Tag Archives: ethics

The Benthamite Morality of “50 Shades”

I have encountered the philosopher and ethicist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a variety of contexts in my studies. Most basically, Bentham is remembered as the founder of utilitarianism–the teleological ethical system that holds that right and wrong are measurable based on whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Later on, in grad school, Bentham was the theorist who imagined the Panopticon, a prison in which disciplinary requirements were alleviated or eliminated because all prisoners knew that they were or could be watched at all times. Twentieth century philosophers have rightly seen this as an intellectual precursor to the modern surveillance state.

What I had never done was consider Bentham’s philosophy in connection with kinky sex play. Yet it was precisely this context that was inadvertently evoked while reading through John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism. There, Gray devotes his energies to critiquing various atheist philosophies and their continued dependence on Christianity (or Gnosticism or Platonism, etc.). Within this project, Bentham comes off surprisingly well, largely because of his willingness to “[revert] to the pre-Christian values of the Greco-Roman world.” Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than in Bentham’s approach to sadism.

Any system which measures good by the happiness it brings people must account for the fact that some people derive happiness (or, in the case of S&M, sexual pleasure) from the infliction of pain. Bentham disciple and fellow utilitarian John Stewart Mill solved the problem by creating a hierarchy of higher and lower pleasures, with the former having the privilege of a higher moral good. Misotheist William Empson considered the joy of cruelty to be a corruption of a good human nature by an evil (and invented) Christian God. It was evidence of brainwashing  for Empson. Yet Bentham trusted the simple rationality of the ethical system he pioneered. According to Gray, Bentham:

believed the satisfaction derived from causing pain was in principle no less valuable than any other. The impulse to cruelty was not a ‘metaphysical evil’. If it had to be curbed–as Bentham recognized it did–it was not because it was bad in itself but because it tended to reduce the total sum of satisfaction in the world. If some means could be found to gratify the impulse while removing this risk, there would be nothing wrong with cruelty. The satisfaction derived from inflicting pain was an elementary good just like any other.

It seems to me that this is exactly what is achieved with sexual fetishes like those mainstreamed by 50 Shades of Gray. (Or at least I assume, without actually having read it.) Unlike the Marquis de Sade, from whom sadism gets its name, modern purveyors of cruelty kink don’t practice violence for the joy of doing evil. For them, pleasure is derived from performative violence in which the human desire to cause pain is actualized without any of the “risk” of depriving others of their satisfaction. If anything, it produces a mutually satisfactory result.

This has been the mantra of sexual liberation since the mid-twentieth century: consent is sole measure of morality. By ensuring consent, the sadistic individual can find the satisfaction–which Bentham equated with the good–without any risk of moral harm. This is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of Sade. He believed that Nature was cruel and that to commit acts of cruelty was to submit (virtuously) to that Nature. Consent undermined the value of cruelty. At least philosophically; the actual Sade often worked to secure some measure of consent from his partners, if only to give him an equal measure of legal protection. (It rarely worked out.)

But making cruelty into a consensual sexual experiment has solved the Benthamite quandary of what to do with our universal impulse toward cruelty. Moreover, it solves this quandary without appeals to the post-Christian moralism that frustrates Gray. In this particular variant of utilitarianism, S&M is not only morally permissible but potentially a moral good, one that should be promoted if not mandated as a means to loose the urges that society has justly restrained elsewhere. Perhaps it is even precisely the restraint of those urges in modern, industrialized society that provokes a contemporary fascination with S&M.

It’s an intriguing possibility, if you’re a utilitarian.

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Why I Don’t Care about SR15 and the End of the World

Back in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report (known now as SR15) on the importance of keeping climate change below 1.5 degree Celsius in order to prevent catastrophic changes to the global ecosystem. It sent shockwaves through much of the interested news media, particularly its recommendation for radical and immediate reductions of carbon emissions if the goal is going to be met.

Observing a high school government class earlier this week, some students were discussing these latest apocalyptic predictions and what could or should be done about them. With that great convinction and imprecision that characterizes impromptu high school debates, students broke down into two broad categories. Either they believed “we have to do something because like I think it said we’re all going to die by 2040 or there will be no more oceans or whatever” or else they argued that “climate change is just part of the way the world is; it’s normal; so if what we’re doing works for us then, I mean, why bothre changing?” I was appalled, mostly by the gross misunderstanding of the scope and nature of the problem by both camps.

Let me start by pointing out (if it needed to be said) that I am not a climate change skeptic. The world is warming and humans are a significant cause of that. My acceptance of these facts is rooted less in a clear understanding of the scientific evidence than in a clear understanding of history. When the climate changes, whatever the cause, there are dramatic and global effects for humans. Global warming at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum eventually provoked a radical alteration of the way humans had organized their socieites for hundreds of thousands of years. Global cooling in the 13th and 14th centuries fueled disease outbreaks that devestated the global population. The climate is changing, and that means radical changes for human society. (For evidence that we caused the change this time, we need only look to the coincidence of global warming and rapid global industrialization.)

