Category Archives: Ethics

Christian civilization and the refugee crisis

To say that I am unsympathetic with the idea, practice, or nostalgia for Christian civilization is an understatement. The coercive nature of such “civilization” strikes me as unavoidable. At worst Christianity collapses into and becomes equated with a particular culture’s norms, which gains further legitimation through Christ’s blessing. Equipped with this blessing such a culture becomes the norm; it defines what it is to be civilized. The step from here to the violent preservation (defending civilization itself!) and expansion (providing enlightenment to the unenlightened) of this norm, at all costs, is a natural one. We’ve seen this played out over and over again by the destructive conquests of western Christianity.

But are there more sympathetic ways to go about the project of Christian civilization? Some may well argue that working the idea of neighbour-love, as articulated by the Christian tradition, into a society’s basic self-identity and organizational principles is a laudable goal. Such people may even go on to say that such efforts have been crucial to the formation of better (more peaceable and compassionate) civilizations and cultures over the years. Even if this is possible for a society (and I’m not sure that it is), I still am unconvinced that it is worth striving for. Continue reading Christian civilization and the refugee crisis

A Compassion-Formed People

Compassion is a radical critique of the imperial imagination because it announces that the hurt of the people, even of one’s enemies, will not be disregarded but will be taken seriously. To do otherwise is to make pain normative, injustice permissible, and evil god. Empires live in callous disregard to the human pain which they require to sustain themselves. God and God’s people live in compassionate empathy with the broken ones. God and God’s people offer hope to the hopeless. – Harry Huebner

For the past three and a half years I have done a monthly radio broadcast for the Mennonite Church of Manitoba. Because the radio audience and the audience I have (or might one day have, perhaps) in blogging are quite different, I have never shared my programs online. Last Sunday’s program felt like an exception to this – perhaps it is that my program should have been written for the blog not the radio. In any case I think it is fitting here, so here’s an excerpt. Continue reading A Compassion-Formed People

Harry Huebner on being the the church in the world

I have now finished Harry Huebner’s Echoes of the Word. I enjoyed going through it in a relatively short time frame, and I hope readers appreciated the glances I provided into this reading.

Before I post a final quotation I’d like to draw attention to the two chapters I most enjoyed. What sets these essays apart for me is their tremendous practical wisdom combined with rich theological insight. That is, not only did these essays provoke my thinking, but I have high hopes that they will help me to become a better person – this without being trite or reductionist. Continue reading Harry Huebner on being the the church in the world

Jesus and the church’s call to embodied holiness

The issue for Jesus was both individual sinfulness as well as the people’s allegiance to a cultural dynamic of power, corruption, and piety. Especially serious was his charge that the religious leaders rather than calling the people to repentance were undergirding this way of life with religious rituals which abstracted the love of God. The Pharisees identified godliness with keeping themselves clean from the world around them. Jesus profoundly disagreed with this. The issue between Jesus and them was a hermeneutical one: how to interpret what God was doing. When Jesus said to them: ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God!’ (Luke 11:42a), he was not criticising their religion, he was criticising its abstraction. To be God’s people required incarnate compassion. You simply cannot be God’s and lack love for justice. Compassion is of the essence of God – witness the Prodigal Son story – hence if you are centred in God it defines your essence as well – witness the Good Samaritan story. Prophetic faithfulness, as Jesus interprets it, demands the unity of piety and politics. Continue reading Jesus and the church’s call to embodied holiness

Compassion and presence: the church’s calling

The same central point is made: the justice of the biblical prophetic imagination is grounded in compassion. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the story of the cross and resurrection. The cross is the very embrace of the dialectical tension between justice and compassion.

