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: Christian, ethics, history, Howard Thurman, Incarnation, Judaism, logos, love, peace, philosophy, poverty, Stanley Hauerwas, theology, truth