Tag Archives: Ethics

Violence and Power

Since The Shooting this weekend folks have been engaged in the standard question-asking, finger-pointing, and blame shifting. We always want to blame someone.

One of the most common concerns, and one that I share in part, is the connection between the shooting and the inflamed political rhetoric of our day.

But I wonder if the appropriate response of the church isn’t to start thinking more constructively about what it means to be a peaceable and peace-making people more generally. I can hear my pacifist fans cheering and yes, I can see you, my “just war theory” reader, through your computer’s camera, folding your hands across your chest and scowling at the screen.

But stay with me.


What I want to suggest here is about more than putting away our guns (personal or national). The problem of violence is more wide-spread than this. Violence arises any time we attempt to gain control of a situation through the use of power.

What this means is that it’s not enough for a church to agitate for the U.S. to pursue peace rather than war. We need to start at home.

It’s easy as a parent to use force to control situations. But when we interject the power of our voice (or hands) into a situation where our kids are fighting with each other, have we managed to keep them from the way of violence? Or are we showing them instead that there will always be someone with more power and the destiny they should pursue is to acquire as much of it as possible?

Our churches become hotbeds of power-grabbing. For many, this is the place where we are most involved, and perhaps have the most control over the destiny of an organization. And this becomes a place where we practice the tactics of power assertion, politics, and manipulation to work our will.

The church has not created within itself the counter-culture of peace that should serve as a witness against the ultimate futility of violence employed by the world around us.

We can and should react to such horrific events as we saw this past weekend with all due revulsion. But until we as followers of Jesus have managed to form communities of the cross rather than communities of the crucifiers we have no place either for self-righteousness nor, in the end, for surprise.

Our calling has been to extend the call for a better way to the world around us. But failing to be that better way, we have failed to call others to that better way–and they wouldn’t listen even if we did.

(post script: Along these lines, you should check out this post on our need for new heros by Broderick Greer.)

The OT & Ethics

This from Doug Moo’s Romans commentary, discussing Paul’s citation of Psalm 68:10 in Romans 15:3:

    The OT, though no longer a source of direct moral imperative ([Romans] 6:14, 15; 7:4), continues to play a central role in helping Christians to understand the climax of salvation history and their responsibilities as the new Covenant people of God.

I found this to be a helpful way of putting things, even if somewhat jarring to many of us.

The Old Testament is important, but it is no longer our moment in the story. Moral directives do not come to us directly from it, but the entirety of the OT comes to us modulated through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

Put differently, the reason why Psalm 68:10 applies to us is that it is true of Jesus’ life and death and therefore must become true of ours.

Buyer Beware!

There’s all kinds of crazy crap out there on the internet these days. Egads!

In one recent blog post, Bob Cargill suggested that people should disagree agreeably and possibly even share a beer afterwards! More than that, he claims it’s happening! I’m not sure how trustworthy such a fellow could possibly be.

In another blog, Joel Watts has concurred with the notion that Lady Gaga represents the blurring of the lines between porn culture and pop culture. Then he goes so far as to suggest that Christians help their children find alternative icons.

Be careful friends. If you don’t, you might just find some intelligent stuff on the interwebs.

Pragmatics of Love

In something of a follow-up to yesterday’s post on homosexuality and justice, I had a few thoughts on the pragmatic nature of my argument about endorsing civil liberties as an expression of love. To be sure, there was a bit of a theological component as well, an appeal to Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor, but when it came right down to it, I argued that people know, to a certain degree, when they are being met with love and when they are being met with… well… something else.

Yesterday I alluded to the Good Samaritan story as one depiction of the pragmatic nature of love. But I think the thread is even more extensively woven through the Gospels narratives.

When we see Jesus encountering the world around him, we find him willing to respond to and rectify the ills of the felt needs of the people around him.

We cannot love without pragmatism. What we see in Jesus is that, for all that he was advancing an agenda to proclaim and inaugurate the reign of God, he was ever submitting himself to the agendas set by the people who came to him.

What this tells us about the Kingdom of God is that it is more extensive than the agenda of proclamation and conversion that we as Christians will always, to some extent, carry with us. Once we recognize that the Kingdom of God is not just about the saving of souls, or the sanctification of the church, but the wholesale reordering and rectification of the cosmos, then we realize not only the possibility but the responsibility to work for holistic restoration of the space within which we find ourselves.

