What is a “Christian” Social Ethics?

In order to properly deal with the question of what makes a social ethic “Christian,” one must first ask what makes anything Christian. Although Christianity can be defined in multiple ways (e.g. historically, doc­trinally, philosophically), for something to be ultimate­ly characterized as “Christian,” it must be essential­ly related to the person and work of Jesus Christ, as re­vealed in the New Testament (Recognizing that no text, biblical or otherwise, can be interpreted with complete objectivity, I think that it is appropriate to disclose my own religious background. I am an Episcopalian whose theological and spiritual outlook has been strongly shaped by Evangelicalism and, to a lesser extent, the Reformed tradition). This assertion by no means makes the task before us of defining the Christian character of a social ethic any less complicated. In the New Tes­tament, we are presented with multiple representa­tions of Jesus (charismatic prophet, wise teacher, mir­acle worker, suffering victim, risen Messiah, divine Lo­gos, etc.). In order to have an accurate understanding of Jesus for defining Christian social ethics, none of these accounts should be disregarded.

However, the image of Jesus as a marginalized Jew, presented to us by Howard Thurman in his work Jesus and the Disinherited must be emphasized, particularly given our present North American context. At the same time, a fully authentic Christian social ethic requires that Thurman’s presentation of Jesus be supplement­ed by a greater focus on the work of God in and through Christ and His followers. This can be accomplished in two ways: by looking at the significance of the Incar­nation and by affirming the importance of the Chris­tian community. Early on in his book, Thurman focus­es on the fact that “Jesus was a poor Jew” who belonged to an oppressed minority group (1996, 17). According­ly, Christians who have a concern for ethical issues in to­day’s society must reflect on Christ’s marginalized status in his own social context. Such a reflection should then move on to considering the perspectives and experienc­es of marginalized individuals today, and what bearing Christ’s gospel has for them and the rest of society. Thus, for example, a Christian social ethic cannot legitimately apply Jesus’ command to love one’s enemy to contempo­rary circumstances until it explores what it means for the underprivileged to experience oppression. As Thurman discusses, Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness was originally directed toward the disinherited and the poor. Moreover, it is people in such conditions who make up a high percentage of the human population today. Conse­quently, their life experience (characterized by material want and social marginalization) ought to serve as a nor­mative basis for a Christian conception of social ethics.

Even so, one would certainly want to affirm, with Thurman, that the “ethical demand upon the more privileged and the underprivileged is the same” (106). According to Christianity, all people have been creat­ed in the image of God and therefore must be respected as having equal worth and potential. This belief in hu­manity’s universal equality and worth is intensified by the doctrine of the Incarnation. Since God assumed hu­man form in the Person of Christ, all of humanity has been raised up and given the opportunity to participate in the divine nature (cf. II Peter 1:4). In short, all people bear an equal worth and spiritual dignity as human be­ings and everyone is called to a common sharing in mu­tual reverence and love of neighbor.

My reference to the Incarnation in the present dis­cussion is perhaps a departure from Thurman’s general approach in Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he is pri­marily focused on the implications of Christ’s particu­lar social conditions as a marginalized Jew. Yet I believe that a social ethic that fails to account for this doctrine can only be approximately labeled “Christian” in its content. St. Paul writes that God reconciled “the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of rec­onciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19). A Christian is some­one who has been reconciled to God and is called to be an agent of reconciliation in the world by following the radical ethic of love taught by Jesus. One does so, as Thurman concludes, with a great deal of dedication and discipline, but also having the faith that God’s Spir­it is at work in helping one to “live effectively in the cha­os of the present” (109). Hence, the supernatural as­pects of Christian belief are vitally connected to the moral dimensions of a Christian social ethic.

The communal nature of Jesus’ life and work must be considered when attempting to define the Christian character of a social ethic. Christ’s teachings in the Gos­pels do not appear to be as concerned about individu­al piety as they are in establishing a community of ser­vants dedicated to the vision of a peaceable kingdom on earth. Illustrative of this is Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this passage, Je­sus teaches that the standard by which humanity will be ultimately judged pertains to how willing one is to serve God in one’s neighbor, particularly “the least of these” (v. 40). This call to discipleship through service to others, especially the underprivileged, is a call made in the community that Jesus has created, not in a vacu­um of personal religiosity. Therefore, with Stanley Hau­erwas, one can affirm that the ground of Christian so­cial ethics is the Church. Hauerwas writes in “The Ser­vant Community” that the Church “must be the clear manifestation of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and of course, most of all, God” (372, The Hauerwas Reader). Its exemplar in doing so is, of course, Jesus Christ. “The truthfulness of Jesus,” Hauerwas explains, “creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form.” (37). In this way, Christology and ecclesiology are intimated connected and both are foundational to a Christian social ethic. Jesus Christ, as revealed in Scrip­ture and known to the world today through His Church, is what makes a social ethic “Christian” in the fullest sense of the word.


Daniel Bell is a second-year student at Yale Divinity School.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,