The changes that are happening to the global climate right now are of a magnitude that the world has not seen since the outset of human civilization. I typically use the Ice Age to talk to my students about this, pointing out that for the last 10,000 or so years the world has been in a pattern of roughly half a degree of temperature fluctuation. The existence of human society as we know it is requires that consistency to flourish. Ryan Glaubke addressed the same point exceptionally well in a recent Quillette article:

We should remember that it isn’t so much the survival of our species that is at stake, so much as the survival of our society. Civilization, as we know it, got its foothold during a particularly placid time in our planet’s climate history. Little ice ages and medieval climate anomalies notwithstanding, the Holocene epoch—spanning the last 10,000 years, give or take—has featured a prolonged and relatively stable warm period that proved a suitable backdrop for the development of agriculture, cities and all the flurry of human activity that these permit. The downside is that the societies we have built are predicated on the stability of that same climate system….This era of stability ended roughly 150 years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution….Global mean temperature already has risen approximately 1°C since 1850. To find a comparably abrupt climate shift, we’d have to venture back 130,000 years, to a time just before the Earth plunged into its most recent Ice Age. To find carbon dioxide concentrations comparable to those we observe today, we’d have to go back much further—three million years, in fact.

Glaubke says there is good reason to be pessimistic about the fate of the earth (or rather the fate of human civilization as we know it). The purpose of his article, however, is to inspire just the opposite: climate optimism. He notes that the apocalyptic cynicism of many is actually hampering the ability of climate activists to get anything done. When we stress the nigh-insurmountable scale of the problem in the hopes of scaring people to action what we actually scare them into is cynical resignation. In short, people turn into that aforementioned high schooler whose response is, “It’s gonna happen anyway, so I’ll just keep doing me. You do you, boo boo.” Glaubke says that only confidence in the solvability of climate problems will inspire action.

Okay. But I still don’t care about whether we hit the 1.5 degree mark. Or if human society as we know it crumbles. Or if we technology is the vehicle that will carry us to our climate salvation or the rope with which we’ll hang ourselves. I just don’t care.

Glaubke, the woke high schoolers, and the climate skeptics alike all share a common conviction that the problem resolves into a question of whether and how we should act to acheive a certain (perhaps impossible) climate goal. That, to me, is precisely the problem. We ought to steward the environment well not because we may all be dead if we don’t but because having a right relationship with the non-human world is a moral good in itself. From a spiritual perspective, it doesn’t matter if humans fix the problems we created. It only matters that we repent of having created them.

A Christian approach to the problem is neither to make an idol out of the environment and worship at the alter of its preservation nor to take the all-too-common evangelical approach of use and abuse in the name of “God will destroy the world anyway.” A Christian approach recognizes that virtues like justice, modesty, self-control, and respect for all God created extends to our behavior toward the non-human world. The best way to convince Christians to become environmentaly responsible and to live in ways that are sustainable ought to be to appeal to those core Christian virtues that govern our interactions with each other and with God. It shouldn’t rely on parsing scientific reports about arbitrary markers of climate catastrophe. It should be intrinsic to our moral lives. What is right is right regardless of what the UN says. And protecting and healing the environment is right, whether or not it saves civilization as we know it.

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Should Vegans Drive Cars?

It’s the question that never needed to be asked, and Rupert Read of Talking Philosophy has answered it. In reviewing Craig Taylor’s Moralism: A Study of a Vice, Read explores a number of philosophical and ethical quandaries that inspire critical reflection, in addition to a desire to find Taylor’s book. In line with Read’s assessment of Taylor, my own assessment of Read is that he is largely but not universally correct. Take for instance the titular question, posed by Read in response to Taylor:

On p. 147, Taylor criticises an SUV-driver with a “No blood for oil” bumper-sticker. An easy criticism to make, but perhaps too easy. There seems a tacit danger at this of Taylor descending into moralism here towards individuals. For: It is a perfectly legitimate move for an individual to make under many circumstances to say that they would do something as part of a collective that they are not obliged to try to do merely as an individual. To think otherwise is to think in a way that is naïve or insufficiently politically smart. . . . An example is that it may well be legitimate to continue to fly and to enjoy the subsidies that are given to flying, while campaigning against those subsidies. To insist that this is hypocrisy and that one should instead have to go by train even when the train is far more expensive (and thus drains away funds that could otherwise be used for campaigning with) is moralistic and anti-political. (A more extreme example is roads, which were often made with some ingredients taken from non-human animals. Does this mean that vegans should refuse to use roads? An absurd conclusion.)

Like so many authors and thinkers, Read is kind enough here to answer his own question, thus saving the readers from the onerous task of formulating the answers for ourselves. Nevertheless, I wonder what precisely is absurd about the conclusion that someone who is principally opposed to the commodification of sentient life, someone who not only does not eat meat or animal product but who does not wear wool or decorate with ivory or use cosmetics tested on kittens should also not drive on roads made out of animals. The implication of Read’s logic, both with the example of veganism and the choice between planes and trains is that inconvenience (on an existential level) and utilitarianism (on an ethical level) collaborate to justify various incompatible moral choices. Because we cannot conceive of the absurdity of some people refusing to use roads, we assume that their ethics must be sufficiently sophisticated to handle the dissonance created by the common sin of killing animals for food and clothes and killing animals for transportation infrastructure. That hardly seems a necessary conclusion. Rather, the burden is on vegans to demonstrate such a sophisticated ethos to justify the apparent hypocrisy. The nasty thing about ethics is that they demand difficult action, if they are worth their philosophical weight in gold. When life and ethics collide, the responsible solution is to either change your life to suit your ethics or to change your ethics to suit your life. The latter is the more common course, naturally, but Read seems to prefer a third path wherein people continue to live in the self-delusion that they are consistent moral actors while behaving in morally inconsistent ways.

