Tag 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.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

Globalism/Nationalism, Church/Nation

Flags_of_the_World

One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.

First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.

Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:

In regards to the nation

A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.

“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.

There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.

Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.

Family Metaphor

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.

But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.

I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.

In Regards to the Church

The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.

I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.

That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.

As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.

So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.

First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.

Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.

Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.

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.

On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”

Book Summary: Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas

Two things are driving this blog post. First, I haven’t posted in a while and need to keep up the discipline. Second, I am really only able to fully internalize a topic when I teach it or write about it. So, I fully confess this post is as much for me as it is for you, dear reader. Nevertheless, Resident Aliens is a worthy read. I have read it twice now and the second reading was different from the first. I am both more appreciative and more critical. Still, I think this book has some important words for American Christians today. Hauerwas challenges both the liberal and conservative positions and points us all to our identity as the people under the lordship of Christ.

Thesis and Opponents

Hauerwas’ central thesis is that the “church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know” (17)[1]. He calls this “social alternative” the polis, the people of God, and the true “political” concern of the church.

Hauerwas’ primary critique is of a church that has accommodated to the political concerns of the State, what he calls “Constantinianism.” He argues that both the conservative and liberal churches have basically capitulated to the State. Both have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31). In doing so, both have neglected the primary social concern of the church, being a people who see and follow Jesus.

Hauerwas believes that the “Constantian” view of the church is falling fast, and perhaps it is now even more so than when Hauerwas wrote Resident Alien. He argues that the demise of this worldview is not something to be lamented as a failure, but celebrated as an opportunity. “The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure… Now our churches are free to embrace our roots … a faith community that does not ask the world to do what it can only do for itself” (17-18).

What the church can “only do for itself” is be the people of God. Hauerwas argues that Christianity is more than just conversion and it is more than just a vague promotion of disembodied principles of love and social justice. Instead, “Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot be otherwise be seen with Christ” (24). It’s Jesus, and our ability to “see” him, is what makes the church truly unique and radical. We cannot speak to the world about “peace” and “justice” in general ways that everyone can agree on. “The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (37). In other words, we only begin to understand those terms as we see them in the mission of in Jesus and then embodied within the church.

Hauerwas’ message is at times combative and subversive:

“The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession.” The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

This message, he understands, brings up the charge of “tribalism.” Is the church its own “tribe” which exists to the exclusion of other tribes? But Hauerwas argues that of all the various political identities in our world, “The church is the one political entity in our culture that is global, transnational, transcultural” (42). For Hauerwas, blind nationalism is the truly dangerous “tribal” mindset in our world.

The Confessing Church

Hauerwas envisions what Yoder calls the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing church does not take as its primary aim the transformation of the world through the political route of the State. Instead, it seeks to transform the world by creating a counterculture of people who live under the reign of Jesus. In this counterculture “people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world” (46). In doing so this counterculture church becomes the people of the cross, demonstrating God’s love for the world. The most “effective” thing the church can do is to become the “actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith” (46) in a hostile world.

Adventure

Since culture is becoming more hostile to the cross the church must produce disciples who are willing to pay the price but, once again, for Hauerwas, growing hostility is not necessarily a cause for lament. Instead he sees it as a call to journey and adventure. “Life in the colony is not a settled affair. Subject to constant attacks upon and sedition against its most cherished virtues, always in danger of losing its young, regarded as a threat by an atheistic culture, which in the name of freedom and equality subjugates everyone—the Christian colony can be appreciated by its members as a challenge (50).” And again, “The colony is a people on the move, like Jesus’ first disciples, breathlessly trying to keep up with Jesus (51).”

Community and Ethics

Another major theme of Resident Aliens is Hauerwas’ connection between community and ethics. Modern ethics is based on an individualistic view of the world. “People seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments.” In other words, in modern language, people become more virtuous by separating from the constraints of community so that they can become liberated to “be themselves.” The virtuous man is the one not held down by tradition or responsibility but is the heroic self and is able decide and choose and he so desires. “Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments” (78).

The church offers a different reality. Ethics in the church are deeply connected, on the one hand, to our story. We are rooted to a tradition. Scripture is laid out as a grand story, not just as a set of ahistorical propositions. We are able to understand our ethical position when we understand our place within this story. On the other hand, ethics are tied to community, responsibility, mutual submission, and fellowship. Our individuality is not swallowed up. We don’t lose our individuality. Instead, we stand out as true individuals, with a greater degree of character, when we attach ourselves to the Messiah and to the people of God.

In attaching ourselves to the people of God Christian living becomes a possibility. This is true not only because we “get a little help from our friends” but because we are able to see what it means to be moral in the first place. The church not only gives us the support we need in being moral, it also teaches us what being moral is. “The church is crucial for Christian epistemology. We would not know enough to be moral without the colony” (94).

Telling the Truth

Central to what it means to be a Christian Community is the ability and willingness to tell the truth:

“The church is the colony that gives us resident aliens the interpretive skills whereby we know honestly how to name what is happening and what to do about it. Yet while the American church was busy thinking it was transforming the world, the world declared victory in its effort to extinguish or to ignore the church… We suspect that the church loses its vitality when its speech is cleaned up, pruned down, domesticated to ensure that our relationship with God is predictable and nice.” (146-148)

In other words, the church being the people of God and the church proclaiming the truth are not mutually exclusive for Hauerwas. We do not need to choose. Instead, the two are interrelated.

