Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Do Quakers Have Testimonies?

ESR alum and current Richmond First Friends pastor Derek Parker delivered this message during worship there on Sunday, August 24, 2014:

Readings

Psalm 117 & Acts 2: 14-18



About a year ago, when my nephew was 4-years old, we were in his backyard when he played a little game with me that many small children play.  He asked me “Why?”  In fact, he repeatedly asked me “Why?”
          “Uncle Derek,” he said, “Why are plants green?”
          And I replied that the green parts make the food that plants use.
          “Why?  Why does green make food?”
          Well, there is a chemical inside the plant.  The chemical is green.  And when the sun shines on the green parts of the plant, the chemical makes food.
          “Why?  Why does it make food?  Can they make something “more funner” ?”
          And I replied that everything alive needs food to live.  And plants make their own food inside the green parts of their bodies; because plants don’t have mouths to eat food that comes from outside their bodies.
          But that answer only led to my nephew asking another why.  “Why don’t plants have mouths?”  And it went on, and on, and on…
          When we were children, like my nephew, we were gifted with a tremendous curiosity about the world around us.  We asked the question, “Why?” about almost anything.  Sometimes we also asked questions like “When?” or “Who?” or “How?”  But then as we grew up, many of us gradually asked “Why?” less often. 
We found there was so much to learn and keep track of, and asking questions simply gave us more to remember.
Some adults also taught us to be anxious about asking “Why?”, because they responded to our questions by saying, “Well that’s a stupid question.”
And for many of us, when it came to religion, we were subtly taught never to ask “Why?”  Matters of faith were to be matters of certainty – not about questions.  And the Bible and God were supposedly unquestionable. 
But if we never asked “Why?”, our understandings of things would be overly simplistic and shallow.  No matter if we are trying to understand plants, or chemicals, or even Christian faith.
We need to ask “Why?” if we are going to be capable of growing.
This past year, both Josh Brown and Matt Hamm have spoken to our meeting for worship, about the Friends Testimonies.  These Testimonies are often listed as Peace, Integrity, Equality, and Simplicity.  Some Quakers also add to that list items like Community, Earthcare, and Stewardship.  These Testimonies, no matter how you construct the list, are important to understanding how Quakers approach Christian faith.
But as much as we speak about Quaker Testimonies, have you ever asked “Why?”
“Why do Quakers have Testimonies?”
Some people have told me that in our faith tradition, we have Testimonies because those are the things a good Quaker must do.  They say its like the 10 Commandments.  Thou shalt not commit warfare!  Thou shalt not tell lies!  Thou shalt treat everybody as equals!  Thou shalt not spend money like a Kardashian!
But Friends, this approach misses the mark.  In response to the question, “Why do Quakers have testimonies?” the answer here is, “So we can have rules to follow.”  And I want you to know that needing rules is not why Quakers have testimonies.  The Testimonies may influence people in terms of what we do, or do not do, but they are not simplistically a list of rules.  To reduce the Testimonies to rules, is to make them into a purity code by which we measure and pass judgment on ourselves and others.  And a preoccupation with passing judgment is seldom a health practice.
Other people have told me that Quakers have the Testimonies so that we can have a list of beliefs to tell others about.  If somebody asks you what Quakers believe, you say, “We believe in peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.”  And if you tell somebody this, they will likely reply, “Well I believe the same thing.  What’s so Quaker about that?”
Friends, if we think about it, there is nothing special about believing in peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  In fact, how many people have we met who would say they believe in violence, dishonesty, discrimination, and complexity?  Perhaps a small number of sinister oddballs, but most people I’ve met don’t believe in those vices either.
There is nothing particularly Quaker about believing in peace.  Perhaps that is because the Testimonies are not simply matters of belief.  The Testimonies are not matters about what we think.  Reducing the Testimonies to a list of important thoughts that Quakers must have, also misses the mark.  All sorts of people think about peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  But why do we think about these things?  Why do Quakers think about these things, and then try to do these things? 
Why?
Friends, our various official lists of Quaker Testimonies did not exist prior to the 20TH Century.  If we were to ask earlier generations of Quakers like George Fox, William Penn, or Lucretia Mott to list the Friends Testimonies, they would not have understood the question.  How could they make a list of something that they did not think about in terms of lists?  We have Testimonies because ours is a faith tradition that asks us to pay attention to our lived experience of God, and to apply those experiences to the practice of living.
Until the 20TH Century, virtually all Friends understood Testimony as a matter of letting your life witness to others about your faith.  Testimony was not simply a rule of conduct, nor a list of things you were supposed to think were true.  Testimonies were things people did, springing up from religiously grounded experiences.
Why?
Did we do these things so we can be right?  So that we can think the correct thoughts?  Or only do the pure and good things?
Deep down, the Testimonies are supposed to stem from our experience of God.  No matter what kind of a list of Testimonies that we could write down, Quaker communities begin with the experience of God, and then respond in ways that speak to that inspiration.  Then our way of life should give testimony to what our relationship with God is like.  If God is ultimate peace, are we more peace-filled?  Do we endeavor to build a greater degree of peace in the world around us?  Or equality among us as children of God?  Are we inspired to be honest with others and with ourselves?

Why do Quakers have Testimonies?  Because an authentic walk of faith will take us through the presence of God and out into all of life.  Because Christian faith in the manner of Friends is more a way of life, than it is a set of rules, or a list of correct thoughts.  We have Testimonies, because whether or not we can write down a list of Testimonies, our lives speak volumes about our relationships with the Spirit of God.


Derek is a former geologist, and 2004 ESR graduate.  He previously served Friends meetings in Muncie and Irvington; as well as ministries with the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, and the United Church of Christ.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Christians and the problem of torture


ESR graduate Scot Miller is currently working to complete a Doctorate of Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. This is the second in a series of essays that are meant to contribute to that project. You can read the first essay, "Christian ethics from a biblical standpoint," here. You can learn more about Scot and his work here: http://www.sandhillcommunity.blogspot.com and here: http://waitingworship.wordpress.com/