Vegans Protest on top of Dead Animals

Vegans Protest on top of Dead Animals [photo by hughesdk]

The distinction between individual and collective action seems equally problematic in that it assumes different standards of conduct for individuals and societies. Societies, unfortunately, have no real existence, not in the way that individuals do. (I realize that this is a ideological judgment on my part, but I trust it is one that will be widely shared.) A society is an abstraction, something constructed which has neither real existence nor uniform existence in the diverse minds in which it is conceived. As something which exists more in the realm of language than actuality, it cannot be held to ethical standards and therefore cannot be a separate ethical realm of action. If it is wrong for me to kill Bob, it is wrong for Rick and I to get together and kill Bob. It is wrong for Rick and I to round up a posse to kill Bob, and it is wrong for Rick and I to vote Barry in to office to kill Bob with a remote control stealth bomber being operated by some marine on an Xbox. My actions do not suddenly become more or less moral based on the number of people complicit in them. It is, of course, possible to construct certain teleological systems of ethics that oppose certain behaviors on a national scale by virtue merely of the scope of those actions, but those strike me as rather blatantly self-serving. Nations cannot do anything any more than societies can. Only people, those free rational agents Read is critical of (perhaps not unreasonably), do things. Whether they do them alone or in concert seems less significant than what they are doing. And if what they are doing is personally contributing to the demand for oil which has prompted the nation to collectively decide to invade oil rich countries, then in some infinitesimal but real way, they condemn themselves with their own critique.

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A Pairing of Quotes

This is arguably one of the most thoroughly neglected texts on Christian ethics and perhaps my favorite passage from the Pauline epistles:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

This, on the other hand, is a rightly obscure line from Gregory the Theologian’s Epistle 49 but one which made me think he had perhaps not forgotten the letter to the Thessalonians:

My greatest business always is to keep free from business.

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The Ethics of Sport Hunting

Deer season is upon us, and to commemorate it, a Michigan news outlet has posed the question to a variety of clerics: in what context is hunting morally permissible? Four panelists offer responses.

The Jewish respondent concludes from a review of Genesis and the Law that the killing of animals required extraordinary justification but that God Himself has given such a justification. The only question that remains is how to treat those animals who will be killed. “It is acceptable to kill animals, but it is not acceptable to be callous toward animal life.” The response is a laudable beginning, but it leaves so much of the heart of the question unexplored. What constitutes callousness? Killing for the sake of killing? Or is it only killing in an “inhumane” way? The rabbi gives no satisfactory answers.

The Muslim respondent provides a richer, fuller picture of his religion’s ethical stance on hunting and on the slaughter of animals more generally. The result, somewhat unexpectedly, is a decidedly palatable set of rules governing both the ethical treatment of animals intended for slaughter and a strict utilitarian boundary for when such slaughter is appropriate. “Killing is not for sport but only for sustenance.” Yet, even while his regulations for slaughter are better explained and (for my part) better received, his justification for killing to begin with leaves much to be desired. He states, rather matter-of-factly, that animals are going to die anyway, so it makes no difference whether they die of old age or by human hands. Curiously, the same premise could be applied to humanity, but even with Islam’s decidedly different stance on justifiable violence relative to Christianity, sure no Muslim would want to argue that humans are going to die anyway so it doesn’t matter whether we let them die of old age or kill them for utilitarian purposes. At least I hope not.

Next, a reverend gives the traditional and decidedly unsophisticated view of Christians throughout history. God said we could kill animals. Society says we can kill animals. What’s the problem. I mean, in some cases, not killing animals is like disobeying Jesus. That’s no good. Alright…it’s a paraphrase and a parody, but it nevertheless represents the essential message. There is no consideration of the importance of the creation account or the Law in determining the ethical stance of Christians toward animals. Not even a mention of the eschatological place of the natural world in the Christian scheme. A personal inclination matched with a proof text remains the surest Christian hermeneutic.

The same, unfortunately, proved true for the equally unsatisfying response from the Christian vegetarian. He makes the highly dubious claim that God allows animals to be killed only because it is a necessity and that, since it is no longer a necessity, there is no justification for continuing to kill them even for food. Of course, he offers no support for the argument that the permission to use animals for food and clothing is need based nor does he demonstrate that something has fundamentally changed to remove that need. (Incidentally, he also makes the easily falsifiable claim that eating meat is more efficient.) Most importantly of all, however, he seems to be woefully ignorant of the historical fact that meat has only recently begun to play a significant role in the human diet. Precisely because it is such a painstaking and inefficient means of ingesting calories, meat has been a luxury in most cultures throughout human history. Slaughtering an animal and eating it was a significant event reserved for feasts and sacred occasions, a fact typified in the rituals of both Judaism and Islam. The notion that you can eat meat at every meal is a relatively modern, primarily American innovation.

