Archives For Ethics

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Presumably, the complaint I received in my inbox had to do with the number of posts on the blog about homosexuality. Maybe the complainer was worried about the platform in Cleveland.

Well, here goes:

That Christians continue to call abortion “abortion” and not “termination of pregnancy” is itself to make a moral claim. Language matters and because language matters it’s also important to note:

Christians do not believe life is sacred in and of itself.

Such a singular reverence for life could too easily become a form of idolatry. Instead, for Christians, life is sacred not because it’s life but because it’s a gift from God. The value life has is alone the value God gives to it. Every life and every potential life is a sign of blessing because it is grace. Life need not be given. If God so chose, none of us would exist tomorrow.

It challenges many of our assumptions to think of every life, potential or real, as a blessing. Clearly many lives come into this world under difficult or tragic-seeming circumstances. Christianity’s reverence for life does not compel us to naiveté regarding the trying circumstances of much of reality. Rather Christianity’s reverence for life calls us to attend to and minster to those difficult conditions, believing that one day even the most despairing of circumstances will be yielded God’s blessing. Another way of stating this is that the Christian’s vocation is not to be an arbiter of life; the Christian’s vocation is to be a steward of something that is given to us conditionally.

An important dimension to this conviction is that, for Christians, life never ceases to be a gift from God. This means that Christians are foremost grateful people, thankful for the blessing that is given them. In addition, it means that Christians are called to exhibit equal measures of reverence for all stages and manifestations of life. This is the critical point at which a true biblical ethic departs from political platforms and posturing. A genuine Christian ethic on the issue of abortion fits comfortably in none of the categories made available to us by our politics. If life never ceases to be a gift, then a Christian’s passion for the unborn, for example, cannot be to the exclusion of others’ lives. The conditions of the poor, for instance, or the treatment of prisoners or the care of the disabled are all evidence of how we steward God’s gift of life as well.

The Roman Catholic tradition has referred to this consistent Christian reverence for life as “the seamless garment,” taking the image of Christ’s seamless tunic in the Gospel of John, stressing that Christians are called to show reverence for and protection of life ‘from the womb to the tomb.’

Christians who advocate exclusively for the issue of abortion give witness to an incomplete Gospel.

The convictions that cause Christians to welcome the life of the unborn also call Christians to show compassion for, for example, impoverished children, the elderly and the powerless. As the Letter of James notes, the fruit of our faith is evidenced by our treatment of society’s least. In many ways, the “seamless garment” harkens the Church to more closely mirror the communal ethic of the church of Acts.

It challenges many Christians’ political categories to discover that the same conviction that motivates the Church’s historic opposition to abortion- reverence for life as a gift from a sovereign God- also lies behind the Church’s traditional opposition to such issues as the death penalty or, more recently, the state practice of torture.

Our reverence for life also teaches Christians how to treat one another in this debate.

The life of the one who disagrees with me is also a gift from a gracious God.

How I treat that person, in other words, is but a form of worship. Even on an issue as emotional and divisive as abortion, Christians are called to practice love, humility and patience. A Christian ethic that respects the unborn but condemns the living is incomprehensible to the Gospel. This is why the tactics of so many abortion protesters are both off-putting and unpersuasive.

The Samaritan parable, last Sunday’s lectionary gospel, is paradigmatic. For the “liberal” Christian the abortion opponent never ceases to be a neighbor deserving of mercy and reverence. For the “conservative” Christian, the abortion-rights proponent is never not a gift given to the world by a gracious God. If Christians allow the Samaritan story to serve in this paradigmatic way, then much of how the culture engages this debate will be off-limits for followers of Jesus. For Christians, our position on the abortion issue is inseparable from the manner in which we engage it.

I hear it all the time, mostly at parties and social gatherings where I’m more likely to run into non-Christians. Often I end up on the receiving end of it at funerals, hearing someone’s grief channeled through anger:

‘I don’t need someone else to connect me to God.’

‘I don’t need a church to tell me how to live my life.’

‘No,’ I normally qualify, ‘you don’t someone like me necessarily. But you need someone.’

Moral absolutes get a bad rap in the antinomian landscape we’d rather call postmodern.

As Americans, we instinctually believe it to be our birth right to decide what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. To have an organized religion tell us what is right and wrong- and train us into those beliefs- strikes us as deeply unAmerican; never mind the fact that the organized religion we call America is the institution who indoctrinated us into the belief that we should decide right and wrong on our own.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas repeatedly echoes: rp_faith4.jpg

“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story.”