Most Protestants are not familiar with Dirk Willems. In 1569, this Dutch Anabaptist was imprisoned for heresy after for receiving adult baptism. The story of Willems' martyrdom is one of the strongest of  such narratives because of the intensity of his witness to Gospel Order. It is not just that Willems died for conscience sake, but he saved the life of the jailer that was chasing him during an escape attempt. The jailer fell through the ice that covered the moat surrounding the jail. Willems, who was running to save his own life, turned back to rescue his pursuer. While his action saved the jailer's life, Willems was nonetheless burned at the stake.
Unless the hearer of this narrative is a member of an Anabaptist church, when this story is told the response is incredulity. Yet, it is just such a story that should be retold by every congregation who takes the gospel seriously. For it is in the gospel that we are made aware of Jesus' command to love our enemies, and that is exactly the command that is embodied by Willems' action. While few would find it difficult to applaud Willems' faithfulness, a majority of Christians would not say his way of loving an enemy is normative for the Christian faith.[1]
Of course, there is no “normative Christianity.”[2] However, Christendom seems to have become stagnant since the climax of the Second Great Awakening. Following the American Civil War, when both sides appealed to divine providence throughout the conflict, the church now seems more closely aligned with democratic ideals than the performance of ethics. It is difficult to distinguish the American church from the American project of democracy and the propagation of democracy.[3] To this end, the church has come to identify the nation state as a sort of Fidei Defensor and seems not to concern itself with matters of policy outside of those negotiated through the ballot box. If there is any kind of normative Christianity, it is characterized by its relationship to socio-political power and its ability the means by which religion might influence politicians to legislate in favor of a particular agenda with the public support of a church leader or denomination.
It is in this context that Christians are able to debate the use of torture as a tool of war. This should not be a one-sided criticism of right-wing religious leaders and organizations. I will propose that the political left-wing of the church as well, indeed the church as a whole, has strayed from its purpose despite many opportunities to embody the gospel during the so-called war on terror. For nowhere is there evidence of mass-resistance on the part of American Christians to any part of the war - or the use of torture - outside of participation in public marches of sorts, or furthermore, overt support. As the cross mandates that we bear our own, especially in coordination with our “demands” for justice, Christians in the United States seem troubled to voluntarily sacrifice in a public way that makes biblical reflections on war a topic of public discussion. It seems, the way that most Christians have dealt with the issues of war, economics, and even torture is to vote for the candidate of their choice and hope that government, or other Christians, come to their collective senses.[4]
In a 2006 poll commissioned by Mercer University and the organization Faith in Public Life, 57 percent of those identifying themselves as evangelical Christians indicated that, in some cases, they felt torture of combatants or detainees might be justified.[5] Christian ethicist David Gushee, who describes himself as an evangelical, wrote in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics[6] that, while 37 percent of those polled responded that torture was justified “sometimes,” a 20 percent segment believe that it was justified “often.” It is a matter of observation that the George W. Bush administration was committed to placing evangelicals in very high positions, and that the administration was also fully engaged in pursuing legal justifications for the use of torture as an legitimate interrogation tool.
The fact is that the same tradition which produced Dirk Willem and others like him, who practiced an undeniably biblical ethic in response to evil, now produces leaders who consider torture a legitimate and necessary activity. Since the era of Constantine, political power has a substantial effect on the way in which Christians conceive of ethics. In the 21st century, Christian opposition to torture was not only isolated, but failed to address the issue in such a way that it will not return for consideration another day. There is moral failure on both accounts, if we agree that torture which occurs within the context of Christian leadership is a topic of debate. That failure is not evident in the fact that torture occurred – but that the church has become an institution that would underwrite a government's claim to such a right, or remain quiet as it occurs.
American Christians have pursued political power and, as a result, may have ceased to be relevant as a confessing body, ceased to reflect an ethic that gives meaning to Jesus' life and death, and ceased to offer an alternative to the present moral compass of a nation that identifies true north with political victory. I suggest that the church must maintain an ethic that understands the nation state may reserve the right to act outside of the boundaries of church ethics, and that in order for the church to be the church, it must nevertheless speak out against such actions and sacrifice privileges in order to be wholly non-compliant. Yet Christians must also offer comfort, solace, and alternatives to each and every person who falls victim to the ethics of domination, both victim and victimizer.
To begin, there must be some account of the evangelical defense of torture and a rejection of this account as being Christian in nature. It was indeed difficult to find fully committed defenses of torture in Christian periodicals. It also proved difficult to find any authors who used the biblical text to support torture. However, Gushee identifies a commonality in those evangelical Christians who either supported torture, or tacitly steered clear of the debate. As an engineer of a statement authored for the National Association of Evangelicals that condemned the United States policy related to torture of detainees, Gushee states that those organizations who refused to sign An Evangelical Declaration against Torture  were political supporters of the Bush administration and the Republican Party in general.[7] Some of these organizations included Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Family Resource Council, and a lone dissenting organization, The Institute for Religion and Democracy.  No signers of the condemnation were representatives of the Southern Baptist Conference, according to Gushee.[8]
“At a superficial political level, the split between those who signed [the statement against torture] and those who did not can be viewed upon political-ideological lines. The evangelical political right did not sign, the evangelical political center and left did.”[9] Gushee has written a book that suggests “an emerging evangelical center is competing with the right for the hearts and minds of American evangelicals. The fracture between these parts of the evangelical community is obvious and may be irreparable.”[10] As for biblical “support” of torture, Gushee found that political friends of the administration turned to Romans 13 as the most common, if not only, pericope to buoy their claims. God has chosen political leaders to use the sword against evil, thus, they deserve the support of Christians.
However, it is too easy to blame a right-wing political agenda for the church's relative silence on the issue. In fact, center to left commentators such as Gushee must accept some of the burden. He readily admits that a main objective of some evangelicals is to compete politically for adherents, thus legitimizing the negative discourse that occurs between those who claim to love their neighbors. It is saddening that both side of the political aisle not only refuse to worship in the same congregations in most cases, but regularly compare the other side and its leadership to Hitler and the Nazi Party.[11]
Yet, Gushee writes credibly on the issue of torture and the manner in which the Bush administration, from the top down, supported the torture of detainees. But he also admits that, when he first wrote in the popular evangelical magazine Christianity Today, though he felt it helped launch an “anti-torture” movement among evangelicals, that he had a regret.
“I regret a lack of significant christocentric argumentation. I ended the article with a reference to Jesus... but in an effort to speak to an evangelical community suspicious of 'sectarian' appeals to the model of Jesus and the radical demands of discipleship, and very much attracted to arguments based on government's mandate to use the sword to protect the innocent,  I avoided grounding my argument in Jesus Christ in any thoroughgoing or explicit way.”[12]

Gushee continues to believe, as stated in his post CT journal article, that there were “good, tactical reasons for this approach. And, while he regrets not formally asserting a “rule of Christ” ethic in the article, he provides an important insight in his reassessment of that strategic decision. He wrote “it is precisely our inadequate Christocentrism and Christomorphism that lie at the heart of our theological and ethical weakness as a religious community. Jesus Christ must be moved from the margins to the center of American evangelical ethics and public theology.”[13]
My belief is that Gushee made a tactical decision to avoid turning to the gospel witness as the foundation for his “arguments” against torture for two reasons that are major contributors to the crisis of Christian ethics. First, as he has already admitted, the battle over torture was not a battle over the propriety of torture of enemies as much as it was a presenting problem indicative a deeper evangelical commitment to political victory, and the maintenance of political power. While Gushee and other center-to-left evangelicals may adamantly be morally opposed to torture, they have chosen the political arena as the most appropriate venue for arguing Christian ethics, making it a political issue - and thus – one of debate between reasonable people without bounding the discourse within a “rule of Christ.” Second, the very fact of opening the issue to debate legitimizes a process that continuously makes it possible to consider torture as a response to evil. As an alternative to debating the ethics of torture, those who assert that torture is immoral must necessarily refuse to benefit from an apparatus that engages in such activity.   An Evangelical Declaration against Torture[14] did not explicitly invite Christians to do as much.
Though the final document produced by the National Association of Evangelicals undoubtedly illustrates why Christians should not affirm torture as a legitimate means of gathering information, it fails to commend to readers any actions which might be interpreted as “cross-bearing” in response to the fact of torture. The lengthy statement organizes its argument in a manner that affirms such virtues as the sanctity of all human life, love for enemies, and even legal concerns, but nevertheless refuses to assert the necessity of embodying the gospel ethics that it cites as arguments against torture. There are no life-affirming activities that are recommended as example of loving one's enemies, or acting as peacemakers. There are no suggestions as to how members of the military might respond to orders concerning torture. There are no calls for the Church to change the nature of its relationship with the government or the military outside of the call to end torture. There is no question of the legitimacy of the “war on terror,” only the question of torture. It presents an entirely negative ethic supported by affirming verbage. Was there a consideration that, if one is to use specific biblical arguments against torture, they might be led to consider the very nature of Christian participation in war, if not only the war in Iraq.


