From The Peaceable Kingdom
While this book is meant to be a primer or introduction to Christian ethics which I hope can be used both in introductory courses in college and by adult study groups, I am not providing a survey of what various ethicists think on current issues in the field. Nor will I offer any extensive analysis of past and current figures in Christian ethics. Instead this book is an introduction in the sense that it attempts to present one straightforward account of a Christian ethic.
Alternative accounts are mentioned only as a means of clarifying my own position. As a result the book may be said to be decidedly “one-sided” for an introduction. My only defense is that I know no other way it can be done. As I try to show throughout, there is no way to do Christian ethics neutrally, since there is no agreement on what Christian ethics is or how it should be done that does not involve substantial theological and philosophical disagreements. Therefore I have not tried to write a text in the mode of William Frankena’s Ethics. Rather this “introduction” is closer to Bernard Williams’s Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, since, like him, I make no attempt to offer an account of what makes ethics ethics.
No one can doubt the usefulness of Frankena’s careful distinctions and descriptions of various alternatives in ethical reflection. Yet his book leaves the unfortunate impression that ethics mainly involves the choise of one or a mixture of alternative ethical theories against others. In contrast, Williams’s book reminds the student (and teacher) that ethics is never finally a matter of theory; rather, it is a reflective activity not easily learned. In the same spirit I have not assumed that on finishing the book readers will feel they know what “ethics” is or agree with the position I develop, but I do hope that they will be convinced that the activity exhibited in the book is one worth continuing. Moreover I hope that by working through the book they will develop some skills that will assist in their continuance of that activity or at least they will know where the issues and problems lie for thinking about – and living – a Christian ethic.
Such a disclaimer does not mean, however, that I am indifferent to the position developed in this book. I care, and deeply so, that the reader might come to appreciate, if not agree with, the stress on the centrality of nonviolence as the hallmark of the Christian moral life. I hope to show such a stance is not just an option for a few, but incumbent on all Christians who seek to live faithfully in the kingdom made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Nonviolence is not one among other behavioral implications that can be drawn from the gospel but is integral to the shape of Christian convictions.
In this book I also introduce themes I have touched on in my past work – i.e., the significance of virtue and character, narrative as a mode of moral reflection, the centrality of the life of Jesus for shaping the Christian life. Therefore it is an introduction to a Christian ethic. Yet I do not intend to present just my “personal views,” but want to argue that the position I develop should be any Christian’s. For it is my hope that the mode of analysis I present does justice to the shape of Christian convictions as they are found in scripture, tradition, and the continuing lives of those who seek to live in a manner faithful to God’s kingdom.
Because most of my previous work is in essay form many have suggested I need to “pull it all together” in one book. In some ways such a suggestion, while perfectly legitimate, is a bad idea. Not only do I have no idea of how I can “pull it all together,” but more importantly, I would still maintain that an attempt at a summary distorts my basic understanding of theology. Theology cannot be construed by one overarching doctrine or principle. As I try to show, theology’s inherently practical character, its unmistakable status as a pastoral discipline, simply defies strong systematization.
Of course I believe that theology involves a systematic display and analysis of Christian convictions and their relation to one another. Moreover, I think the theologian must try to show through the analysis of such relations in what sense Christian convictions can claim to be true. While I do not claim to have “pulled it all together” in this book, I try to make more explicit than I have in the past the conceptual foundation underlying the suggestions I have made about how theology, and in particular Christian ethics, should be done.
For those acquainted with my past work, I suspect the most surprising development in this book will be the emphasis I place on nonviolence. Many have viewed my pacifism with a good deal of suspicion, seeing it as just one of my peculiarities. Such an interpretation is not unjust, since I have not written in a manner that exposes its centrality. I hope this book will help make clear why it is so methodically crucial as I try to show why a position of nonviolence entails, for example, a different understanding of the significance of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection than that offered in other forms of Christian ethics. Indeed, nonviolence is not just one implication among others that can be drawn from our Christian beliefs; it is at the very heart of our understanding of God.
To make nonviolence a central issue in an introductory book may seem the worst possible strategy. It gives the impression that the Christian moral life involves only this one thing, and surely that is not the case. However, I hope to show how peaceableness as the hallmark of Christian life helps illumine other issues, such as the nature of moral argument, the meaning and status of freedom, as well as how religious convictions can be claimed to be true or false. As a result I do not concentrate on the theme of peace in the first part of the book and even in the later parts peace is discussed only in relation to other theological issues. I hope this will make it clear that for Christians peace is not an ideal known apart from our theological convictions; rather the peace for which we hunger and thirst is determined and made possible only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The reader will find this work to be as much about theology as about ethics. One of its major concerns is to show why Christian ethics is a mode of theology. Indeed, to begin by asking what is the relation between theology and ethics is to have already made a mistake. Christian convictions are by nature meant to form and illumine lives. Since I hold that ethics is theology, in this book I sometimes treat issues, such as the authority of scripture or the relation of reason and revelation, that are generally reserved for systematic or philosophical theology. I cannot pretend to provide an adequate account or analysis here of these, and other, complex issues, but I hope I say enough to show that such issues cannot be avoided if Christian ethics is at the heart of the theological enterprise.
The first few chapters are an attempt to develop the conceptual tools necessary to sustain this contention. Thus I emphasize narrative, character, the virtues, and tradition as crucial for the explication of the Christian life. These are familiar themes in my previous work, but it is my hope that fresh light will be thrown on them here by my explicit attempt to investigate their interconnection.
I also try to take the many good criticisms of my past work into account. I hope that what I write indicates that I have learned much from such criticism, even though many of my critics may feel I respond unsatisfactorily to their concerns. That I do so is often because I simply do not know how to respond. For example, I continue to struggle with the problem of displaying the nature of agency and its relation to character. However, I do not respond positively to some criticisms of my work because I believe they widely miss the mark. Nevertheless, I hope it is clear that I very much value criticism, as it helps me state more exactly what I think and awakens me to the significance of such disagreement.
I may attempt to do the impossible in this book in that I wish it to be of as much interest to those who have not done a great deal of work in theology as to those who have. For the former, I hope that by following how one person construes the relation between various Christian convictions they will get some idea of what theological reflection involves and why it can properly claim integrity as an intellectual enterprise. Moreover, I hope they will gain the confidence thereby to try to work in theology better than I have been able to do and to see it as an exciting intellectual endeavor that is as enjoyable as it is important.
For the more seasoned, the book may help clarify my position, insofar as my “position” has clarity, and suggest in what ways I represent a somewhat unique theological alternative. Uniqueness or creativity are not in themselves virtues in theology, since the theologian’s task is to serve a tradition and a community. Our freedom, and especially our intellectual freedom, comes from such service. Yet, when one serves a tradition that has at its center a crucified God, it is impossible to avoid the continuing challenge that is put to our imagination.
Though some may find my position at some points quite conservative and at others very liberal, I have no real interest in the labels and hope merely to say what I believe to be true to the character of the God who would have us live as a people of truth and peace in a violent world. I do not know if it is liberal or conservative to argue that theology cannot begin a consideration of ethics with claims about creation and redemption, but must begin with God’s choice of Israel and the life of Jesus. Nor do I know if it is liberal or conservative to claim that the first social task of the church is to be the church, which entails being a community capable of being a critic to every human pretension. Theology is not a matter of being liberal or conservative but a matter of truth. I hope this book will illumine why and how this is so.