Have we as a nation lost our civility? Has lying in high places become the norm? Or name calling? Or a penchant for violence? For those of us who are Christians, we ought to have something to say about these behaviors.
Christianity is a many faceted religion with many different organizational expressions. And in 2018, Christianity is a very polarized religion in step with a polarized America: right wing and progressive Christians are deeply divided. Admittedly there are many gradations between the right and the left. Do we share any basic moral values?
With the Trump Presidency, it is hard to tell if truth or facts matters, if nationalism has any moral boundaries, or if violence, American violence naturally, is ever wrong, if being first is always right, if self aggrandizement is a positive value. Trump claims to be Christian. It behooves those of us who also call ourselves Christian to get back to some fundamental moral principles.
I think the challenge of Christianity in our time is to, at least try to set out the basic ethical perspectives of our faith. Not a simple task. But, at the risk of being thought naive, here comes my search for common ground.
A caveat first. I know that the practice of ethics is not always black and white. I grew up on situational ethics. Nonetheless, I think there are some basic principles on which we ought to be able to agree and then take it from there on the hard stuff. Some rights and wrongs seem self evident.
First, I would begin with the Ten Commandments, originally meant to apply to free men, expanded by Jesus to apply to all people, to women, slaves, and even enemies. The Commandments need interpretation, but in their initial form, they seem basic and make sense if we are to live together as social beings. Common sense.
I acknowledge that the first three Commandments refer to our relationship to God and would not be as universal as those that follow, but we are, after all talking about common ground for religious communities. The first commandment seems especially relevant for our times, “You shall have no other God’s before me.” This obviously includes all kinds of idolatry since our “graven” images are not what they were thousands of years ago. This Commandment is a great protection from giving anything other than God, however, we name God, our ultimate loyalty. For example, ultra-nationalism is dangerous and idolatrous.
Next,I would take seriously Jesus’ summation of the law: Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. A summation of the law which puts love into action. This requires of us that we pay attention to how we define love and how we practice it.
Finally, I would turn to Paul: In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female for all are one in Christ Jesus. While in Paul’s day, this impartiality applied to Christ communities, by our day it can be seen as applying to society as a whole. God cares for all of creation impartially.
There are, of course, many ethical subjects addressed in Scripture which were time and culture sensitive even from the author’s perspectives, from which we can often derive insights for our time and place. And there are issues which are not addressed in Scripture. For insights on these matters, we need to return for guidance to the basic ethics meant to be written in our hearts and applied universally over time. In these matters we engage in the discernment seeking to be led by the Spirit.
Because we are human, we often have trouble sorting out cultural moral positions from religious ethics. Often our cultural views are so embedded in our minds and feelings that we see them as either divinely inspired or natural. Even Scripture was set in a given historical time and place. Basic ethical laws are meant to be universal and timeless, even though they need to be fulfilled in new ways in each age. Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
Basic ethics assume that human beings have power to create livable societies and a responsibility to do so.The point of basic ethical behavior is not salvation but a survivable society. We are being called to a civil society to choosing life over death for ourselves and future generations. Moral law is given as a gift. Moral behavior cannot be trumped by a need to win at all costs. Means matter. All of us on this small planet are interdependent and connected and need to be respected.
Of course, there is a huge gap between moral theory and practice. There are inequities at birth and all are subject to sinning and being sinned against with all the consequences thereof. Human beings are fallible and beng moral takes effort. Which leads us to the subject of mercy and forgiveness which is for another time.
I am reflecting briefly on a complicated subject. I claim that there are basic moral tenets in Christianity that define us and need to be discerned and applied. They help provide a framework for the new creation to which we are called. They are a moral foundation on which to build even in the complex setting of our modern world. We ignore them at our peril.
The challenge of today’s church is to reclaim the basic ethics that sustain life.