The present state of Christian social ethics
January 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Earlier this month I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian ethics, the primary scholarly society devoted to Christian ethics in North America. Each year the president of the society determines the theme for the conference and invites the plenary speakers. The president for this year’s meeting was Miguel De La Torre. Dr. De La Torre is a Latino Liberationist ethicist and the conference focused on themes in liberationist ethics. Along with his own presidential address, the plenaries were given by by George “Tink” Tinker (an American Indian liberationist) and James Cone (the father of Black Liberation Theology). A theme of both Tinker and De La Torre’s presentations was, it seemed to me, the irredeemability of the (racist) American project and neoliberal globalization (as the children of Euro-Christian colonialism). Thus, De La Torre has proposed an ethics of jodiendo. In short, De La Torre, a leading thinker in the field of Christian ethics, recommends that the ethical action available to people on “the margins,” Christian or not, is to screw with the system, to expose its brutality and injustice, but that there is no real hope of transforming the system to be just.
Last year’s president was Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas has become famous for rejecting Liberalism (as a philosophical project) and the American project of global military and economic domination. His response, in contrast to De La Torre’s suggestion of grassroots “screwing with the system,” has been to advocate the formation of faithful local Christian communities able to form people into the Christian virtues. In advocating this position he has robustly criticized the American tradition of Christian social ethics as irredeemably bound to the failed project of American Liberalism. While respecting the work of people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey, Hauerwas has declared their work to be too bound up in the American political project to be faitfhful to the heart of the Christian gospel or useful to actually existing Christian communities. He has called capitalism, American militarism and civil religion, and Liberalism, idolatrous and incapable of forming virtuous citizens. Thus, he advocates for a kind of Christian radical democracy primarily housed in local Christian communities.
Against these two forms of critique which declare, in effect, that Christian social ethics is (or should be) dead stands the mainstream of the tradition as found in Walter Rauschenbusch, the Niebuhr brothers, the recently deceased Beverly Harrison, and more recently in figures such as Glen Stassen. Gary Dorrien has described Christian social ethics as “a tradition that began with the distinctively modern idea that Christianity has a social-ethical mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice” (Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making, 1). This tradition, it seems to me, is best summed up in Dorothy Day’s mission “to make the kind of society where it is easier to be good.” Christian social ethics was born in response to the rise of the social sciences and the injustices of the industrial age by ministers in poor communities realizing that ministries of benevolence were not adequate to meet the needs of their parishioners. Thus, they entered the fray of social criticism and politics to seek justice in combination of doing mercy.
Of course, this project had mixed results. The era of mainline Protestant dominance in American culture has vanished. The twentieth century was not, to the surprise of many of the early social gospellers (had they lived to see the end of it), the “Christian century.” In these and other ways the project of Christian social ethics can seem to be outdated or to have lost its significance. This is why, in part, the critiques of De La Torre and Hauerwas can be so powerful and persuasive.
All of these competing accounts of Christian ethics, from the postcolonial liberationism of De La Torre to the mainstream tradition of Christian social ethics to the post-liberal/post-Christendom/new ecclesiology ethics of Hauerwas, have been competing in my head for some time now. I have moments where I am more attracted to one approach or the other; they each have their merits and their weaknesses.
It is in the context of this debate that I picked up Jurgen Moltmann’s newest book, Ethics of Hope. Finally, after more than forty years, Moltmann has published a systematic ethics – the sequel to his groundbreaking first book Theology of Hope. In this text he describes the heart of his “ethics of hope” in this way:
The principle behind this ethics of hope is:
- not to turn swords into Christian swords
- not to retreat from the swords to the ploughshares
- but to make ploughshares out of swords. (Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, xiii)
“To make plowshares out of swords” – this, it seems to me, is the heart of Christian social ethics, and it is a goal worth pursuing. The temptation to turn swords into Christian (?) swords or to leave the swords to do their violent work, rather than to transform swords into plowshares, is everpresent in Christian ethics. However, it is a temptation that must be resisted. For if we are to be virtuous people we must live in a society that makes virtue possible. In this way, Dorothy Day’s mission to create a society in which it is easier to be good should be the goal of every Christian and social ethicist. Importantly, there are ways that liberationists, post-liberals, and even the mainstream tradition of Christian social ethics claim Day as a forbear. What this teaches us, I think, is that these positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that there continues to be mutual learning that can occur across these ideological differences.
May we all – liberationists, post-liberals, and social ethicists – follow the example of Dorothy Day and devote ourselves to the hard work of creating a good society.