Disappointingly, with the exception of the Muslim, none of the respondents deal directly with the question of the ethics of sport hunting. More disappointing still is the facile responses of both Christians–leading me to believe that some lazy journalist probably just found four clerics who had nothing better to do that day than answer the phone. No one gets to the root of what sport hunting is or why it might be ethically problematic. Hunting, neither out of necessity nor even with any intent to make reasonably full use of the kill, is violence for violence sake, a behavior which is difficult to justify from the viewpoint of any of the three major religions. It is the agonistic modern analog to the gladiatorial arena, only instead of the helpless slave being thrown to the lion for the amusement of the masses it is the helpless herbivore which is turned over to the heavily armed and merciless hunter to end its life for his amusement.

Hunters who love the taste of venison, who eat whatever they kill and kill only what they will eat, are on ethically safe ground. In more omnivorous days gone by, I have even gladly shared in their spoils. But the point at which hunting is undertaken exclusively or even primarily for the thrill of killing and pride in the trophy, it becomes the exclusive province of lovers of violence, about whom God is quite clear.

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Here’s an Idea, Don’t Vote: Christianity and the Moral Society

There’s an election in a few days. Have you heard? This will come as a shock to no one who has ever visited this site, but I will not be voting this year. I also didn’t vote four years ago. Or four years before that. Or…you get the drift. As a committed old, tried and true Christian anarchist, I have watched the campaign season very closely, the way I might watch a really interesting football game, or a Spike “world’s most unbelievable car crashes” marathon. Politics–infinitely more than contact sports and traffic accidents–has proves itself again and again to be irredeemably violent. Beyond that basically standard pacifist complaint, however, I would like to offer three reasons why I, as a Christian, am not voting and, wait for it, why I encourage other Christians not to vote either. If you’re not a Christian, you should vote; it’d be a shame if you didn’t. (Not nearly as big a shame as it is that you’re not a Christian, of course.) In any case…

One of the most common arguments I hear in favor of the notion that Christians have a duty to vote is that by not voting we are allowing society to slip deeper and deeper into the quagmire of sin. By not casting my vote–typically in this scenario for the Republican candidate, but it can go either way–I become culpable for constructing a society in which school children can see a man kissing another man on a taxpayer funded field trip to an abortion clinic. (Or, if you prefer, I become culpable for constructing a society in which a misogynistic plutocrat can oppress the poor, shackle his wife to the kitchen–metaphorically or literally–and deny life-saving medical treatment to his cancer-ridden, home-schooled daughter because God told him to.) Setting aside entirely the philosophical issue of moral culpability in the absence of intention or action, there is a more obvious problem here with the way Christians have come to understand their role in constructing a moral society.

It is simple enough to begin this argument with the rather inoffensive statement that God is omnipotent. As a subset of this omnipotence, it also seems fairly obvious to indicate that it is within God’s capability to prevent people from doing evil. For those of us committed to the notion of free will (and I’m sure I’ll lose some of you here), that God choose is not to prevent people from doing evil is an expression of a moral truth no less crucial than God’s omnipotence: compulsory goodness is no goodness at all. God, in structuring the world, has made it evident to humanity that agency is a prerequisite for morality. That is why Jesus went to such great length to convince people of the value of the ethical teachings he proclaimed. Had he wanted to, ♫ he could have called ten thousand angels ♫ and told the world, “Love one another, or else.” But he didn’t. Christ, the great king, unlike every government devised by man put morality in the hands of human agents and tried to persuade them to make the right decisions.

You can see where I’m going with this, and it sounds nice in theory. But you’re a good, Bible-believing Christian. If only there were a verse that clearly stated that it wasn’t Christians’ job to police the morality of the world. Enter Paul:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

I give you the context there so you can understand where Paul is coming from. There is rampant immorality in the church in Corinth–quite unlike the pure, wholesome churches of America–but it would seem that the Corinthians still seem more interested in condemning those nasty pagans with their nasty habits. Paul will have none of it. The purity of the world is none of his concern. He understood then what so few seem to understand now: it is foolish to expect non-Christians to act like Christians. You might as well beat your head against a wall. It would certainly elicit more sympathy than trying to beat the gay out of people.

The responsibility for Christians to construct a moral society is simple. The church is holy, and it is our job as Christians to keep it holy. The world is not holy. It has been given over to the lusts of impure hearts, to dishonor, to self-destruction, and to folly. Christians can purify the church; God will purify the world–with fire, no less, but don’t tell limp-wristed, left-wing, bleeding hearts like me that…we can’t handle the imagery. God is not interested in forcing people to behave. You can choose to live as a Christian or you can choose to live as a pagan. According to Paul, the only thing the church needs to worry about is making sure that it is composed only of those who are choosing to behave like Christians.