The idea that “cross-bearing” or voluntary sacrifice is a sectarian ethic has much to do with the problem of Christian ethics and the fact that an “evangelical” president could consider torture a legitimate act. Just as Gushee stated that he feared his anti-torture opinion might be marginalized as a “sectarian” ethic, there is reticence about any commendation of a Christian ethic that requires an act of self-emptying of privilege. While Christians will argue fairly strongly that war is often required to defend innocent people from suffering, it is rare that Christian ethicists or pastors will suggest that forgoing privilege and political or economic power is an appropriate action that will prevent war, or change the nature of the way the church thinks and speaks about war, or, its enemies.
It is primarily the ethic of power, or a critique of such ethics, that drives the rest of this essay. I suggest that while the Christian ethic embodied by Dirk Willems is representative of a biblical, Christ-centered ethic, such an ethic has not only been relegated to the place of individual witness, but the very suggestion that it might be passed down as representative of a corporate Christian ethic would be viewed as a threat to the church's legitimacy in the world. At the present time, evangelicals and a vast majority of American Christendom will not only reject a call to give up political and economic privilege, but would insist that the church has a responsibility to maintain and fully engage the world from a position of political power. However, if the church maintains political power, it not only legitimizes the argument that torture is open to debate, but it makes any attempt to articulate a biblical, Christ-centered ethic unintelligible. The church will no cease to be Christian.
Political power demands moral perspectives that consider the responsibilities of power. The hermeneutical lenses through which the gospel is interpreted are colored by the responsibility of the state, monarch, or military as opposed to the nature of the cross. However, shouting that the reign of Constantine brought the church into a permanent state of apostasy does no one any good, and limits the conversation to shrill assertions. At this point, I turn to a 2006 article written by Rabbi J. David Bleich in Tradition entitled Torture and the Ticking Bomb.[15] His article shows exactly how religious leaders can arrive at the conclusion that, in very specific circumstances, engaging in an immoral act may be legitimized when it is part of a process of saving lives, or, may be excused by a jury of peers who understand the action was part of an obligation to protecting innocents despite its categorization as immoral. Such is the nature of how Christians come to support war as a normative activity, and, as an extension, will support torture as a potentially necessary act of faithfulness at some point in the future.
Bleich spends significant space ensuring the reader that torture is indeed immoral in nearly all circumstances. In fact, he agrees that torture is immoral in all but those moments deemed most critical, such as when information is needed in order to save a large portion of a populace from a bomb that is set to go off at any time. (Of course, television used just this scenario in episodes of a series dubbed 24) In his article, Bleich uses the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical commentators to show that if one can undoubtedly save the lives of many by torturing one person to get the information necessary to save them, one has, if not acted in a morally sound manner, earned protection from prosecution due to the individual's obligation to save lives as is made possible by the occasion.[16]
The fact that such a scenario is dubious from the beginning is not necessary to this argument, only that Bleich does a rather complete and convincing job of arguing that as long as we make policy that bans torture, an individual who tortures when motivated to save numerous lives at the last second can be forgiven post-facto. He argues that in such a circumstance, while torture is an illegal act, and even remains illegal despite the acquittal of the individual who uses torture:
There is a striking precedent for such a moral stance in our contemporary judicial practice. For good reason, the various American jurisdictions have declined to legalize euthanasia. Yet in the few cases of mercy killing that have been brought to trial, by and large, juries have refused to convict or have found the defendant guilty of a lesser charge than homicide and, even when the defendant is found guilty, judges have mitigated the punishment. Thus the pristine moral value is preserved in theory while, when warranted, the harshness of its application is mitigated in practice.[17]

A Christian commentator might recognize Bleich's argument as being similar to that of civil disobedience. An individual does what he or she is directed by conscience to be the right thing to do despite its obvious illegality, with a significant difference being that civil disobedience is intended to point out the oppressive or immoral nature of a law, and is intended to facilitate the overturning of the law so that the activity is no longer considered illegal. Bleich intends for torture to always be illegal, and even prosecuted. Nevertheless, Bleich makes what is undoubtedly a reasonable argument on behalf of excusing a torturer from legal consequences if it can be shown that the action saved lives, and that the action was undertaken solely for the purpose of saving lives, and not what Bleich continues to condemn in his article:[18] activity undertaken with an eye toward “'punitive torture' and 'intimidative torture,'” which, in his mind, are “morally indefensible and repugnant in the extreme.”[19]
Bleich's argumentation can obviously be used in the political realm, and while a purely secular argument might make use of his conclusions as an example of religion underwriting the possibility of justifiable torture, it stands on its own as a justification for such a possibility within the context of Jewish moral and religious tradition. One can see how, with the obligations of power and political responsibility being considered, a Christian could support such a claim. However, from a biblical, christocentric point of view, when one considers the overwhelming themes of self-emptying and voluntary sacrifice – of cross-bearing – it becomes much harder; not to consider whether torture is an option, but rather, for a Christian, could it ever be possible to make such a choice.[20]
Because of the nature of sin, torture is always a possibility when an individual or group finds themselves wielding power over another individual or group. Such is the case if one is to consider Bleich's defense of torture in the most specific cases. However, a community of interpretation will find it difficult to arrive at a place where it is possible to torture if they read the Greek Scriptures in a manner that is every bit as reasonable as Bleich's exegetical methods, if not the methods approved by the Christian right and left. Such an hermeneutic community would first have to interpret relevant texts in a manner that allowed for coercive political practices or militarism to be an option.
The story of Jesus and his acceptance of the cross as the indicator of the success of his ministry demonstrates a religious ethic that displays the following: Jesus assumed a leadership role that challenged injustice without committing any act of coercion or violence in response, despite the existence of circumstances that would justify the use of violence.
 Jesus ministered in his homeland, which suffered the status of an occupied territory. More specifically, he ministered in a land that his kin believed was promised by God to them as a fulfillment of divine promises to their ancestors. Not only was the promised land illegally occupied, but that occupation defied God's will. Finally, Jesus ministered in a religious environment that not only assumed that militarism was a means in which God would restore the glory of Israel, but read texts and shared stories of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids that served as a reminder of the potential for armed revolt to liberate the oppressed.
Jesus did not rally disciples around a central idea that Rome must be driven out of the occupied promised land, but around an idea that they must embody a different ethic as an alternative to the domination of Rome, and, as an alternative to dominating Rome or driving her out. In response to the evil of the Roman occupation and a corrupted religious hierarchy, Jesus practiced, and is remembered as calling for his disciples to practice the eschewing of political, economic, and social power in favor of an ethic of  community building and servanthood to both friend and foe, and agreeing to suffer a penalty of death in order to point out the injustices committed by those who had power and economic control.
The tradition of Jesus shows that, when there was an opportunity or suggestion to use power or violence, he immediately rejected that option, though Jesus never failed to stand up against injustice and call for the powers to repent. Jesus not only operated from a position of socio-economic and political weakness, he insisted upon rejecting the use of force as an alternative. In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul shows that this was not only an ethic unique to Jesus, but a community ethic that was established as the standard for Christian response to injustice, and, abusive power.
Such a distinction between the ethics of power and the ethics of servanthood is important in a culture that generally challenges individuals or communities with “either-or” situations. This does not hold true. A Christian ethic, as concerns the issues of war, and even torture, places the adherent in a position where he or she, or they, refuse to participate in war, and have no power to torture. There is of course some nuance that needs to be unpacked here, but the ethic is as follows – a Christian ethic is based purely on the embodiment of the gospel record – living one's life as a member of community, and as an individual, that engages in peacemaking, in lovingly lifting the oppressors burden, in developing egalitarian communities that show no preference for wealth, gender, or race, and, to live with an aim toward emptying the self of any privilege that might serve to marginalize or embrace the victimization of another, or, “the other.” Loving God and neighbor, and loving even the enemy, become the normative lifestyle of both individual and community in a manner that makes it impossible to go to war, as one will already be negotiating for peace.
As for moral issues such as torture of enemies, the following is very important. Because the gospels, the New Testament corpus, and the manner in which we receive the gospels is that of a corporate nature, it becomes the purpose and main activity of a congregation or gathering of disciples to read and then embody, or live out, the corporate interpretations. The question of what one is to do or how one is to act in a manner that reflects a gospel or Christ-centered ethic is a question that is addressed corporately by a body of interpretation. The concern for an overarching reading that advises all Christians in a unifying manner is not only not possible, but unfavorable, because such an overarching reading of any text will lead to a position of power, or the possibility of garnering power. Such power, and the attempt to acquire such power, is hard to reconcile with the text when a small group with limited power, and the call to reject privilege address the text through such a hermeneutic.
Does this mean that Christians will never torture? No, but since torture of enemies is hardly an ethic that is evident in the Christian text, a decision to engage in such an activity automatically supposes another, non-christian ethic that an individual may voluntarily choose to abide by, even if his or her congregation or group rejects it as an appropriate task. The Christian ethic is voluntary, so while an individual may eschew the Christ-centered interpretive activity of loving one's enemies by feeding them and providing drink, they may choose an alternative, secular or military ethic by which to abide. Such a decision automatically rejects the Christian path in favor of another. A Christian may choose to torture, but in doing so, may automatically render his claim to be a Christian moot. She may indeed find herself barred from participation in her congregation or group until she repents of her engagement with the world through adherence to the secular ethic.
Such is the nature of Matthew 18:15 – 22. This pericope not only suggests that a community of believers sets a standard for the behaviors, or, the ethic of its constituents, but mandates something far more important than establishing a standard of ethics. The verses mandate a standard of forgiveness, much like the secular finding of “not guilty” that Bleich demands above for the individual who tortures another as a matter of conscience. The significant difference being that the very practice of a Christian ethic with the biblical mandate to self-emptying and socio-political weakness would make it very hard for a Christian to be in a position to carry out any ethic other than that of peacemaking and lovingly changing the heart of the enemy or oppressor through the maintenance of personal and corporate dignity. We can see how this plays out in the sense of Dirk Willems, but what about another scenario, one that Bleich himself describes, and is reminiscent of the last episodes of the television series M.A.S.H.?[21]



