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Home Method of Christian Ethics Luey Kit Ling, Elaine: Reading Report on two groups of thoughts : character ethics and pragmatists
Luey Kit Ling, Elaine: Reading Report on two groups of thoughts : character ethics and pragmatists PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 04 April 2013 23:28


Reading Report on two groups of thoughts : character ethics and pragmatists

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok

Anthor: Luey Kit Ling, Elaine

The articles of the assignment and related theologians will be grouped into two categories – namely those focus on character ethics and the second group as pragmatists. Character ethics is not only about individual ethics, it extends to the church as well as influencing the politics. Pragmatists are not all against pacifism. For example Martin Luther King is a pragmatist but his ethics deeply grounded in love and justice and the use of non violent means.

In the beginning of the paper, let us evaluate the common themes within each of the category then we will compare some similarities and differences across the two. Finally personal conclusions will be drawn.

When we look at the Christian ethics of each theologian proposed, we will also look at the background and challenges they face at the time, place and culture. Then it is also important to see how their views on ethics extend to church and politics.

1 Character Ethics

We will mainly discuss three theologians in this category – namely McClendon, Yoder and Hauerwas

1.1. Social background and issues they were trying to tackle

The three theologians were facing Christian realism and they were all trying to bring back the relevancy of ethics to theology and more importantly grounded on Jesus as He is not only relevant but is the NORMATIVE.

McClendon was tired and rejected the errors of enlightenment and  foundationalism. He criticized big-name theologians like Barth, Niebuhr without adequately addressing the matter of Christian perfectionism and pointed out the flaws of Christian realism.

Modern theologians have taught people to think that theology is a philosophical system of ideas and its task is to provide persuasive reasons for believing in concepts like God, the soul, and life after death. Christian ethics emerges in theology as in philosophy generally, namely, ethics is non cognitive and, hence, private and subjective. In effect, this means there is no essential connection between theology and ethics. McClendon challenged this and tried to bring the connection back; otherwise we are just addressing morality as philosophical and humanity arena.

With the Christian Realism denying the relevance of Jesus and the Christian pacifism of nonviolence losing credibility in the 20th Century, Yoder re-enforced Jesus is an ideal which must be made realistic and He is not only still relevant to ethics today, he IS the normative.

Hauerwas was not denying the Christian realism nor the command- obedience allegory of Barth. He would like to highlight character as an important area in Christian ethics.

1.2. Their standpoint on ethics

McClendon proposed Character ethics is best seen as “the ethics of character-in-community’. Similar to the character in novels as they interacted with other characters in the book, so as in the community. Therefore, it is not just an individual forming of character but he also placed emphasized on the interaction with the community.

He grounded his character theology on New Testament as well as convictions. Christian character requires the conviction that our faith and trust in God makes a difference for how we live. Convictions are not propositions but forces that shape our actual behavior and. existence. Unlike other theologies, McClendon’s starting point of his systematic theology is ethics. He explained we do not know Christ unless we follow him. He affirmed narrative ethics which is deeply rooted in Jesus Christ and be able to help us live in today’s complex world.

McClendon viewed biblical morality as a rope of three strands  - the human nature, culture and God’s Kingdom. Furthermore , Christians can live faithfully with four qualities , similar to winning a game – governed by the rules, goals, practices and skills.

Yoder quoted on Apostle Paul’s teaching that  the significance of Jesus is not ethics but grace and points out that an emphasis on ethics leads to righteousness. He further concluded Jesus is not only relevant for social ethics. He IS the normative.

Hauerwas’ Christian ethics are also deeply rooted in ecclesiology and on the foundation of pacifism. However, it is worth noted it is not the strategies  and the effectiveness of peace making but in the faithfulness. Faithfulness to God’s Kingdom. To him, ethics must be grounded in a personal relationship with the source that is God.