The consequence of living in a nation where you’re indoctrinated into believing that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story is that you’re more likely than not to attend a church that’s gun shy about indoctrinating you into a counter story.

And so in most contemporary churches, the mood is more often one of comfort than challenge.

When it comes to ethics, the focus in churches is on conversation rather than catechesis. The extent to which churches are shaped by the belief that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story can be seen in the cliches we use to describe churches as moral communities.

We want churches, we say, that ‘live into the questions’ (rather than learn the wisdom of the saints).

We prefer churches where our youth will be able to ‘make up their minds for themselves’ (even though we’ve not trained them into having minds worth making up).

Faith, we say in progressive churches, is about ‘exploring the question’ while in conservative churches we say similarly that faith is about ‘making a decision for yourself Christ.’

The problem with not wanting the Church to indoctrinate you in to its answers of right and wrong is that it ignores the fact that right and wrong conduct is grounded in the kind of people we are, the traits of character we have.

What our American religious ethos obscures is that morality- ethics- is not                        what we do or decide.

It is who we are.

People of virtue, people with good character, moral people are those who tend to do the right thing and to do it rather easily or without effort or agony; to do it naturally.

Bad people, however, habitually do the wrong thing and the worst without even agonizing about it because they no longer have the character sufficient to discern or choose the good.

This is auspicious news, for any parent knows we are not born with the particular traits or character we come to possess. Virtuous traits of character have to be acquired or “learned.”

The moral life is learned, an apprenticed art.

What the Church calls ‘catechesis.’

We become the kind of people we are through only through other people- through practice and training under other people. As Thomas Aquinas taught, we acquire habits by repeatedly acting in particular ways until the attitudes and dispositions related to the act become our own, become reflexive. According to Aquinas, only people with the proper training and mentoring, only people shaped by appropriate traditions and stories, are likely to do the right thing.

Exhibit A: My friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz. images-1

Brian, a lawyer, has written a book, One Big Setup, in which he tells his story advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Brian’s decision to take the pro bono, career-harming death penalty case was, he writes, reflexive.

Why?

Brian writes that he grew up Catholic in Jersey, going to Mass every week; as a result; he grew up just believing- knowing- that the death penalty was wrong.

Why?

Because that’s what his priests and his Church drilled into him. That, and the fact that you’re supposed to stick up for the poor.

And so, when it came to make a decision about advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian writes that it wasn’t really a decision at all. It was something more like a reflexive yes.

A habitually-conditioned response.

So much so that when Brian looks back with the benefit of hindsight, he’ll honestly say that if he had to ‘choose’ all over again he’d probably decline the case.

To show that this isn’t just an abstract theological excursion, that there’s something at stake in the Church catechizing Christians into the moral life, that there’s something at stake in the Church failing to do so…

brownalfredExhibit B: The Texas Appeals Court just overturned Alfred Dwayne Brown’s death sentence.

(You can read about it here)

The face-saving State will now try to request a new trial for which it now has no evidential basis.

Thanks to Brian.

And the many, many years and sacrifice and tears he gave to Alfred.

So the next time some couple wanting to get married or baptize their baby tells me they want their ‘children to decide for themselves when they grow up’ I’ll tell them about Brian and tell them the stake are much too high to let them let their children decide for themselves.

ADIP-465_copy__14891_zoomIn his book on ethics, one of my muses, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe, has these dynamite words for Labor Day:

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“You shall not steal. Certainly the most misunderstood of all the commandments. It has nothing to do with property and its so-called rights. What ‘You shall not steal’ refers to is stealing men. Taking away their freedom to enslave them.

It is curious irony that in the name of this commandment we have built up a whole theory of the sacredness of possessions, of objects.

A theory that has led to the wholesale enslavement of men- the very thing the commandment in fact denounces.

The slavery of men is, together with violence, the great characteristic of the idolatrous society.

And so the commandments go on to complete the picture of the society that worships the work of men’s hands, where justice is perverted (‘You shall not bear false witness’) and the weak are the victims of rapacity and covetousness.

The idolatrous society thus presents two faces: on the one hand it is a religious society with great respect for the traditional ways; it will be a society in which patriotism is highly valued and in which there is much concern for the country’s heritage. On the other hand, it will also be a society of institutionalized violence in which brutality and injustice is either hidden or given a mask of legality.

It is important to see that any society may become idolatrous in this way, that in fact every society betrays a built-in tendency to worship the work of men’s hands.

In any society men are liable to find their identity simply in what they themselves have achieved.

The rejection of this is the beginning of the discovery of Yahweh.”