Sometimes the questions not asked are as telling as those actually posed. As a priest I have not been asked about the Christian response to ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, illegal immigration, gun control, climate change, or any of a host of other ethical questions. I wonder why. And I wonder how – if not in the context of the church, if not in deeply reflective study, conversation, and prayer with brothers and sisters and deacons and priests and bishops – our parishioners are forming their ethical norms.
Do they believe Scripture is irrelevant to these issues, that it has nothing important to say, or that their clergy have nothing significant to add? Almost certainly not, at least not consciously and explicitly. Do they think these topics are off limits – no mixing of church and state or church and world? They are certainly used to that separation in the public sector; have we also tacitly endorsed it in the church? Are they waiting for the clergy to initiate such discussions? Or have they already formed their ethical convictions privately or in conversation with political parties or secular ideologies? I wonder about this. Perhaps it’s just me; perhaps other priests are asked such questions routinely.
We are in the season of presidential politics when these ethical questions are front and center in public discourse. Surely the Gospel bears on them? If Jesus came proclaiming the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, surely there is a social and ethical component of that Kingdom in addition to a personally redemptive one. If Candidate X proposes a wall to bar illegal immigrants and Candidate Y welcomes all and sundry, can they both be right? If Candidate X calls for carpet bombing the ISIS “capital” and Candidate Y holds out for a less violent response – and both candidates self-identify as Christian – are both approaches equal valid, equally Christian? Is there even a Christian ethic to help us decide?
And that is the most basic question, I think: is there a Christian ethic to help us decide – one that is clearly and consistently articulated in Scripture?
Each Sunday as Anglicans we rehearse the Decalogue, or perhaps Jesus’ Summary of the Law:
Jesus said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
And while love of God and love of neighbor might seem a proper ethical basis, the summary raises as many questions as it answers: not who is my neighbor, of course, but what if the legitimate needs of various neighbors compete? What if welcoming and caring for the stranger and refugee actually do endanger my neighbor next door, who might not share my Gospel-shaped ethic? What if a military response to ISIS would reduce the suffering of our persecuted brothers and sisters, but at the expense of collateral damage and complicity with Caesar? What if funding social programs now – programs which do feed the hungry and shelter the homeless – places a burden of debt on future generations? In which direction does love for neighbor lie in these competing scenarios? What does the general principle of love of neighbor look like when fleshed out in this particular scenario?
Sometimes it is not clear how or whether the New Testament directly addresses these type of questions – questions that lie at the intersection of Church and secular society – in part because Christians then had less input to and impact on social policy than we have now – impact on the social order through their embodied proclamation of grace and mercy, yes, but not input on the social policy. Caesars did not run for office; they warred, perhaps, and schemed, and enacted their agendas, but all apart from the consent of the governed. Christian ethics tended toward the personal, the familial, and the ecclesial. How do we conduct our personal affairs? How do we live together in our families and in the church as the people of God? How do we live in the public sector even when marginalized by that sector?
All this is a bit clearer. We welcome the stranger who comes – any stranger – and provide for his needs. If he stays awhile, we insist that he works to provide for his own needs and the needs of the next stranger who comes. We share what we have, first with the household of faith and then, resources permitting, with the extended community; as God prospers us, we share more. As much as lies within us, we live at peace with all men and we do not take up the sword; rather, we suffer unjustly if need be. We honor marriage, our children, and our parents. We do all things for the glory of God and in the name of Christ. For all these, there is ample and clear ethical warrant in Scripture. It is primarily when we move into the social and secular realm as constituents of that realm that the most complex ethical issues arise.
Frankly, here I am more aware of questions than answers:
Is the fallen world so irreducibly complex that a clear ethical choice is sometimes simply impossible?
Does Scripture always speak with a single ethical voice, or are there on occasion, on some issues, several voices – sometimes in agreement and sometimes in tension?
Is Scripture sometimes so ethically ambiguous that a consistent ethic cannot be founded upon it? In other words, can Christians fully committed to discipleship and Biblical authority reach radically different ethical conclusions – one for Candidate X and one for Candidate Y, for example?
Upon what may/must a Christian ethic be founded?
It is this final question that may be most vexing. I listen to Christians talk – in the workplace, in the community, in social media – about the major issues of the day. For some – not all, perhaps not even for the majority – it seems that their ethics owe more to the Constitution than to the Scriptures, more to freedom from tyranny than freedom from sin and freedom for obedience, more in the interest of security – personal and national – than in the historical Christian witness of persecution and suffering. In many ways I know that I am complicit in this, as well. Lord, have mercy.
I must be honest: if not, then why this journal at all? Sometimes I am relieved that no one asks me these difficult questions. To answer is to alienate, I fear. And yet, I secretly long for someone to ask not what I think about a certain issue, but what Scripture says about it, looking not for a soundbite but for an in-depth searching of the Scriptures and the consensus of the faithful in the context of prayer and worship. Is this not the way to discern and form Christian ethics, not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewal of our minds? And where will this happen if not in church? And how will this happen if not in prayerful study of the Word, in the loving fellowship of brothers and sisters also committed to Christ and his kingdom?
I think there are signposts pointing a way forward through these difficult discussions. The two major signposts are cross and kingdom.
Every ethical decision a Christian makes, in whatever realm – personal, familial, ecclesial, or public – must be cruciform, must partake of and share in the sacrificial love and redemptive suffering of Christ. Any ethical decision that is domineering or self-serving or retributive fails the test.
Every ethical decision a Christian makes must also proclaim the in-breaking Kingdom of God: Jesus is Lord – here and now and for ever – and Caesar is not. Any ethical decision that panders to one special interest or another, that is beholden to one secular ideology or another, that is born of fear and not rooted in the triumph of Christ fails the test.
But the Kingdom, while already, is also not yet. And that not yet contingency of the Kingdom must also be somehow part of our Christian ethic. Yes, Jesus rules now, but over a fallen world and a world still very much in rebellion. We are not now what we yet will be, and our ethical considerations must reflect both future hope and present reality.
And, just as there are signposts, there is also a method: prayer, immersion in the Word, conversation with saints and spiritual elders past and present and even future, listening with humility and a hermeneutic of trust and goodwill – and all governed by and in submission to the Holy Spirit.
Neither the signposts nor the method guarantees that we will arrive at the same ethical destination. But, they will keep us traveling together, discerning together, working out our salvation with fear and trembling together. And that, too, is part of the Christian ethic.
John is a Knoxville, Tennessee native and was a third generation member of the Christian Church, where he served as deacon, elder, and teacher. He and his wife, Clare, were drawn to the Anglican Church by the rhythm of the daily office, the richness of liturgy, and the presence of a sacramental worldview. John was ordained to the priesthood in May 2015. He looks forward to continued ministry at Apostles Anglican Church. John and Clare have one daughter who is currently in college studying secondary science education.