As for the residents of the rest of society, they are going to keep having abortions. They are going to keep going keep stealing, embezzling, defrauding, and withholding while people literally die in the streets. They are going to keep debauching themselves in inventive ways, videotaping it, and distributing it for a small monthly fee on the Internet. They are going to keep getting drunk, stoned, and…well, I lack the appropriate drug vernacular to put together a good list, but you see where I’m going.

Society will continue to be the Roman society that existed in the days of the apostles. The only difference between Paul and Christians now is that democracy has led us into the delusion that, having failed to do the difficult work of convincing the world that God is good and sin is bad, we can just pass a law and make everyone righteous. It won’t work. We shouldn’t try. It’s wrong.

[Reason 2; Reason 3]
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Pacifism and Ethical Dualism

As promised, we turn now to Cartwright’s thoughts on an ethical dualism which is characteristic of many, especially popular, expressions of Christian pacifist thought:

The bold contrast that Koontz draws between those who have converted to the Christian position and those who have not reflects a broader conception of dualist ethics, one that sharply distinguishes the moral obligations of the Church from those of the (unconverted) world. According to the dualist conception, Koontz argues, those “committed to the way of Christ” are expected to live differently from those in “the world.” The dualist conception therefore leaves open the possibility of a certain “quasi-legitimate” justification for war, provided it is chosen and waged not by Christians but by the state. This view of the “higher responsibility” of Christians has its origins in another ongoing conflict of interpretations within a number of Protestant traditions. As Koontz observes, the conflict arises out of two closely related scriptural passages, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 12:9-21 and 13:1-7, and is dramatically evident in the 1527 Schleitheim Confession: “The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills the wicked and protects the Good.”

There can be no doubt that Cartwright is correct, at least where such an ethic exists (and it is by no means a straw man). Dividing the world into two ethical spheres with equally legitimate, divinely sanctioned codes of conduct (even quasi-sanctioned) creates a problem for pacifists when it comes to being a witness for peace in the world. Fortunately for pacifists, and unfortunately for Cartwright’s complaint, much of the ethical dualism that is present in pacifist thought is only apparent, the product of semantic imprecision. The fault of pacifists, certainly, but not a great deterrent to their overarching message.

The key is in the language even Cartwright uses when paraphrasing Koontz. Christian pacifists know they “are expected to live differently” from non-Christians and, consequently, they expect non-Christians to live differently than they do. If these expectations are divine expectations which are, or ought to be, understood as identical to divine moral imperatives–if God expects a certain code of conduct from non-Christians in order to rise to the level of ethical living and a separate code of conduct from Christians to meet that same threshold, even if to different ultimate consequences–then Cartwright’s problem is real and damning. If, however, the expectations are human expectations, pragmatic realities based on a recognition of the core beliefs which govern any give person or group of persons’ behavior, the problem disappears.

To put it another way, the government expects you to obey the law, and I expect basketball players to be tall. Now, when I help a Christian convert flee the country in order to avoid sharing custody with her lesbian ex-wife, the government arrests me and puts me on trial. Rightly so. I violated their expectations which have authoritative force. Meanwhile, Muggsy Bogues was once a big name in the NBA. I didn’t try to have him expelled from professional basketball because he didn’t conform to my expectations. There is an obvious difference between normative expectations and pragmatic ones, even if Koontz does not take the care to specify which he means and Cartwright doesn’t bother to consider the alternative to ethical dualism.

With regard to the use of force by government (e.g. war), it is important for Christian pacifists to be clear about what they mean when they say that they expect, or even that God expects (particularly in this latter case, with its anthropomorphic thrust), governments to employ violence. It is not an affirmation that their use of violence is legitimate, or even quasi-legitimate. It is a recognition that non-Christians in non-Christian institutions will employ non-Christian means to achieve non-Christian ends. To expect them to do otherwise–that is, to expect them to act like Christians–is to either live in a perpetual state of disappointment or, as has been more often the case, to find one’s own view of what is Christian being slowly conformed to what is not even as Christians try to Christianize non-Christian instruments of power (e.g. civil government).

It is ultimately a matter of sequence not ethics, and it applies, for Christian anarchists, beyond the narrow scope of war. For example, when I say that I believe US government should legalize same sex marriage, that is not an endorsement of the morality of homosexuality. It is a recognition that it is inconsistent, even hypocritical, for the government to outlaw a behavior solely on the grounds that it violates morality. By the internal logic of the American system of government, in the political vision of the framers of this country, that kind of abridgment of freedom is anathema. I still think gay marriage is wrong, but I realize that expecting a country of non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians achieves nothing except to further open the name of Christ to ridicule.

The same logic then operates for the use of violence. I expect the government to use force not because it is virtuous to use violence beyond the walls of the church but because I understand that civil government necessarily sustains itself through the use of coercive force. The primary problem is not that Washington has a military and likes to use it. The primary “problem” is that Washington isn’t Christian. Trying to coerce the state into becoming pacifist has all the logical consistency of going overseas to invade countries so they’ll stop being hostile toward us. Which we would never do. Because it’s stupid.