Or, to put it more simply: I am as much an agent of the Kingdom of God when I work for accessible healthcare and when I proclaim that Jesus died for our sins.

When the gospel is big enough to rectify not only the sinful and enslaved condition of individual human hearts but the brokeness of human bodies and the corruption of human systems then we can see that the gospel itself gives us space to act as agents of the good news even where those who would benefit are not interested in bowing their knees to the resurrected Lord.

It’s when we apprehend the breadth of the gospel that we are free to serve and to love–being willing to respond to the needs of the people around us rather than leading with an agenda of conversion.

It’s then that we can see that holding onto a gospel call to faith and repentance is no enemy of agitating for the civil liberties of those who do not affirm the Lordship of the one who is giving them liberty.

Encore Presentation: Structure of the Universe (part 2: ethics)

Note: The following is part 2 of an encore presentation of a series of posts that ran on my erstwhile blog, Sibboleth.

The Structure of the Universe (Part 2: Ethics)

This post is a bit lengthy, so let me summarize: “Should the death and resurrection of Jesus transform how we see ourselves acting as faithful followers of God?” The answer I see in the NT is yes, but the legal framework of the conservative Reformed Tradition requires it to say no.

The idea that law is the structure of the universe has some profound implications for ethics, as you might imagine. In fact, it would appear that an argument for law being the structure of the universe might be surest way forward in the pursuit of being a morally upstanding people who would be pleasing to God. No doubt, this is what the British Reformers were going for:

“God gave to Adam a law as a covenant of works…”
“This law, after the Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mt. Sinai in ten commandments…”
“Besides this law, commonly called moral…”
“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified person as others, to the obedience thereof…”

By positing a moral law, the Westminster Confession has provided a grid by which all humanity can stand before God and be judged: the court room is the thing. It provides a framework for an ethic that extends to all people in all times and places–a seemingly sure foundation for a robust ethic.

And, it’s important to note, that this is not simply the doings of an anal retentive deity intent on laying out a bunch of rules–the purpose of establishing this transhistorical law was to put in place a mechanism for enabling people to enjoy God as blessedness and reward: we were to earn something better by doing what God said.

Of the numerous problems that present themselves to this view of God, law, and the cosmos, I want to draw attention to only one: this biblical theology only works by stripping the biblical narratives of the historical particularity which gives them substance–and in so doing leaves Reformed theology without any mechanism for having its ethics influenced by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the decontextualization of the texts, the WCF & Co. interpret the prologue to the Decalogue as follows. The prologue is: “I am YHWH your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, it is the particular act of redemption from slavery in Egypt that constitutes his people as a people governed by this particular “covenant” or Law.

But the Catechisms interpret this: “Because God is the Lord and our God and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments.” They miss how the identity of God is tied to events in history. I think that this is the correct exposition if you are Jewish, but not if you’re Christian. (Except for that little bit about neglecting the fact that YHWH doesn’t refer to abstract Lordship but is the name of Israel’s God as revealed to the patriarchs and Moses.) The historical contingency of this set of commandments is underscored by the fact that even the Confession has to change the fourth commandment (rest on SATURDAY) in order to apply it to the present. In fact, that Exod 20 and Deut 5 give different reasons for keeping Sabbath is itself an indication that God’s commandments are tied to the historical contingencies of the redemptive work of God.

This bad reading of the import of the Decalogue’s introduction–a reading it is bound to give on its theology that God’s relationship with Adam = Moral Law = Decalogue–leaves no room for reassessing the actions that typify God’s people when that people is identified no longer with the exodus as the quintessential picture of redemption but with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as filling that role.

In other words, I want to argue that God’s name which stands over God’s commandments to the church is now: “I am the God and father of Jesus Christ who delivered him up for you all and raised him from the dead and seated him as Lord over all.” With a new act of deliverance comes a new set of lenses for assessing the faithfulness of the church.

Yes: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But now we know that God as Father, Son, and Spirit, which is why loving this God looks different (and why the first four commandments are never repeated in the NT?).

Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. But…

We now have a fuller picture of love: Jesus gives us the old command, “love one another,” and yet it is simultaneously a new command: “As I have loved you; greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”

Christian ethics are cruciform, because the commands of love are tied to a narrative in which God’s great act of love is shown to us in Jesus’ going to death on the cross.