Compassion is a radical critique of the imperial imagination because it announces that the hurt of the people, even of one’s enemies, will not be disregarded but will be taken seriously. To do otherwise is to make pain normative, injustice permissible, and evil god. Empires live in callous disregard to the human pain which they require to sustain themselves. God and God’s people live in compassionate empathy with the broken ones. God and God’s people offer hope to the hopeless. Continue reading Compassion and presence: the church’s calling

The problem of knowing what to do with our confessions

When we confess our redemption through Jesus Christ we commit ourselves to a concrete social embodiment of the gospel. Nonconformity is therefore the hallmark of the Christian faith – although nonconformity must be carefully distinguished from non-participation. Nonconformity implies difference but not distance; exclusion yet embrace. I emphasise this matter because I se a discrepancy between what we confess and how we live. For example, we confess belief in non-resistance – although I think ‘peace-making’ would be a better word (Mennonite Brethren Confession, Article 13). Yet a growing number of Mennonites do not believe in peacemaking (let alone non-resistance) in any way that is different from other contemporary enlightened North Americans, who manage to make this conviction consistent with going to war when their nation calls them to do so. Unless our statements of faith help us with what it means practically to be peacemakers as Jesus’ disciples, this cannot be a credible confession.

We confess that our allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom and not to the state (Article 12), but it is primarily our state and not the church that is taking care of our medical needs, our education needs, and our security needs. Again, unless we can answer concretely what we mean when we say our security is not with the state, when in fact it is, we are not confessing properly. Continue reading The problem of knowing what to do with our confessions

Hauerwas on liberalism and desire

For most part, I’ve only read and heard caricatures and one-liners when it comes to Hauerwas’s critique of liberalism. I recently read Hauerwas’s early and well-worn (for many but not me) essay “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” I appreciated getting the more sustained critique and look forward to reading others like it. Here’s an excerpt.

Many of our current political problems and the way we understand and try to solve them are a direct outgrowth of our liberal presuppositions. For example, the American government is often condemned for its inability to develop an economic or energy policy, but such policies must necessarily be public policies. Just as it has been the genius of the American political system to turn every issue of principle into an issue of interest, so it has been the intention of our polity to make impossible the very idea of public policy or public interest. Public policy cannot exist because society is nothing more than an aggregate of self-interested individuals. The policy which is formulated therefore must be the result of a coalescence of self-interests that is then justified in the name of the greatest good for the greatest number (but too often turns out to be the greatest good for the most powerful). Liberalism thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people.

It is often pointed out that there is a deep puzzle about the American people, for in spite of being the best off people in the world, their almost frantic pursuit of abundance seems to mask a deep despair and loss of purpose. I suspect that our despair is the result of living in a social order that asks  nothing from us but our willingness to abide by the rules of fair competition. We have been told that it is moral to satisfy our ‘wants’ and ‘needs,’ but we are no longer sure what our wants and needs are or should be. After all, ‘wants’ are but individual preferences. Americans, as is often contended, are good people or at least want to be good people, but our problem is that we have lost any idea of what that could possibly mean. We have made ‘freedom of the individual’ an end in itself and have ignored that fact that most of us do not have the slightest idea of what we should do with our freedom. – A Community of Character, 79-80

The sentimental is and is not

Stanley Hauerwas begins a recent post at ABC Religion and Ethics with the provocative statement that “nothing is more destructive to the Christian faith than the current identification of Christianity with love.”  Part of what seems to be going on here involves Hauerwas’s long battle against Christians’ temptation to sentimentality. For there is nothing sentimental about the cross and much that is sentimental about Christian proclamation of an easy and tolerant love, a “love,” for example, that makes Christians great customer service personnel for destructive corporations.

At the same time, to again follow Hauerwas’s lead, we should not think that this calls for some sort of emotionless obedience. Indeed, one of the problems with sentimentality is that it deflects and hides us from the emotion and desire that marks a true engagement with the self, others, the world, and God. In the interests of pushing towards a deeply emotional and fully desiring faith that does not stray into I have decided to present of list of examples of what sentimental is and is not.

The sentimental is:

  • “There is so much bad news these days. It’s a good thing that a vague feeling of goodwill towards all humanity means that the church breaks down the barriers of nationality, race, and gender. If I think it, then I know that I am a part of a global fellowship.”
  • “No, dear, I did not clean the house while you were away as I promised I would do. What matters, though, is that I love you very much.”
  • “Yes, I will help you to escape from this fire in a moment, but first I must find my wedding ring, which brings back so beautifully the perfection of my wedding day.”
  • “I don’t care what my baby sister says, Dad. I will not allow you to move into a nursing home. I’ve been in one once and I know what it is like. You mean too much to me. Now, if she doesn’t do a good job taking care of you this week, you be sure to let me know when I see you next.”

