had no material moral obligation to those outside of Israel but, in keeping the laws of Israel (which included instructions for caring for the poor) were to serve as “a light to the nations.”

The same basic principle seems to be evident in the New Testament. Here believers again have a primary obligation to care for their families. Then they have obligations within the family of believers. And then they have obligations within the broader fabric of society.

So how does this apply to the global poor? Schneider agrees that wealthy Christians do have an obligation, “but not obligations of the ultimate sort that influential writers judge they do.” What exactly this looks like Schneider addresses later in the book (which I haven’t gotten to yet) but at least this obligation is of a different sort than that which we have to people within our direct obligations (i.e., family) or close obligations (i.e., our local congregations or close friends).

Still, I think it is in keeping with this tone of Proverbs 21:13 that those with means who “hear the cry of the poor” at least feel a certain sort of moral weight. Schneider later states, in commenting on Amos, that “we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief” (and thus action) about the material suffering that is going on around us. It would be a tragedy if we used a principle like moral proximity as a way to “shut our ears” or to justify our own selfish hearts. Still, this principle is helpful for me to understand my obligations, and why some are primary and some secondary.

Rights

This is not an endorsement of Ted Cruz. This is a critique of the following meme.

rights

There are three problems with this meme: semantic, historical, and logical.

Semantic: Like most internet memes this one is likely based on (at best) misunderstanding or (at worst) misrepresenting what the target is saying. Mr. Cruz most certainly means something different than what the meme, by itself, is suggesting. The difference comes in how we understand/use the term “Rights.” I am assuming that Mr. Cruz is referring to “unalienable rights,” rights which we have by virtue of being persons while the creators of the meme are assuming he is referring to “civil rights” or rights we have under the law. The classic theistic way of understanding the two is that people have unalienable rights by virtue of being persons and those rights are protected and expanded upon under our civil rights by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is a danger in conflating the two terms, as this meme does, but I will address that later.

Historical: The theistic position stated above (that we have unalienable rights which are then protected as civil rights by the Government) is precisely the view stated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

I don’t think the founders would disagree with Mr. Cruz. Our rights are from God (our Creator) and the role of the government is to secure these rights through just laws. This principle, along with prevailing political theory, was what formed the basis of our civil rights as defined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Logical: As I said before there is a danger in conflating “unalienable rights” with “civil rights” as this meme does. The implied counter-argument of the meme is that “our rights come from the Constitution (not from God).” But if that is referring to unalienable rights then you are in the uncomfortable position of saying that people did not have those rights before the writing of the Constitution or that people who live in other nations don’t also have those rights. It is a dangerous, and almost certainly an extreme minority opinion, that our unalienable rights are only the result of some social contract and could then be revoked if that social contract were revoked.

But if it is meant that our “civil rights” come from the Constitution then you have two options. The first would be to say that those civil rights do not derive from any unalienable rights. In that case you are in the same position as stated in the above paragraph and in disagreement with the Nation’s founders. The second would be to acknowledge that the civil rights of our Country are based on some set of unalienable rights which exist outside of the Constitution. That is, it acknowledges that there is some other Moral Law from which the Constitution derives its authority. In that case we could say, “Our rights come from outside the Constitution, and they are expanded on and protected by the just laws of the United States.” For Mr. Cruz, for the writers of the declaration, and for me, that “outside” is our Creator.

The challenge for non-theists is this: If you acknowledge unalienable rights, where are those rights derived from?

I’m not going to address this further here, but if you are serious about looking into this further I want to refer you to “Book 1” of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

Success and Failure: Who gets the credit and the blame?

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to modern notions of success and failure. On the one side there is the belief that success and failure are the function of individual choice, skill, and merit. This comes from the belief that we live in a meritocracy. On the other side we have the belief that success and failure are the function of society or an accident of birth. The first view sees individuals as controlling their own destiny. The second sees individuals as either victims or beneficiaries of forces outside of their control.

I’m presently reading the book Outliers which, at least at the outset, presents an alternative to the “meritocracy” approach to evaluating success and failure. And, as I listened to Malcom Gladwell (it’s an audiobook) I realized that my own view on this is pretty inconsistent. I take one path or the other based on two axes. The first axis is the question “Am I thinking about myself or others? The second axis is the question “Am I thinking about success or failure?”

As I said above, by view is inconsistent, but I don’t really care, and I hope to explain why. First, here’s a brief summary.

Meritocracy

First, let me say that what I am describing below is my ideal train of thought, not what I actually do in a given situation. I doubt I’m even the best person to judge my own heart in this. Still, this is the line of thinking I at least aim for.

When I experience success: My initial reaction should be gratitude and humility. By “gratitude” I mean that I should be quick to acknowledge all of the forces outside of myself which led to my experience of success. This means that I have a genuine gratitude towards others and towards God. In this regard my thinking is not meritocratic. It wasn’t my skill or wisdom or merit. Even if I did, through my will, make choices that contributed to my success even the ability to make those choices came from God. By “humble” I don’t just mean a show of humility, but a genuine recognition that every good gift comes from above. If I were on my own in this my condition would be much worse.

When I experience failure: My initial reaction should be a responsible and proactive attitude. A responsible person looks at failure, acknowledges that life is complex and that therefore there are almost always parts of the failure which they are responsible for and those which were outside of their control. Then they focus on the part that was within their control because, well, they can control them. Stephen Covey calls this being proactive. In this case my thinking is meritocratic because I acknowledge that I have made mistakes for which I cannot blame others. Even if it is the case that the entire failure was outside of my control (which is rarely the case) I can still be proactive in asking “How can I prevent this same failure in the future?”

When I see others experience success: My initial reaction should be a congratulatory attitude. I should acknowledge the ways that this person’s own skill and wisdom led to their success. Notice that this is the opposite way of how I view my own success? My own success comes from the generosity of others. Someone else’s success comes from their own skill and wisdom. Yes, this is inconsistent. But I think this is also a much more productive and kind way of thinking about the world. Also, it’s often true. Other people really do put in hard work. They make sacrifices. They act intelligently. So why not acknowledge it? Once again I pick up my meritocratic thinking.

When I see others experience failure: My initial reaction should be empathy and compassion. And, once again I abandon my illusions of meritocracy. Life is complex and my neighbor experiencing failure may be experiencing that hardship through no fault of their own. Sure, it’s possible that their poor choices played some role in their situation but that is for them, as responsible individuals, to decide and make right. My initial posture ought to be to ask, “is there some way for me to help?” or at a broader level, “is there something that can be done to produce a more just society?”

Notice that in each of these I have indicated what my initial response should be. It’s not wrong to recognize your own part in your success, the forces outside of your control in your failure, the forces that led to the success of others, and the ways in which people are responsible for their own failures. Sometimes it is healthy and necessary to do those things. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children how their choices will impact the rest of their lives. Pastors have a responsibility to help those who experience success express a level of gratitude toward God who gives good gifts for our enjoyment. The victim of a crime will not be helped by trying to figure out what they did wrong to become a victim. Each situation calls for its own response. I am simply asking, in everyday life, what is a heathy response to success and failure?

So as you can see I’m inconsistent, but am I wrong? I hope that this no more than an attempt to live out Scriptural virtues (humility, compassion, gratitude, responsibility, etc.) in a complex world.