Bleich writes in the aforementioned article that in order to save the lives of many, one life may have to be sacrificed. He uses the example of Jews in a secret hiding place, or, any group of people in immanent threat of death that are in hiding, being in danger of having their presence or hiding place betrayed by a crying baby. It seems to Bleich (and others), that it may be necessary to stop the baby from crying by any means necessary in order to save the larger group from  discovery, and, certain death. In other words, taking a life is immoral, but the sacrifice of just one in order to save many may still be a necessary task. Indeed, one might suffocate the child while attempting to keep it quiet so the cries will not betray others.[22]
Like being in a position to torture, may God forbid human beings should ever be placed in such a situation. However, unlike the torture scenario brought to life by others, there have been instances of making heart-wrenching decisions about the lives of others such as the crying infant. The Christian narrative, which is also a Jewish narrative, makes sense of such a situation, and so does the history of the church's early martyrs. Christians, at our core, should understand that voluntary sacrifice is sometimes necessary in order for others to live, even if it results in our own death. How heart-wrenching it is to make a decision to take a life of one on behalf of many. However, such decision can be redeemed when that sacrifice is our own on behalf of others. One who reads Christian history will know that martyrs often took their children to martyrdom with them, as they knew of the vindication that would follow.[23] Early Christians sacrificed themselves and took their children with them because they had faith that their actions would be vindicated. Of course, the situation where a child might be sacrificed rarely ever occurs, but perhaps more often than a situation where one might be able to torture life-saving information, that was accurate, out of another human being. The question of what Jesus might do, however, should already be answered.






[1]John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 16. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 4-8.
[2]Stephen Sykes, The Identity of Christianity, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 3. “Christianity is an essentially contested concept.” John Caputo, however, states that it might be possible to entertain the notion of a foundation upon which to build a way of “doing” Christian ethics. He writes that a good starting place is the attempt “to restore the difficulty of life, not to make it impossible.” Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 209.
[3]Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willemon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 32: “We believe both the conservative and liberal church, the so-called private and public church, are basically accomodationist in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy.”
[4]Ibid., 26. The results of such behavior is that the church finds itself relegated to the margins of a discourse that can only deal in an ends justify the means vicious circle, or simply capitulates to an ethic that is deemed to be necessary to the success of democracy. For example, Hauerwas and Willemon write “President Roosevelt issued an urgent appeal to all governments, at the beginning of World War II, saying 'the bombing of helpless and unprotected civilians is a strategy which has aroused the horror of all mankind. I recall with pride that the United States consistently has taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited.'.” Consider also Paul Ramsey, who criticizes Christian pacifism by citing Helmut Gollwitzer to paint a rather skewed portrait of non-violence by writing that pacifists “leave to non-Christians that very secular task which requires the greatest love and unselfishness, namely, the use of force...” Paul Ramsey, “Is Vietnam a Just War?” in War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics, edited by Richard B. Miller, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 186.
[5]Faith in Public Life, “Release of Poll on Southern Evangelicals Attitudes on Torture,” http://www.faithinpubliclife.org/newsroom/press/page/40/  September 11, 2008, (retrieved July 28, 2014).
[6]David P. Gushee, “What the Torture Debate Reveals about American Evangelical Christianity,” in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 30, no. 1 (Summer, 2010): 79-97.
[7]Ibid.,86.
[8]Ibid.
[9]Ibid.
[10] Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008).
[11]Gushee cites Mark D. Tooley, "The Evangelical Left's Nazi Obsession," The Front-Page Magazine, (October 30, 2008): republished with permission on the Institute on Religion and Democracy website: www.tlieird.org/Page.aspxPpid == 818&srcid= 198
[12]Gushee, "Five Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong," in Christianity Today Vol.50, No. 2, February 2006, 33-37.
[13]Ibid.
[14]National Association of Evangelicals, An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror, (2012): http://www.nae.net/government-relations/endorsed-documents/409-an-evangelical-declaration-against-torture-protecting-human-rights-in-an-age-of-terror, (retrieved July 28, 2014).
[15]J. David Bleich, “Torture and the Ticking Bomb,” in Tradition, edit. by The Rabbinical Council of America, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2006, 89-121.
[16]Ibid., 107ff.
[17]Ibid., 95.
[18]Ibid.
[19]Ibid., 89.
[20]This is an important consideration for establishing what I will later call “the messianic ethic.” Utilitarianism and other “choice and decision-based situational ethics” suggest that there might be a variety of options, one of which will serve the most people in the most palatable manner. Hauerwas writes that the Christian ethic, if it is to remain biblical and Christian, should not offer the opportunity to make choices between one ethical choice and another, but instead calls upon adherents to find creative ways to maintain a particular ethic. For instance, when reflecting upon the practice of abortion, he suggests that the major question is not whether Christians should support such a practice, but whether or not they create a community which provides the care necessary to make abortion unintelligible. “Morally the most important things about us are those matters about which we never have to make a 'decision'. Thus the nonviolent persons do not have to choose violence or nonviolence, but rather their being nonviolent means they must use their imaginations to form their whole way of life consistent with their convictions.” Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 125. In another essay, Hauerwas insists that Christian pacifism has little to do with a kind of eschatological vision of creating a world without war, but instead states that “Christian pacifism, that is, a pacifism determined by the reality of Christ's cross, assumes we must be peaceful not because such peace holds out the hope of a world free from war but because as followers of Jesus we cannot be anything other than peaceful in a world inextricably at war.” “On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War: A Pacifist Response to the United Methodist Bishops' Pastoral 'In Defense of Creation',” in The Hauerwas Reader edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 431.
[21]Alan Alda and Karen Hall et al“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M.A.S.H. television series, (New York: CBS Corporation, 1983).
[22]Bleich, 101.
[23]Evidence for this claim is largely legendary.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Christian ethics from a biblical standpoint