The solution to the problem of violence, as with the problem of homosexuality or any other ethical problem, is first to convert the problem people in question. Before I can convince someone that war is wrong, I first have to convince them that God exists, that sin is a problem, that God intervened through the Incarnation to remedy the problem, that the work of Christ inaugurated a new, peculiar existence for those who join themselves to him, and that this new life in Christ comes with a set of covenant expectations. Only then can we share the kind of internal logic necessary to get from the world needs war to thrive to Christ has called you to love your enemy, not resist the evildoer, and bless those who persecute you. There is no dualism there. Just a recognition of the organic nature of the human transformation which occurs when someone comes out of the kingdom of the prince of this world and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Ross Douthat is a Genius.

Seriously. You’ll not hear me say that very often about anyone, but in this case I think it’s justified. The ouster of Metropolitan Jonah has all the makings of a brilliant story. A high level church official, the highest actually, has been implicated in a cover up of a rape by a deranged priest. There is sex, alcohol, religion, and scandal, but all anyone can seem to talk about is an article Douthat wrote about the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church. Small newspapers in smaller midwestern towns are giving each other high fives at the downfall of the nominal Christian. Episcopal bishops repudiate the criticisms, Episcopal parishioners echo them, and Episcopal priests try to temper them. Meanwhile, emergent, missional, politically leftist, and every stripe of hipster Christian have launched an Occupy the Blogosphere movement to protest the caricature. How did Douthat do it? It has been outrageous, and I am clearly by no means immune. (I’ve even caught myself arguing in the comments of other articles with people clearly too riled to think straight.)

Considering how heated the discourse has become, a few clarifications and disclaimers seem to be retrospectively in order on my part.

The liberal-conservative continuum is a useful but not flawless tool for discussing contemporary Christianity. I endeavor to be very careful with the labels I use in describing Christian groups. A historical perspective has afforded me a wonderfully rich taxonomy with which to precisely categorize various manifestations of the faith as they have appeared repeatedly throughout history, and I am convinced that it is safe to talk about a “liberal” wing of Christianity and a “conservative” one that dominate the scene in the American religious landscape. Now there are important qualifiers there. First, only America is in view here. Talking about liberal and conservative Christianity in Africa would conjure completely different images if not, more likely, be entirely nonsensical. Second, liberal and conservative Christianity dominate but do not constitute the American religious landscape. There are many groups, some significant theologically and some powerful within small segments of society, that fall into neither group neatly. Any kind of binary system of categorizing Christianity will necessarily fall short. (Sorry, Byron Williams.)

Ambiguity is the mother of conflict. Much of the tension that has arisen in the wake of Douthat’s article has been a result of uncertainty about just what is meant by “liberal Christianity.” Some of this has been on the part of self-styled liberals misreading what is being said in an effort to serve their own agendas. Much of it has been on the part of conservatives who are so busy rejoicing in their arguments that they do not take the time to clarify them fully. Even Douthat is somewhat at fault. It has been rightly pointed out that liberal Christianity can and does thrive in ways beyond what can be measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Douthat, however, is very careful to limit his criticisms to institutional bodies that have embraced liberal Christianity. Thus, saying that the “spiritual but not religious” demographic (who are often embracing the label “liberal Christians”) yet grows is not to debunk Douthat but to confirm him. They are leaving the liberal churches because they have nothing left to offer. Additionally, many have complained that certain liberal church groups are continuing to grow, churches that cling to the traditional core of Christian doctrine but play free-and-loose with traditional Christian forms. Again, however, Douthat makes very sure to define liberal Christianity as theological liberalism, the marginalization (if not obliteration) of all theology and dogma in favor of left-wing social and political causes. Cf. Burklo. Churches that keep the faith and update the practice are the kind of liberal churches Douthat wants. Which leads me to…

The decline of liberal Christianity is nothing to be happy about. Douthat is careful not to gloat over the predicted demise of the Episcopal Church, and other conservative Christians should follow suit. The conservative church has always existed in order to temper the unbridled pursuit of progress as its own end, to sustain the truths which might be (and in many cases have been) discarded when they become inconvenient, and to continue the stress on holiness which has characterized God’s relationship with His people from its earliest recorded moments. What the conservative church needs to realize is that the liberal church has an important function as well. It prevents the rest of the church from embracing the fallacy that something must be done a certain way because it has always been done a certain way. It keeps the faith fresh, timely, and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, the liberal church has historically stressed social ethics as a counterpoint to the conservative church’s stress on personal ethics. Conservatives rightly have a problem with vulgarity, sexual libertinism, divorce, and substance abuse. Liberals rightly have a problem with war, poverty, oppression, and disease.

The two groups or, more appropriately, the two impulses within Christianity serve each other through their constructive tension. It is only when that tension becomes conflict that we see the kind of partisan infighting which is quickly coming to define every aspect of American life. So conservatives, put away the fireworks. The demise of a powerful liberal branch is among the worst possible outcomes for American Christianity. And liberals, there’s no reason to equate Douthat with sexists and racists. His article has the same purpose that my responses to Burklo did: to encourage the liberal branch of Christianity to recover “a religious reason for its own existence” and “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Because I want a strong, vibrant, liberal voice among institutional churches. Otherwise, the Southern Baptist Convention gets to set the tone of the message, and I’m not ready for that.