But our actions must match our words. As Haurewas later states:

“no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology because our life together does not mock our words. The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love.” (171)

Critique

I agree with Hauerwas on several fronts. The primary task of the church is, in fact, to be the church and we can only be the church when we first attach ourselves to Christ through conversion, and then learn what it means, in community, to be the people of God. I also agree that in this regard we set ourselves up as “resident aliens” and as colonists in a world that is hostile to Christ.

I have two areas of critique. First, for Hauerwas, this position is closely tied to a critique of American war policy. He takes a position of pacifism that I don’t entirely agree with. In general he sets up a stronger antithesis between State and Church than I am comfortable with. Second, he seems to sometimes emphasize right living over right belief. They both are really two sides of the same coin.

Nevertheless, I really appreciate Resident Aliens. It’s very interesting to read Hauerwas because he comes out of a theologically liberal denomination and yet he speaks as a conservative. Much of his stronger critique is leveled against what we might today call “theological progressives” but it is a critique “from within” so to speak. He doesn’t speak as a conservative critiquing liberals but as someone from within the liberal leaning camp seeking to reform that part of the Christian movement, to bring it back to its central task of proclaiming and following Christ. Of course, the theologically conservative camp needs this call just as much.

[1] All page numbers are from the Kindle version.

Dear Church

Dear Church,

We, the Church, have always been called to be a peculiar community, different from our surrounding world; to be counter-cultural. For many years in the “Christian West”, this distinction was sometimes hard to see, though it has always been there. The church appeared to yield significant political power and cultural clout. It was, at one time, socially advantageous to self-identify as a Christian.

This reality has been changing for many years and last week’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has brought the distinction between the ethical vision of the historic church and the ethical vision of the surrounding culture into stark relief.

The decision has many Christians wondering, “What next?” Our “political” task now has very little to do with the civil government (though political engagement still matters). Instead, we must now focus on the polis of the church, the distinct people of God; the people who swear allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world and to a Ruler who is truly supreme. The Supreme Court decision is a reminder that we are called to be such a distinct community, a holy nation under the reign of God. Specifically, the decision reminds us that we are distinct in the following ways:

We have a distinct sexual ethic. Sex is not merely physical but holy and spiritual and is to be enjoyed within the bonds of marriage. It is self-giving and life-creating. Since God is the creator of sex, he has the right to make the rules and when we follow them it leads to human flourishing.

We have a distinct vision of marriage and family. Marriage is ordained by God as a holy one-flesh union between one man and one woman in life-long commitment. In the raising of children both father and mother are indispensable.

We have a distinct view of love. Love contains, but is not merely, kindness and pleasant feelings. Love is working for the good of the other in accordance with the will of God. Love is not abstract, but perfectly revealed in the atoning self-sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

As a distinct community of faith, what are we called to be?

We are called to be a humble community. “Distinct” does not mean “superior.” We freely confess and mourn over the fact that we are broken in our sin. We are called by no merit of our own but only by the mercy of God. Having been shown mercy we must always speak from a position of mercy.

We are called to be a holy community. If we value sexuality in the way God defines it then we need to deal with sexual sin in our own midst, specifically pornography and divorce. If we value marriage we must work to strengthen our own marriages. If we value love we need to make sure that we show it to all people. We will never be perfect, but if we want the world to accept God’s way, we first need to make sure we are actually living it.

We are called to be a prophetic community. The prophets always first spoke to the people of God, calling them to covenant renewal. But they also had a word to the nations. They proclaimed God’s word, unpopular as it was, of sin, judgment, repentance, and salvation. This means we should be uncompromising in our convictions and not simply parrot back to our culture whatever its itching ears want to hear. The prophets remained true to the revealed word of God over and against the idolatry they were confronted with. We have the same task. As we speak, though, we must be careful to do so in love.

We are called to be a healing community. In our prophetic voice we call out sin as a doctor diagnosis a disease. Sin, in all its varied forms, is the disease plaguing the human race. But this disease has a cure. That cure is Jesus. In Jesus is healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In Jesus was can be freed from the condemnation of the law, the enslaving power of sin, and the fear of death. The church is the hospital and needs to continue to be for all people.

We are called to be a gospel-centered community. We are called first and foremost to proclaim the gospel; the saving message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We need to stay on point and not get overly caught up in the quarrels and controversies of the day. These matter, of course. Right now, as a pastor of a congregation, I must engage these controversies. But controversies of the age come and go. However, our central task of pointing the world to Christ is our aim in every cultural context.

We are called to be a hopeful community. We, more than any other people, have reason for hope. We do not hope in ourselves, or in the “march of progress,” or in political powers, but in God, the maker of heaven and earth. He will bring about perfect love and perfect justice and we the Church look forward to that day. This is a hope unique to the church and it is one we both rejoice in ourselves and rejoice to share with the world, to whom we have been called.

The Supreme Court decision may present some new challenges for the church but our task is what it has always been – trust God, pursue him fully, love our neighbors, and proclaim the hopeful and life-giving gospel of Jesus our Savior.