ESR graduate Scot Miller is currently working to complete a Doctorate of Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. This is the first of a series of essays that are meant to contribute to that project. You can learn more about Scot and his work here: http://www.sandhillcommunity.blogspot.com and here: http://waitingworship.wordpress.com/



Imagine standing on the sidewalk at 11 Wall Street. There is a large group of passionate radicals that have gathered to hold the New York Stock Exchange responsible for an economic downturn that has left much of the nation in financial dire straits. Whether the charges levied against the Stock Exchange are reflective of real or perceived malfeasance, the mood of the crowd, and much of the United States citizenry, is one of insurrection. Often repeated by the lips of more than a few activist is a quote from Thomas Jefferson.
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
This quote originates with a letter sent by Jefferson to William Smith, a diplomat in London. It is in reference to the conscripting of government militias to put down a Massachusetts armed uprising in 1987 know as Shay's Rebellion. “God forbid,” wrote Jefferson, “we should ever be 20 years without a rebellion. Let them take arms.”[1]
Many individuals were making speeches and exhorting the crowds to take political matters into their own hands. “The ballot box is failing us,” one of the speakers says. “It is time to restore power to the people.” At that time, a rather unkempt individual walked through the crowd and stood at the foot of the Golden Bull of Wall Street. The crowd sat at the foot of the stage, and men and women who were apparently “comrades” of this speaker were passing out leaflets that declared a new age of politics was dawning.
This man stood apart from the other speakers, however, as he did not use the aggressive language of the revolutionaries that spoke before him. You listen to the speaker. He sounds more like a preacher, and his references to God make you uncomfortable. Few people in this crowd of radicals had time for gods of any kind. They wanted to change and tear down everything. Yet, something he says catches your ear, though no one else seems to be moved by it despite the fact they hear the same words.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven.” The speaker continued and you hear yet another statement that seems directed at you inner being. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[2]
It is evident that there are two very different narratives at work in the above act. Both, however, are easily identifiable to most Americans, whether they believe them to represent basic truths or otherwise. Despite evidence that each saying represents “polar opposite” points-of-view, many Americans have been comfortable collapsing the two historic responses to human conflict into a single, uniquely American, narrative. For many, it is the ideals of democracy that places the commandments of Jesus beyond the contemporary context. In the 21st Century, militarism is often considered noble, especially when it is undertaken in defense of innocents. As such, to oppose what the culture decides is a “just war,” one risks being a traitor to America. Hauerwas proposes that American civil religion demands of the faithful that “whatever kind of Christian they may be or not be, their faith should be in harmony with what it means to be a American.”[3]
Such civil religion has led Christendom to assuming the following: Democracy is a political system that is divinely wrought so that differing religious beliefs are “subordinated to their common loyalty to America.” As the story above points out, it has been rather easy for Americans to dismiss such biblical tenets as love for enemy in favor of the canon of American democracy. Hauerwas writes “War is a moral necessity for Americans... [it is] America's central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.”[4] And, as is commonly said, and perhaps just as commonly believed, the United States identifies itself as a “Christian nation.”[5] In this sense, war can always be legitimized as a righteous undertaking. Can it be possible to understand the gospel in a manner that does not underwrite the policies and actions of Western democracies?
The relationship between American democracy and Christendom has produced a critical error in the project of constructing a contemporary biblical ethic. Presently, much of what is presented as Christian ethics fails to reflect, both the manner in which God has worked through Jesus the Christ, and just as importantly, how Christians should act in order to reflect God's call to embody the life of the Christ. Such an ethic has proven to be a difficult task provided the Enlightenment and Modernist assumptions that continue to under-gird American Christendom's subjugation to the demands of liberal democracy.[6] The difficulty stems from what I identify as a core inconsistency between the an ethic centered in Scripture and the very nature of democratic republicanism.
The beginning of the Twentieth Century provides an example of how Modernist philosophical thought and politically liberal religion were combined to overcome the problems that the Bible apparently created for the articulation of Christian ethics.The Second Great Awakening had much to contribute to social progress during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Yet, the church's support of women's rights and suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, and care for the poor ebbed after the Civil War. Modernism heightened the level of skepticism concerning the credibility of Christian claims, and secular movements were growing in numbers and began to replace religious organizations as champions for social change. Socialist and communist movements gained footholds in American cities following the Civil War, and anarchists such as Emma Goldman were both highly sought after political speakers, as well as candidates for exile or imprisonment. In the case of Goldman and many others, an all-out attack on Christianity was thought by them to be necessary to the liberation of humankind. Christian 'activists” were either deemed too naive and lacking in reasoned approaches, or their theology was attacked by many churches who did not want to be suspected as anti-American socialists or union supporters.[7]
There was an additional problem for Christian ethics at the turn of the century, and it was identified as Scripture itself. The problem of the Bible was that content which was interpreted to underwrite slavery, subservience to rulers, war, and the continuing subjugation of women.[8] Such issues made up the bulk of leftist criticism. Conservative Christian congregations preached wholesale the themes of patriarchy, the righteousness of American war efforts, segregation, and the elimination of socialism.[9]
Walter Rauschenbusch inaugurated a response to this apparent problem of Scripture. He re-prioritized Scripture, and made it more appetizing for many Christian liberals through the application of historical and literary criticism. He consistently promoted the “modern” literary and interpretive concepts of hermeneutics as a manner in which references to the Bible's authority could coincide with contemporary advances in the social sciences. As such, reading his work can often make one feel as though she is reading a Marxist treatise or an early volume of Liberation Theology.[10]
"Walter Rauschenbusch" by Unknown - http://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/htallant/courses/his338/students/kpotter/walter.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Rauschenbusch.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Walter_Rauschenbusch.jpg