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and Institutional Ethics

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The second flawed argument that Allison makes against pacifism is acheived by bifurcating personal and institutional ethics. He writes:

Jesus and Matthew and the pre-Constantinian Christians were outsiders or belonged to minorities, as have most proponents of pacifism. Now outsiders and minorities are not, by definition, responsible for the institutions of society. This circumstance makes it easier for them to promulgate ideals that seemingly take little or no account of the conflicts that inevitably arise when the follower of Jesus becomes involved with such institutions. But others, in contrast to Jesus and Matthew, have found themselves both Christians and members of governmental organizations; and they have necessarily found new ways of understanding 5:38-42. Rather than condemning the exegetical changes brought by the Constantinian revolution we should regard them as inevitable and consistent with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount offers examples that call the moral imagination into play.

No wonder I didn’t find my moral imagination inspired reading Allison’s work. His idea of moral imagination is the ability to re-imagine Christian ethics if Jesus had wanted to be involved in the same things we want to be involved in. Allison actually makes a number of very telling concessions in the above quote. For starters, he admits—as do most responsible historians and biblical scholars—that the pre-Constantinian (or at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius) church did in fact understand the Sermon on the Mount as enjoining total non-violence on Christians. He also admits that this interpretation, the antique interpretation, directly conflicts with the exigencies of governmental involvement. (So far, he sounds almost like a Christian anarchist, no?) Finally, he admits that his reinterpretation of Christian ethics only works if you admit (1) that Christian comingling with government is inevitable and (2) that the teachings of Jesus (not to mention the example, which modern Christians, he admits, incidentally contrast with) are intended to be inspirational rather than normative.

Of course, that’s where he loses me. I do, obviously, agree with the accepted historical fact that the early church was pacifist. I also, clearly, agree that the obvious conflict between the traditional Christian ethos and the new involvement with government constituted a conflict for fourth century Christianity at large. What I cannot accept is that the choice of power over ethics was inevitable—unless, of course, we mean by that temptation and succumbing to it are inevitable. Allison speaks about the political ascendency of Christianity as something which occurred by happenstance, something which the Christians had no control over and for which they are therefore not responsible. Then, the reinterpretation of Matthew 5 changes from a deviation to necessarily finding new ways of understanding the text. Of course, Christian involvement in government is by no means mandated. It was not a historical inevitability. It is not a present imperative.

When it is realized that Christianity will be just fine—dare I say better off—without getting into bed with human structures of power, then Allison’s argument falls apart. Christian politics not being inevitable, we return to the fateful decision (condensed and dramatized as if it were a single deliberative moment) between Christian ethics as they were preached by Christ and as they have always been practiced and a modification or total abandonment of them in an effort to pursue what seems right on the surface. If only there were a biblical example that might offer guidance, say the disciples’ choice between allowing Christ to die as he taught them he must and taking up arms in his defense. And if only Jesus gave a clear teaching in response to this, say Jesus rebuking Peter for his armed defense or telling Pilate “if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight.” Of course, if, like Allison, you believe that biblical teaching and example are intended exclusively or primarily as stimulants for the moral imagination, then these examples can be creatively reexamined to fit with whatever happens to us, quite passively, as the human race floats aimlessly through history.

What ultimately struck me, however, is the somewhat less logically rigorous but more evocative nonsense of dividing personal behavior into essentially occupational categories. Set aside for a moment that Allison gives no biblical reasoning for his separation of the two categories, no testimony of Jesus for how governments are allowed to operate by a different moral code than people, and consider instead the ethical absurdity of that line of reasoning. Allison is of the belief—as, notably, was Augustine, the founder of modern just war theory—that if a man walks up to you with a gun and murderous intent, you as a private, Christian citizen should not defend yourself. If, however, that same day, you happen to be wearing a uniform and badge, it magically becomes ethical for you to shoot that assailant in the face because you are an agent of the government which operates by a different set of ethical rules. Our society realizes the absurdity of such a position and makes self-defense permissible. Pre-Constantinian Christian ethics realizes the absurdity of this defense and labels institutional violence immoral. Only Allison (of course, not only Allison, but follow me here) believes that the tension can be maintained. When Obama kills a thousand men through the office of the presidency, it is just. If I were to kill the same thousand men, it would be unjust. It simply does not compute.

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Customized Christianity: Ethics à la Carte

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

I have made a number of arguments against Jim Burklo’s vision of a believable Christianity over the past week. I criticized his willingness to assume an oppositional relationship between faith and practice, his inability to distinguish between marginal and central biblical stories and truths, his dangerous Christology, and his selective hermeneutic. All of these, however, are part of a broader flawed attempt to collapse religion into ethics. It is only by elevating ethics to the status of comprehensive and exclusive truth that he can effectively disregard the doctrine, dogma, and fantastic stories that he believes hinder people from finding genuine Christianity. Unfortunately for Burklo, Scripture gives us every indication that ethics are rooted in theology, conditioned by soteriology, and aimed toward eschatology (just to name a few of those evil, confusing categories that label trivial matters).