And so, a narrative tied to history on the one hand is dangerous and deeply contingent. But on the other hand, the actual course of God’s actions in history can be trusted and we discover at the inauguration of the end that the way of love, and the God of love, calls for a world-subverting self-giving that was barely hinted at in prior moments of the story.

Why are Anabaptist ethics, and Methodist ethics, better ethics than Reformed ethics? Because these other views of God’s relationship with the cosmos is not based on the idea that God’s transhistorical moral law provides the ultimate order. They are therefore free to explore, for example, how cross, community, and new creation impact the ethics of the NT writers themselves, and therefore of the church that holds these as our canon.

The Reformed Tradition has this general idea in place: the indicative of God and God’s work forms the basis for the imperative of our response. But its ability to get beyond its contentious and litigious culture will depend on its willingness to have that “indicative” transformed by the cross: the ultimate “is” of the cosmos is not the moral law, but the love of God put on display in the cross of Christ. Thus the ultimate “do” is not “keep the moral law” but rather “embody the cruciform love by which God embraced you to himself.”

Based on the “law story” that the Reformed tradition tells, our salvation is accomplished when Jesus keeps the law for us, bears the law’s condemnation for us, and God justifies us on this basis. The courtroom is certainly an important facet of the NT’s soteriology. But when that is everything, and the word has already been spoken, then narrating how our lives fail to meet God’s standards simply evokes a response of: well, there’s one more thing to make Jesus’ work great.

We need, instead, a narrative of salvation, and of the cosmos, that writes us into itself by making us truly “Christians”–little Christs, not as District Attorneys and defense attorneys and judges running about declaring the system to which all must conform, but as self-giving lovers of the creation and creatures that God created for our own and God’s own glory.

Being What You’ve Received

What does it mean to act Christianly and how do we know when we’re doing it?

Ruminations on that question sparked thoughts on James earlier this week. When I read that letter I get the overwhelming sense that it is telling us to do all the right things, but I still find myself discontent with the ways and reasons it tells us to do them. Maybe it’s the “how do you know this is the right thing” part that stays too much beneath the surface for my liking?

Isa 28:11-12 reads like this: “With stammering lips and a foreign tongue God will speak to this people, he who said to this people, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” And “Here is repose,” but they wouldn’t listen.

This dynamic expressed here is perfect: you know what you are supposed to do because you’ve heard the story of what God has done for you. Your job is to represent the reign of God to the earth–so go and extend the rest that God gave you.

Are you a forgiven people? Go extend forgiveness.

Are you a freed people? Go extend freedom.

Are you an accepted outcast? Go extend acceptance to the outcast.

I want to press more and more for exhortations that are tied to our story, faithful outworkings of the narrative (Richard Hays) or drama (Sam Wells) that not only tells how God has acted in Christ, but into which we are wrapped and given parts to play.

So when I read through my student essays that wrestle with the uses of household codes in the NT, I love to see them working out what it means to be faithful to the gospel, and how people have been faithless to our defining narrative, by the ways the church understands relationships of power, relationships of gender, relationships defined by race.

This could go on and on. The point, sparked by those two verses in Isaiah 28:11-12 is that we too often go too far afield in getting all creative about what makes us how we are. Our foundational story gives us the identity that is to propel us out into the world, and cement us as a building being built up in one another.

As… so…

As you have received from God, so be and give to one another and the world around you.

Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

I heard another one of the stories yesterday. A church in a property dispute. Yes, the resolution was one in which there was some reconciliation at the end, it was story of the surprising power of God showing up in an unexpected place.

But the story was still there. A congregation shut down from above. A building confiscated in the courts. Mounds of money spent on litigation. Oh yeah–and (sarcasm alert) all this happened so as to put the gospel on display for the Christian people of San Francisco who clearly don’t need a beautiful witness since they flock to church in droves every Sunday.


Court was the last straw in my decision not to join a church affiliated with a mainline denomination when we moved out to San Francisco 18 months ago.

I was having a conversation with a woman who wanted to appeal a decision of the local Presbytery. Fair enough. I get that.

And so she got together a cadre of like-minded wealthy churches who were going to help spring for the $100,000+ in legal bills the fight would cost.

Ok, I don’t get that anymore. And maybe I shouldn’t have gotten it in the first place.