That said, the “Social Gospel” movement was not only successful in winning over many Christians who might otherwise leave a religion that apparently had little to say about the matters of poverty, class, and gender; but it initiated an attempt to legitimize the Gospel as a contributor to the discussions of ethics and politics within the realm of modernist discourse. Whether or not Rauschenbusch succeeded in this, he certainly pioneered attempts to make Christian ethics relevant to public moral discourse. He interpreted the Bible as the main informant of American democracy. “Where religion and intellect combine,” he wrote in Theology for the Social Gospel,  “the foundation is laid for political democracy."[11] What followed was an implicit proposition that democracy is in some way a divine construct and thus carries out the will of God – and perhaps, resulted in a preference to articulate the will of God in the more private confines of ballot boxes. This reduced the use of the Bible to those proof-texts that seemed to underwrite the nation-state's priorities, or at the very least, the priorities of those Christians who were most invested in the manner in which the nation-state was to be governed.[12]
It may be suggested that Rauschenbusch should be credited for establishing an American religious concern for the poor and exploited, and there is most likely little interest in highlighting his work as representative of negative contributions to Christian theology. However, the work he dedicated to the social gospel movement initiated a epistemological move that resulted in the need for Christian ethics to prioritize political power and acquiescence and consider the supremacy of American narratives of individualism and democratic ideals, and later, free-market economics over and against self-sufficient communities.
One of Rauschenbusch's biggest critics is in fact indebted to his work. Reinhold Niebuhr was a proponent of the social gospel while pastoring in Detroit. After growing a small congregation into one of the city's larger and more influential churches, he became well known for his commitment to the labor movement, the plight of the working class, and his pacifism. However, While Rauschenbusch maintained his commitment to non-violence, Niebuhr’s pacifism was challenged during World War I, and he supported the war effort against Germany as possible step toward a lasting peace.[13] Niebuhr naturally followed Rauschenbush closely in his thinking about democratic ideals, yet later called the social gospel movement naive and utopian, writing in 1944 at the height of World War II that American democracy was more realistic. “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[14]
"Reinhold niebuhr" by http://watersbroken.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Reinhold Niebuhr via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reinhold_niebuhr.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Reinhold_niebuhr.jpg