Burklo, as mentioned repeatedly, believes that the central message of the Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Far be it from me to ever stand in the way of someone trying to refocus Christians on the Sermon on the Mount, but the majority of Protestant Christianity is going to have a bone to pick with Burklo. And rightly so, as there seems to be a general consensus that, if a single passage encapsulates the gospel, the real text of central importance is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Look at that. We have a theological statement about the nature of God flowing into a soteriological statement about the mechanism of salvation flowing into an eschatological statement about the eternal destiny of humanity. Do you notice what’s missing? Any mention of ethics. This has been the animating sentiment of so much of Protestantism, precisely because of its antinomian character, from Luther’s sole fide to the now widespread evangelical idea (specifically derided by Burklo) of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Certainly, I am part of a generation that wants to correct the stress on faith without ethical strictures, but there is much to commend Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (one of those passages where Jesus is speaking but Burklo apparently isn’t listening, as there is nothing about social justice) as a good synopsis of the purpose of the Incarnation. The biblical text is not the narrative of the struggle for a moral principle to take root among moral actors but of a perfect God trying to reconcile to Himself a willfully imperfect creation. This reconciliation, the New Testament makes very clear, takes place not with Jesus preaching on the mountain top but with him dying on the cross, being buried in the tomb, and conquering death in the resurrection. Christianity is not an ethical system which we can be convinced to believe but a comprehensive experience of a personal God that radically shapes more than just our ethics.

Otherwise, the poor are left to hope in the moral regeneration of the world for their deliverance. The sick are left to hope in the dedicated work of altruistic physicians for their healing. The oppressed are left to hope for a people powerful enough to enact their liberation but righteous enough not to use that power to oppress. It’s a false hope, an empty hope, very much like faith in an unresurrected Christ is an empty faith. Faith in Christ and hope for an inbreaking kingdom are realities which transcend how we treat one another. They have to do with the totality of existence, and all of reality falls inside the scope of Christian faith.

Genesis, historical or not, teaches us about the nature of the physical world and God’s relationship to it. The Psalms reveal the human character, both as it is and how it can be when it allows itself to be transformed, more than just morally, by the redeeming power of God. Job guides us through the problem of evil and, centuries before the greatest philosophers the world has known would reach the same conclusion, declares that it is irresolvable (but nevertheless God). The prophets instruct us on the interrelatedness of piety and social justice, a lesson Burklo could stand to revisit. Micah introduces us to a vision of the culmination of reality which will define not only Judeo-Christian eschatology but the whole of Western civilization’s utopian vision: peace, fertility, leisure, uncoerced global unity, and the eternal pursuit of knowledge.

Most, if not all, of these themes are taken up explicitly or alluded to by Jesus in his ministry and, if we are going to accept the validity of the biblical account, they must be engaged by Christians as well. We cannot simply call them trivialities, hindrances in the way of creating a heaven on earth (something which Burklo doesn’t seem to believe that Scripture explicitly states is beyond the scope of human possibility). God’s transformative work is not limited to human behavior. Being in Christ is a total transformation, and that includes those pesky truths that Burklo encourages us to ignore. We may never understand them perfectly and we may dispute about them until the second coming, but pursing those truths is part of the great pursuit of perfection, of conformity to the image of Christ.

And, of course, an unwillingness to engage these doctrines and stories, the marginalization of everything that isn’t explicitly command in the social ethics of Jesus, has profound and tragic implications for ethics. Burklo relishes the fact that “Jesus said nothing about [homosexuality and abortion] whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all.” While the factual accuracy of much of this may be disputed, the real issue is with Burklo’s logic. By the same reasoning, Jesus never mentioned eugenics and therefore there is no reason to assume that the actions of Nazi Germany bothered him. He certainly didn’t talk about atomic weaponry and therefore the atrocities in Nagasaki and Hiroshima probably wouldn’t have mattered to him. After all, harkening back to the points about the divine sparks, Truman probably reasoned that the bomb was how many Americans thought they could express love for the Pearl Harbor widows.

In truth, Jesus presented a radically different view of reality, and more than presenting it, he inaugurated it. The mission of Christ was not primarily one of persuasion. It was one of redemption, and it is impossible to crack the pages of Scripture and think otherwise. The greatest change achieved when he ascended into heaven was not that he had presented a wonderful new ethos for people to construct their own heaven but that he had made of himself the conduit through which humanity might find themselves reconciled to God—which, it turned out, is “heaven.” Trying to take Christianity and customize it, sanitize it, by saying, “I like the ethics but not the other teachings” (i.e. doctrine, dogma, and stories) is a little like saying, “I’m a Muslim but only because I feel compelled to make a trip to Mecca once in my life.” Religions are not like buffets: “none of that ‘I’d rather gouge out my eye than go to hell’ nonsense but I’ll have a double helping of the meek shall inherit the earth.” They stand or fall on the strength of their interrelated features. Frankly, without a benevolent, personal deity who became incarnate as an expression of love to recreate the world and me with it if only I choose to allow myself to be transformed, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make sense. If I’m imagining my most pleasurable world, my “heaven on earth,” I’m ashamed to admit that liberating the oppressed is a lower priority than legalizing marijuana and prostitution. Certainly turning the other cheek doesn’t sound heavenly at all.

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