I’ve been blogging this week about Sam Wells’ Improvisation, a book full of hope that a people deeply entrenched in their drama will be able to improvise faithfully in their ecclesial settings. The problem is, we can’t even play the story right when we’ve got the script right in front of us.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chides the Corinthians for taking each other to court. The beginning of the chapter outlines a series of ways in which such action undermines the narrative of the gospel: the saints will participate in the final judgment, can’t we then judge matters of this world without taking it before the secular courts? we’re going to judge angels, how about matters of this life?

Actually, says Paul, how to deal with the lawsuits is secondary: it’s already a defeat for you that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Cor 6:7).

But no the story of the American dream is too powerful for our denominations. I have a right to stuff. Even if I didn’t put any money into it, it’s mine. Even if I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, it’s mine and I’ll take it.

I confess, that for all my delight in narrative theology, and resonance with Wells’ narrativally derived improvisational ethics, I often find it difficult to believe that much of it is true–because the church so rarely becomes a living witness to the story it claims as its own.

Book Notes: Samuel Wells, Improvisation (Part 3)

In the final chapter of Part 1 of Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Sam Wells moves from “narrative as drama” to “drama as improvisation.”

The idea that Christian theology and ethics is dramatic leads to the notion that these are to be performed. And there is a great deal in such a view that Wells find commendable. The notion of performance reminds us that, as communities, we are to enact the life commended by scripture while “remaining faithful to the character of God that emerges from the biblical witness” (62).

But performance is not a sufficient category for articulating the Christian vocation, Wells maintains. The idea of performance can create the false impression that the script given in the Bible is sufficient to cover every eventuality and circumstance. Relatedly, it can create the false impression that scripture covers the entirety of the drama when we are living in a new act, and anticipating another, that scripture does not script.

The answer? To recognize that our performance is not simply performing a story but improvising within a drama. We are part of a play “that has to be improvised on the spot” (65). Wells maintains that improvisation is inevitable–we are always improvising whether we realize it or not. He also argues that it is biblical (look at the scenes the disciples play out in Acts) and ecclesial.

Of the several objections Wells meets, I want to focus on one: that improvisation can mean (or means in practice) anything goes.

No, this is not how improvisation works. Improvisation happens within a drama that has already begun to unfold. Improvisation is about acting as saints within the play that finds its climactic action in Christ. There are ways of faithfully playing the script, and ways of unfaithfully playing it. “Blocking,” that is, introducing story-disrupting discontinuity, is not good improvisation.

This will all be dovetailed with a vision of ethics that often goes by the name of “virtue”: to be involved in Christian ethical reflection is to become the kind of people who can faithfully live Christianly in the situations in which we find ourselves. Or, if you prefer the words of Paul, Christian ethics is about being “transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you can prove what the will of God is–that which is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”

I don’t know if I’ll blog through the remainder of the book, so I want to conclude with this: I think that what Wells is doing is right on, though I’m not sure you have to latch on to the same heuristic of “Improvisation” to make the point. Doing so holds onto another of other important elements (such as the narratival shape of Christian theology, the need to enact it in community, etc.), but I see, for example, Richard Hays advocating much the same end using narrative as his heuristic. So I’m not sure that the theoretical framework is as important as keeping all the elements on the table.

If narrative works for you (as it does for me), great. If drama is better, cool. If improvisation really draws you into the idea that the NT intends for us a “conversion of the imagination” so that we can live faithfully in the here and now, so much the better.

Book Notes: Samuel Wells, Improvisation (Part 2)

Part 1 of Samuel WellsImprovisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics traces a movement from Ethics as Theology (ch. 1) through Theology as Narrative (ch. 2) and thence from Narrative as Drama (ch. 3)  to Drama as Improvisation (ch. 4). Having covered the intro and thoughts on theology and narrative last time, we move now to drama.

Wells insists that the church must move from a narrative understanding of theology to a dramatic understanding. Narrative is insufficient because it does not inherently entail performance. And the theology and ethics we advocate must be embodied, the story must be interpreted through the practices and performances of the community (46).

Riffing off of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Wells warns of a couple possible mistakes: an “epic” construal of our story can leave the story so “other” that we fail to engage it or live it out–the supper becomes merely a memorial; a “lyric” construal of our story is too subjective, experience and expression trump objectivity and truth. Both elements must be in place to create a viable Christian drama.

Moreover, Wells insists that we view time as a friend. This is one of the most profound contributions Wells makes in the first part of the book. Let me summarize.