Reinhold Niebuhr bears witness to Rauschenbusch in two equally important ways. A concern for the social gospel, and a commitment to liberal democracy as the primary vehicle through which the good intentions of the church could be realized. Hauerwas writes that “ironically, Niebuhr's justification of democracy turns out to be a legitimization of Protestant liberalism. His views appear less religiously specific than those of Rauschenbusch, but that is only because his account of Christianity had already been well policed by the requirements of sustaining democracy as a universal achievement.”[15]
Another aspect of Niebuhr’s theology bears mentioning. The more one explores Niebuhr’s writing, the less it becomes possible to find references to the Bible as an informant of Niebuhr’s ethics. In his quest for realism and relevancy to the American political system, the former proponent of the social gospel ostensibly found Scripture to be less than helpful. He was vague concerning the importance of the Bible to ethics other than the text's capacity to articulate universal truths and assist in providing religious metaphors for reality.
Niebuhr's prioritizing of democratic ideals and what he termed to be “Christian realism,”[16] is evident in his work concerning the American civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. One can observe the concern for relevance within the context of the ongoing discussions of civil rights and the mobilization of resources in the pursuit of the movement's goals, as Niebuhr's writing increasingly lacked references to the biblical text. Siker writes that “when one examines Niebuhr's work as a whole, one finds that he tends to make more frequent references to specific Bible texts in overtly theological writings, even if often in passing... in his more socially and politically oriented writings, however, Niebuhr rarely cites scripture, perhaps because of the more public forum he was seeking to influence.”[17] Siker goes on to state that Niebuhr's primary community “was not so much the church as it was the forum of national and international policy debates addressed in light of his Christian convictions.”[18]
Though Niebuhr was not alone in his decision to rely on the nation state to exact or promote justice during the 60's, I consider him representative of what the white establishment came to be during this time of “crisis.” The answer to the question of what it is that “we ought to do” tends toward finding ways to legislate and enforce justice. The question of “how we ought to do it” is less clear. A quick (perhaps unfairly so) read of some of Niebuhr's essays in the 1960's reveals that he strayed from articulating faith-based responses to what he referred to as the “racial crisis” and relied instead on the ability of the nation state to resolve the issue of injustice as it related to segregation and voting rights. His writing suggested that political power is the appropriate means for achieving preferred outcomes, and he can be interpreted as believing that appropriate use of such power occurs when the state has the monopoly on enforcing morality. “It has been said” wrote Niebuhr in The Crisis in American Protestantism, “that perhaps the weakness of American Protestantism reveals itself in the fact that it is 'captive to the power structure'.”[19]
It is Niebuhr, as we read through some of his work in the mid-60's, that favors political and military power. He avoided the suggestion that it is the imbalance of power and the human tendency toward domination that makes his own, and often our own, understandings or moral crisis captive to the power structure. Just as when he could see no alternative to the fascist threat outside of militarism, Niebuhr could see no response to the racial injustices without supporting the use of power by the American government to enforce civil rights laws at gun-point. He wrote in 1965 that it was necessary for Lyndon Johnson to federalize the Alabama National Guard so that Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Birmingham could receive appropriate protection. In a brief column entitled Civil Rights Climax in Alabama,[20] he adds a telling observation concerning revolution and the matter of hope.
Niebuhr believed Marx had it all wrong; that Marx believed revolution is motivated by “pure desperation.” Niebuhr quoted Proverbs 13:12 to make his point. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick [but when desire cometh it is a tree of life]” suggesting that having hope, yet not seeing it realized, is the greater motivator.[21] That may be true, yet there is something troubling here. While he quotes Proverbs, Niebuhr did not suggest that hope for African Americans comes from the gospel narratives or from an experience of the risen Christ. Niebuhr used Scripture to locate the hope of the black cause in the Supreme Court, and its deferment in the unrealized implementation of desegregation laws.
 Whether Christ gives hope of any justice or not is not so much the issue, however, but instead that hope is placed elsewhere, which indicates a failure of Christian ethics to be Christian any more. Niebuhr published his article in a Christian journal. The level of writing suggests that the readership has some academic training. In this context he implicitly states that hope and justice as being found solely within the realm of government, government courts, and government military force. Niebuhr's only mention of the church comes with his possibly condescending affirmation of the black church. He identified white protestantism as a problem rather than a solution to the civil rights struggle, rightfully indicating the black church as a locus of the movement. He singled out King for honors as a contributor to rectifying wrongs. Yet, in his articles during the mid-60's, identifying the black church as the response to racism is lacking. He seemed to find the solutions originating with the federal government. Did he believe the black church to be powerless in the struggle for anything outside of the moral support it might supply to activists? He certainly found white protestantism to be lacking, outside of a few prophetic voices.
An observer might believe Niebuhr had no room for particularly Christian or Christ-centered propositions to provide foundation for his ethic, even though he wrote as a Christian.  He did not write with an eye toward reforming Christian congregations other than rightfully stating that white churches were lagging behind in the cause of civil rights. “We may all be racists at heart” he wrote, “but we have some limits of humane concern that distinguish us from the Nazis.” Who is the “we” that Niebuhr writes of, and how could he overlook the very real “master race” organizations that existed all over the north and the south? Racial superiority was at the heart of slavery and Jim Crow, and was prevalent even among those whites who supported abolition before the American Civil War.
Instead of proposing a well-interpreted scriptural mandate for justice by appealing to Galatians 3:27-29 as a warrant for participation in justice movements, Niebuhr in effect overlooked the truly racist realities of the American democracy in order to commend hope to American institutions. He seemed to be saying, “at least we're not Nazis.”[22]  He seemed to relax any tensions that could be realized with encouraging white Protestants to participate in marches, civil disobedience, or boycotts, though he must have somehow supported such action. It appears in the limited scope of my reading that he simply trusted whites to acquiesce to the federal government as the legitimators of black civil rights claims, and not command participation from those who need to be most changed – white protestants. It is remarkable that he calls for federal troops to protect participants in a non-violent movement.
Siker sums Niebuhr's nod to realism as such: “With regard to the love ethic, it is... crucial for Niebuhr to argue that the love ethic of Jesus is an impossible ethical ideal.”[23] Thus, the apparent trust on his part in the coercive abilities of government over the biblical mandate to love one's enemy distinguishes the Bible as a text from more authoritative civil laws, and the ethic of Christ as inadequate for Christian contributions to moral discourse. This seems to be an important manner in which Christian ethicists could have prioritized both the Bible, and the life of Christ, as the primary informants of Christian ethics. The leading theologian of the time chose a different road to hoe.
 I believe Niebuhr is truly on the side of justice. It is more likely that, especially in light of the crisis of World War II, Niebuhr could not see the power that is inherent in the weakness – in lovingly changing the heart of your neighbor and enemy – of the cross. He interpreted Christ through the lenses of democracy because he could only interpret the achieving of justice as occurring through the gears of power and control. And, because he trusted solely in the power of democracy, he initiates an ethic that renders the Christian narrative and its canonical texts peripheral contributors, because, it otherwise has the ability to challenge democracy's assumed truth of righteous coerciveness.
Even with the civil rights victories that so many like Niebuhr worked for, there has been no real change in theological perspective. We still have an overwhelmingly racist and sexist society, and church, that pretends incremental achievement will someday bring us to that final, overarching moral perfection. In the end, there seems to be a general rejection the cross as a means of realizing justice. Why would white Christians experience marginalization en-mass – like those experiences of the Freedom Riders or participants in lunch-counter sit-ins – if government can enforce desegregation at gun point? Niebuhr refused the messianic challenge toward cross-bearing in favor of the what Yoder and others call Constantinian option.[24]
This essay is not to be misunderstood as a criticism of civil rights legislation. It is to point out that, in the process of seeking justice with as little effort or self-reflection as possible, we lose sight of the biblical mandate to love our neighbors and enemies. It is not that the nation state should resist enforcing legislation – the question is far different. The question is: what are Christians called to do differently? Niebuhr did not ask white folks to sit at lunch counters or march on Birmingham, though he knows that some did. He did not ask them to walk away from their congregations to start new ones that supported justice through the embodiment of a Galatians 3. He instead called for the support of militarism; and Jesus, no matter how you nail him to the cross, rejects that notion.
As such, there is no real christocentric contribution to the discussion – no non-violent alternative - for even though the marchers and demonstrators are non-violent, Niebuhr cannot help but to call for their defense at gun-point instead of sitting down next to them. He simply must dictate the terms, the time, and the means despite the best arguments of those he supports. I am sure Niebuhr comments consistently on the righteousness of non-violence. It seems he didn't believe it would work, which was a wholesale exclusion of faith.
My alternative is to explore how we answer the question of Christian ethics from a biblical standpoint instead of a perspective that prioritizes liberal democracy and electoral politics. The question of what we ought to do can be answered with “we ought to reflect the love of Jesus Christ, if we call ourselves Christians.” The answer to “how we ought to do it” must be framed much differently than has been since World War II. Yet, perhaps the question simply needs to be qualified: “How can we reflect the voluntary suffering of the cross in our pursuit of a justice that may be unlike anything we can describe?”
In this we may find our response to the dichotomy between the options presented in the introduction, and we can find it in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. Consider the following:
Many of the young folks that were demonstrating on Wall Street came from, or met at, Columbia University in the heart of Manhattan. It was at this college where revolutionaries on both the faculty, and from the surrounding urban chaos, made plans for the overthrow of the Stock Exchange and the realization of true democracy.
The preacher from Wall Street walked over to Columbia intending to preach to the revolutionaries, who were forming themselves into affinity groups in order to carry out their next action.
The followers of this preacher who was taught love of enemies noticed that many in the crowd of revolutionaries were hungry, and some of them had not eaten in days. The people had no money, as many had lost their jobs. Others were students, and still others simply left their jobs to join the movement. The preacher of love had called upon his followers to do the very same, and he understood the angry masses before him.
 His followers said to him, “how can we feed these hungry people? We have no more than $200.” The preacher calmed them and instructed the entire mass of people to sit and be fed. Together, the disciples went to urban gardens, outdoor markets, pushcarts, and around the mass of people themselves, and collecting enough food that everyone could have second helpings. The preacher told his students, “you need not spend the money of the Stock Exchange when we have resources in our own community. We need not spend what is valued over people when we can provide an alternative that renders the money of Wall Street valueless.”
Yet, the people in the crowd could not understand. They wanted to elect this preacher as a leader and creator of consensus. They decided to march to Wall Street and declare him as the new face of the movement. But the preacher knew that they still planned to use force, and he would not give up his love ethic. Feeding people from the resources available was preferable to killing and redistributing mammon. He withdrew to a nearby building, away from the crowds, in order to pray. During prayer, he knew other sacrifices would be necessary to show the masses what God expected of the to bring about a new realm on Earth. He asked for guidance, yet set his face toward Wall Street to preach love yet again. What is it that your ears will hear in these competing narratives?