The sentimental not:

  • “The many stories of Syrian refugees that I’ve been able to hear over the last few months has deeply impacted me. I am quitting my job and initiating conversations to see what I can do to plug into relief and support for the current refugee crisis.”
  • “Thank you for making me smile now when everything seems so bleak. I just really appreciate having you around.”
  • “I weep uncontrollably for the loss of my friend. I am at a loss in the face of my grief.”
  • “This really good book has me in emotional turbulence.”

With both of these lists I could have gone on and on. But now, reader, it is your turn to flesh out the distinction between the sentimental and the emotional. What should be added to either or both lists? Be as snarky or as heartfelt as you like.

#AskAWhiteFeminist

Yesterday morning I saw a twitter exchange between Dr. Brittney Cooper and somebody-else that incorporated the hashtag #AskAWhiteFeminist. Cooper told somebody-else to #AskAWhiteFeminist about the problems with a white feminist’s speech at the Oscar awards ceremony Sunday night. And then somebody-else went on a name-calling rampage – bigot, hater… – towards Cooper.

Now, I’ve been following Cooper’s work over at The Crunk Feminist Collective for almost three years. Continue reading #AskAWhiteFeminist

Yoder on faithful living and Marion on faithful seeing

Similarities between the theology of John Howard Yoder and Jean-Luc Marion may not be immediately evident. At the same time, I suspect that Marion’s work will become more helpful to my own theological work if I can tease out some of these similarities and put them into conversation with each other. One such similarity I think I’ve found is their shared conviction to act as if the world is God’s and is loved by God. Yoder often voices this conviction in terms of faithful living and Marion in the terms of faithful seeing. However, for both true sight and living well are so closely joined that they are almost the same thing. This is what I am trying to point towards with my quotations from Marion and Yoder below.

Before getting to those passages, I’d like to clarify one aspect of ‘true sight.’ Often true sight is a euphemism “for a beautiful vision to impose from above by authority,” to use Yoder’s words in just one of the many passages where he critiques such methodology. For both Yoder and Marion, an emphasis on seeing does not start with a large vision, but with the particular and with letting particular people, places and things speak with their own truth and beauty. Marion’s term “saturated phenomena,” speaks to this and to the excessive profundity of the world when we see that it participates in love before being. If it isn’t explicit I hope that this aspect of sight is at least implicit in the following passages.

“We are not called to love our enemies in order to make them our friends. We are called to act out love for them because at the cross it has been effectively proclaimed that from all eternity they were our brothers and sisters. We are not called to make the bread of the world available to the hungry; we are called to restore the true awareness that it was always theirs. We are not called to topple the tyrants, so that it might become true  that the proud fall and the haughty are destroyed. It is already true; we are called only to let that truth govern our own choice of whether to be, in our turn, tyrants claiming to be benefactors.” – Yoder, For the Nations

“The same distance designates the same world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other: from the world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other from the world, on the fringe that opens it to the excess of a distance, the totality appears to be struck by vanity; from the inaccessible point of view of God, at the extremes of distance, the same world can receive the blessing that characterizes it in its just dignity….

For another gaze – the gaze of God – boredom no longer arises; the gaze that can love strikes no longer with vanity, but prompts ‘goodness.’… [V]anity arises from a gaze that exceeds Being/being without yet acceding to charity, a gaze that discovers the world as being beyond Being/being without seeing it loved – by God…. Vanity comes from the boredom of man, not from the boredom of God; for God loves, and from the gaze of charity comes the ‘goodness’ of the gazed at….

That which is, if it does not receive love, is as if it were not, while that which is not, if love polarizes it, is as if it were: the indifference to determination according to ontological difference reappears as the responsibility of love…. To give the world which is, empty of love, for that which is not but belongs to the domain of love – there is nothing more reasonable and even advantageous.” – Marion, God Without Being