Christian ethics isn’t complicated

Christian ethics is as simple as this: love God, love others.

Everything else is commentary.

Love Others

Physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, verbal and mental abuse, these are all spoken against by Jesus and the prophets as they violate the command to love others. This command is pretty open ended too, extending even to enemies (see Matthew 5:43-48) and nonhuman others (see Proverbs 12:10). If, in your practice and teaching of Christian ethics, you forget to love others, you’ve missed the point.

Love God

The corollary to this is loving God. If even our enemies, who’ve done nothing to bless us, are to be treated in loving ways, how much more should we treat God, who’s the source of all blessing, with love and respect? When we misrepresent God, intentionally or otherwise, or try to turn God into a mascot to serve our own purposes, is that not a form of abuse too? Indeed it is, and quite a serious form of abuse when you think carefully about it. God is so foundational. Unfortunately that’s all too common, even amongst those who claim to love God. That’s missing the point too.

Just because

But there’s another way we can miss the point. If our motivation to love God and love others is based on what we get out of it ourselves, if it’s based on some sort of gaining idea, whether a desire for salvation, or even something as innocuous as a good feeling, we’ve missed the point again. True love is a giving orientation, not a gaining orientation. We’re already loved by God; we should love just because. In Christian ethics, rules should be understood within the context of relationship; our behaviour should be an extension of our beholding of God. Love without holding back, because love is what it is.

Moral Foundation Theory and the Bible

Moral foundations theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain variation in human moral reasoning. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham. In more recent times it has been used to explain the differences between progressive, conservative, and libertarian views based on the different relative weights each group gives to the different moral foundations. Below I have selected verses from the Bible that correspond to each of the 6 moral foundations.

Care vs harm

Proverbs 12:10 – The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.

Genesis 50:20 – You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Fairness vs cheating

Leviticus 19:15 – Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.

Genesis 31:7 – yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me.

Loyalty vs betrayal

1 Kings 12:20 – When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David.

Proverbs 11:13 – A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.

Authority vs disrespect

Leviticus 19:3 – Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God.

1 Timothy 6:2 – Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers.

Purity vs degradation

Titus 1:15 – To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.

Isaiah 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Liberty vs oppression

Galatians 5:1 – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Deuteronomy 26:7 – Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression

After 9/11 we need an angry God

After 9/11 we need an angry God
By Chris Summerfield, 2011

The usual wisdom is that belief in an angry god is what caused a handful of people to get into planes and crash into skyscrapers and then caused a much larger group of people to get into many more planes and drop bombs on to people who lived in countries which were kind of close to the country where most of the first handful of people came from.

Furthermore, an often remarked criticism of the Bible is that the God of the Old Testament is full of anger but the God of the New Testament is full of love. This criticism is supposed to be a debate clinching argument because we, as a society, believe that you can’t be both full of anger and full of love and that anger is an altogether bad emotion. If you were to hear someone say “my child has anger issues” you wouldn‘t reply, “That’s great—you must be so proud”. Instead, there might be some consoling about similar issues in their own children and how that anger might have been subdued through a combination of therapy and medication.

Our ideal citizen does not have “anger issues”, our ideal citizen swims with the tide of the way the world is and learns to accept things as they are. Less than ideal citizens would include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Jesus. All angry. Angry about the way their people had been treated by the ruling authorities. All full of anger and full of love. Key of course is that that they were angry and non-violent. And it is nonviolence that is key to understanding the gospel.

As I look around at the litany of injustices in the world I am angry and I am sure God must feel the same. I contend that God did not just pour out God‘s anger on Jesus making God satisfied and unmoved by the events of our world. Maybe instead God channelled God’s anger into an act of nonviolence. The act of becoming a human and laying down his life for others in the crucifixion. An act that would be a window into a new paradigm, a paradigm where violence loses and love wins because the grave could not hold Jesus.

God is still angry and God is calling us to follow the Jesus path of nonviolence. Our anger is to fuel loving acts of nonviolent action.

Like the terrorists on 9/11, I sense that something is unfair in the world and I want that to change. We both believe that God is angry about these injustices. The difference between us is that the anger of my God causes God to humble godself to the form of a man who would act out love and not violence even if that meant death on a cross.

Ten years on if you are angry about 9/11 or about the West’s response or that the 9/11 anniversary will receive more attention than starving millions in the horn of Africa, then join God and follow Jesus on the path of nonviolent action in a new paradigm where violence loses and love wins.

Unfit for Office

In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul lamented, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” Paul was referring to a case of incest within the church. His response? He instructed the community and its elders to “hand this man over to Satan”, to “not even eat with such people”, to “expel the wicked person from among you.”

Given that, how do you think Paul would have responded to a bishop who was found guilty of failing to report child abuse? Who actively covered it up, possibly out of a misguided sense of institutional loyalty? Do you think the apostle would have considered it acceptable for the man to retain his title even if he’s no longer allowed to teach? Or do you think he would have considered him no longer fit for office?

How do good people do bad things and still live with themselves?

I am finding Albert Bandura has a very useful model for identifying the mechanisms of moral disengagement. Indeed, when I consider the current crisis of refugee children being removed from their parents, I can say I’ve seen plenty of examples of all four major mechanisms and their subtypes coming into play already. The following examples have come from multiple sources:

  1. Behaviour reframing
    1. Moral, social, and economic justifications. “They’re an existential threat”
    2. Euphemistic re-labelling. “They’re not asylum seekers, they’re illegal immigrants”
    3. Advantageous comparisons. “Lesser of two evils. A strong deterrent saves more people in the long run”
  2. Consequence reframing
    1. Denial of the consequences. “They are being treated well”
    2. Misrepresenting the consequences “It’s actually good for them”
  3. Responsibility reframing
    1. Deflecting the responsibility. “It’s the Democrats law”
    2. Diffusion of responsibility. “It’s not like it’s me who’s mistreating them”
  4. Victim reframing
    1. Dehumanisation. “They’re animals”
    2. Blaming the victim. “Their parents are responsible for bringing them”

Have you seen any of these mechanisms in play?