[1]Josh Horwitz, “Thomas Jefferson and the 'Blood of Tyrants',” HuffingtonPost.com, September 1, 2009, (Accessed July 19, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-horwitz/thomas-jefferson-and-the_b_273800.html.
[2]Matthew 5.43; 48 NRSV
[3]Stanley Hauerwas. War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.
[4]Ibid.
[5]For an example of this view as related to conservative American political claims, especially in light of Hauerwas's assumptions, see the following essay: Todd Starnes, “Are we still one nation under God?” FoxNews.com. July 2, 2012, (Accessed July 19, 2014), http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2010/07/02/todd-starnes-barack-obama-united-states-christian-nation/. The article takes issue with a statement by President Barack H. Obama during a speech in which the author assumes that Obama declared that the United States in no longer “just a Christian nation” Starnes cites President George Washington to support his claim: “'While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian'.”  Sterns himself adds quotable statements to his essay: “And while the winds of change may sweep across the nation’s capital - there stands a beacon of hope - a reminder that this nation of immigrants was built, not on sinking sand, but on a firm foundation, girded by Almighty God,” followed with, “on this Fourth of July, the first ray’s(sic) of morning light will shine down upon these United States of America -- illuminating an eternal truth and a grateful nation’s prayer - praise be to God!”
[6]This statement is based on the work of a number of theological writers. The following list is intended to provide a cross-section of theological thinking that has been critical of Enlightenment and Modernity as it relates to Christian ethics and the biblical text. See John Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987). John E. Thiel, Nonfoundationalism, in “Guides to Theological Inquiry,” edit. by Kathryn Tanner, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991. Henry Ruff, Postmodern Rationality, Social Criticism, and Religion, in “Paragon Issues in Philosophy” edit. by John K. Roth and Frederich Sontag, (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2005). Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
[7]For an excellent example of the relationship between religiously conservative Christians, the socialist movement in the United States, and union struggles, see the movie Matewan. Written and directed by John Sayles, (New York City: Cinecom Pictures, 1987). Based on a coal mining strike and union organizing in 1930's West Virginia, stock characters reflect the attitudes of conservative Baptists, social gospel Baptists, socialist union organizers, and an exploited working class. Interestingly, the socialist organizer is portrayed as an atheist, while the workers are portrayed as rather ambivalent toward religion.
[8]Michael G. Cartwright, Practices, Politics, and Performance: Toward a Communal Hermeneutic for Christian Ethics, Vol. 57 Princeton Theological Monograph  (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 8.
[9]Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 51.
[10]Rauschenbusch quotes Freidrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1848. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1908) 216. https://archive.org/stream/christianityand01rausgoog#page/n5/mode/2up, ( Accessed July 19, 2014). See also the first chapter of  Rauschenbusch's Christianizing the Social Order (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912), 1-6, https://archive.org/stream/christianizings01rausgoog#page/n14/mode/2up, (Accessed July 19, 2014).
[11]Hauerwas, “The Democratic Policing of Christianity” Pro Ecclesia  III, no. 2, (Summer 1994, 215-231), 219. He writes “According to Rauschenbusch the new social sciences have discovered the plasticity of human society as well as the inherent organic character of social relations. For example, through the new biblical sciences and historical method we are being put in the position of the original readers of each book, thus making the Bible more life-like and social. 'We used to see the sacred landscape through allegorical interpretation as through a piece of yellow bottle-glass. It was very golden and wonderful, but very much apart from our everyday modern life. The Bible hereafter will be 'the people's book' in a new sense. For the first time in religious history we have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility'. In short, as he says in Theology for The Social Gospel, 'Where religion and intellect combine, the foundation is laid for political democracy'," citing Rauschenbusch, (New York: Abington Press, 1917).
[12]I here follow Cartwright, 59. He quotes Rauschenbush's Christianity and the Social Order “Democracy aids in Christianizing the social order by giving political and economic expression to” Christianity's “fundamental view of the worth of man.” Rauschenbusch uses the Bible as providing historical legitimacy for the claim that Jesus is representative of the Christian ethic, and tends to view American liberalism as the natural extension of Jesus' unchallengeable authority: Read Gary Dorrien's “Rauschenbusch's Christianity and Social Crisis” which states in an generally positive review that Rauschenbusch's supporters were “sentimental, moralistic, idealistic and politically naive. [The book] preached a gospel of cultural optimism and a Jesus of middle-class idealism. It was culturally chauvinist and thoroughly late-Victorian. It spoke the language of triumphal missionary religion, sometimes baptized the Anglo-Saxon ideology of Manifest Destiny, and usually claimed that American imperialism was not really imperialism, since it had good intentions... It created the ecumenical movement in the U.S., but it had a strongly Protestant, anti-Catholic idea of ecumenism, and Rauschenbusch was especially harsh on this topic. Most social gospel leaders vigorously opposed World War I until the U.S. intervened, whereupon they promptly ditched their opposition to war (with the brave exception of Rauschenbusch). “Rauschenbush's Christianity and Social Crisis, Religion-online.org, (1997), http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3501  (Accessed July 19, 2014).
[13]William G. Chrystal, “Reinhold Neibuhr and the First World War,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 1977, 55 no. 3, 285-298.
[14]Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense. (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1944), XI.
[15]Hauerwas, “The Democratic Policing of Christianity” Pro Ecclesia  III, no. 2, (Summer 1994, 215-231), 228.
[16]Reinhold Niebuhr,  Children of Light and Children of Darkness.
[17]Jeffrey Siker, Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth-Century Portraits, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 10.
[18]Ibid. See also the editorial note in The Christian Century which identifies Niebuhr as “one of Protestantism's most renowned figures, 1498. Stanley Hauerwas identifies this manner of “doing Christian ethics” as rooted in the church's insistence on being taken seriously in an increasingly secular American society.  He writes “Christian ethicists [have] come to think that, if they  wish to remain political actors, they must translate their convictions into nontheological idiom. But once such translation is accomplished, why is the theological idiom needed at all?” Furthermore, Hauerwas states that this secularism has presented theological ethicists with an irresistible temptation.  Even if theologians cannot “demonstrate the truth of theological clams,” Christians attempt to insist on maintaining a place in ethical discourse by making the argument that religious “attitudes” are necessary “to the maintenance of our culture... If religion is to deserve allegiance, so the thinking goes, it must be  based on what can be agreed upon universally.” Such is the case for Niebuhrian ethics that indicate a trajectory moving from pacifist to militaristic, and from sacrificial kenosis to dependence on the coercive forces of the government. Hauerwas, “On Keeping Ethics Theological,” in The Hauerwas Reader,” edit. by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 68, 52.
[19]Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Crisis in American Protestantism,” The Christian Century, (December 4, 1963), 1498-1501.
[20]Niebuhr, “Civil Rights Climax in Alabama,” Christianity in Crisis, XXIII, no. 5, (April 5, 1965), 61
[21]Niebuhr, “The Mounting Racial Climax,” Christianity in Crisis, XXIII, no. 12, (July 8, 1963), 121-22.
[22]Niebuhr, “Civil Rights Climax in Alabama,” 61. While this assumption may be somewhat unfair, it can be considered a summary of much of Neibuhr's work in the 60's. He wrote, “the martyr’s death of the Unitarian minister James Reeb, done in by cruel racists, and the nation-wide sympathy and horror over his death vivify two additional themes. One is the increasing moral isolation of the white oligarchy by the nation. We may all be racists at heart, but we have some limits of humane concern that distinguish us from the Nazis.” (italics added).
[23]Siker, Scripture and Ethics, 13. also, see Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 4-8. Yoder writes that there are six assumptions that are argued in opposition to the credibility of the so-called “love ethic” as a normative Christian ethic. Those assumptions are; 1) “The ethic of Jesus is an ethic for an “Interim” which Jesus thought would be very brief.” 2) “Jesus was, as his Franciscan and Tolstoyan imitators have said, a simple rural figure...” and he had no intention of speaking to the “complex problems of complex organizations” etc. 3) “Jesus and his early followers lived in a world over which they had no control... they could not conceive of the exercise of social responsibility in any form other than being a faithful witnessing minority.” 4) Jesus “dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the existential and not the concrete.” 5) Jesus “pointed people away from the local and finite values to which they had been giving their attention and proclaimed the sovereignty of the only One worthy of being worshiped.” 6) “Jesus came to give his life for the sins of humankind...but should never be correlated with ethics.” In The Priestly Kingdom, Yoder adds to his list of common errors concerning a Christ-centered and biblical ethic a list of arguments that are often invoked to cut any discussion of radical ethics short. They are the tendency of mainstream pastors or church members to ask “'how far' should we go, or 'at what point' it needs to be buffered or diluted by 'realistic,' or 'pastoral' or 'ecumenical' considerations.” 16.
[24]Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 135ff.