Wells begins with N. T. Wright’s suggestion that the Christian story is a five-act play, and tweaks those five acts as follows: 1. Creation. 2. Israel. 3. Jesus. 4. Church. 5. Eschaton. Putting act 5 as “eschaton” is a crucial move for Wells, as it reminds us that we are not the end of the story, we are therefore not charged with getting everything right in our act, and that things will be better and finished–but only when God dramatically intervenes to finish setting the world to rights.

Because we are not in the final act, and because we are not in a one-act play, we are not charged to “effective or successful but to be faithful” (55).

Finally, Wells warns against placing oneself in the wrong act of the play. To this, I respond with a hearty Amen! We’re not in Act 1, we’re not the creators, and we’re not living in a pristine world. We’re not in Act 2, and it is a mistake to live (and I’d add, read our Bibles as though the Messiah has not yet come. We are not in Act 3, charged with the herculean task of bringing the drama to its climactic, decisive moment (or acting faithfully therein). We are in Act four.

Although I’m not completely on board with his downplaying of this stage of the play, Wells suggests, that “the shape of the five-act play reminds the church that it does not live in particularly significant times. The most important things have already happened. The Messiah has come, has been put to death, has been raised; and the Spirit has come. This is a great liberation for the church. It leaves Christians free, in faith, to make honest mistakes” (57).

We’re not in Act 3, but we’re not charged to bring Act 5 to its glorious conclusion, either.

Up next: Wells will talk about the need for improvisation.

Book Notes: Samuel Wells, Improvisation (Part 1)

With deep gratitude to my friend David Vinson for putting me on to it, I am now reading through Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.

(Two asides: (1) everyone needs a friend or two who read everything we should have read and lets us know about it; and (2) since getting a conservative Reformed theological education that was seriously deficient in the area of ethics, I have never ceased to be thankful that out in the larger world there are people doing ethics that are not only interesting, but also profoundly Christian. Thank God for the breadth of the church. Amen.)

Wells is writing a book of ecclesial ethics. This has several important ramifications. In terms of the overall shape of the book (and ethic), Wells wants to build an ethic that is rooted in scripture, and therefore narrative in shape, but enacted by the church, and therefore dramatic–but not simply scripted by the scripture and so it consists in dramatic improvisation.

Because this is an ecclesial ethic, Wells distances his approach from those that are weighed down with various “realisms” and other limiting factors: “there are no ‘givens,’ no nonnegotiable facts about existence that one must simply except, other than the great gift of the gospel” (15).

Further, because it is an ecclesial ethic, it is insufficient merely to say the right things. A truly Christian ethic must be embodied in a community.

Put these concerns for drama, the gospel, and the church’s life together, and Wells charts a course that is music to my ears: “I see the Bible as making the conversation that is Christian ethics possible, rather than concentrating on command and making conversation impossible” (16).

After the introduction, Wells walks through the first section, building his case as follows: Ethics as Theology (ch. 1); Theology as Narrative (ch. 2); Narrative as Drama (ch. 3); and Drama as Improvisation (ch. 4).

The chapter on ethics as theology gives a tremendously succinct overview of how perspectives on Christian ethics changed in different eras of church history. It ends with a call to see ethics as enabling faithful imitation of God and Christ as those formed by the Spirit.

The chapter on theology as narrative gives another quick overview–this time of the Bible and Jesus’ place in the narrative. Wells outlines dangers entailed in seeing Christian ethics focused too much on the whole world: it ignores God’s visible means of action (the church) and becomes coercive to outsiders. There’s an opposite, dualist danger, too–that the church so separates itself that it neglects God’s care for the world and cutting itself off from other ways God is at work besides the church. Finally, a “gnostic” danger so privatizes “ethics” that people who are maintaining the sufficient doctrinal purity end up thinking they’re being faithful to God while ignoring the love to which they’ve been called (and acting quite against it).

On a narrative account of ethics, what is the goal? Witnesses. “These witnesses are the church’s truth claim–it has no purchase on truth that is detached from the transformation of lives and communities brought about by its narrative and practices” (41).

So far, so good. The book is going to head toward a Christianized idea of “virtue” ethics, in which the type of people we are, formed by practice, story telling, etc., will lead us into faithful performance in the present. I’m finding a good bit of affinity between Wells’ proposals and some of my own thoughts on Pauline ethics, especially as it is attuned to the narrative dynamics of the Christian story.

Next time: Drama and Improvisation