He believed it is more important to ask the question of ‘what ought I to be’ than ‘what ought I to do’. With the freedom to choose and doing the right thing, the question is not about the ability to make the right choices but rather depending on our character and the virtues we have embraced.

Hauerwas placed strong emphasized on hope and patience as the critical virtues. We must train ourselves to be patience when everything we can around us is unjust. We need to have hope before the magical power of all-powerfulness.

1.3. How did they extend ethics to church and politics

It is not true that theologians of character ethics only addressed the individual character and not that of the church or even events in the world. They closely relate personal character to that of the church and social arenas.

The church is actually the second strand of ethics McClendon proposed. The ‘gathered’ church reflected three forms of moral life of Christians – discipleship and community; forgiveness;  church in the world. McClendon suggested following Jesus as a church is being in solidarity with each other. McClendon also dealt with injustice. He raised ‘how can we believe in justice in our world’. The third strand or resurrection ethics brought us to see the resurrection of Jesus turned us to  a new era with new rule even thought it is not fully realized. He reassured God is in charge of directing the affairs of history. Christians shall open to the guidance of Jesus and be consistent in his model as being non violent but at the same time refusing the oppression.

Yoder saw the church and world united. He also stressed the non violent approach which is the heart of Jesus’ ministry should be the way to deal with justice instead of the usual, standard way of violence.

Lent on Paul’s teaching, Yoder also ensured the ‘powers’ we have : they are created by God, although they have rebelled and are fallen, they are STILL under the sovereignty of God.

He reminded Christians are not charged with the task of making the world right but rather to give faithful witness.

Hauerwas stated the task of Christian ethics is identical with the task of being the church. Church IS the social ethic. We need to be ‘like Jesus’ , as a group of people capable claiming citizenship in God’s kingdom of non violent love. More importantly, we are the ones who witness the meaning of love in social relations.

Hauerwas did not suggest a separation of church and politics, rather he advocated the church to be like a political body as others to be engaged but we are different as we have no reason to be fearful of the truth. Church need to be a witness of the peaceful kingdom with forgiveness, bearing the cross and the resurrection.

2. Pragmatists with action to influence the society

I propose to group these theologians as ‘pragmatist” as their beliefs and ethics called for their action to the society.  With the limited discussion, I will mostly concentrate the discussion on Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr (Reinhold) and Martin Luther King.

2.1.         Social background and issues they were trying to tackle

Firstly , I think most of the theologians in this school of thoughts lived , witnessed, immersed  by in the turbulent world of the early 20th century.  Karl Barth (1886- 1968,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906 – 1945,Reinhold Niebuhr 1892 – 1971, Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) . In that era,  there were  “the rise of Nazism in Germany, World War II, the rebuilding of Europe, and the Cold War.   Also there was the  growing influences of “secularism” and individualism.  Those major events called for individuals  not just to be a good Christian to the community or in church. As Christians, they need to ask the role of the church, the justice in the society and also what political influence should one and the church exert. Therefore, the first point I think why they take this different path of active participation in society as pragmatists is there are much and bigger happenings at the time calling a different role of Christians.

Martin Luther King was at a much later era, 1929- 1968 but he was also facing and challenging the social system, the constitutional justice.

As Bonhoeffer put it, they existed at a time, space, society that as Christians, doing nothing is as sinful as doing something sinful.

To be specific, each of the theologian was trying to address problem of the time and bring up their view points. Unlike the first group (character ethics) the events, issues they deal with was much bigger than the first group and mostly addressing to political matters .

Karl Barth saw the turbulence of secularism threatening the church, he was against natural theology. Barth’s ethics challenged the ideologies of totalitarianism, nationalism, and militarism. He positively sought to develop a positive Christian witness of justice, freedom, and peace.

For Bonhoeffer, in 1931Germany was in a state of serious political upheaval. There was resentment regarding the unjust settlement (toward Germany) after World War , there were feelings of deep humiliation, which in turn gave rise to an ardent nationalism. there were major economic problems like poverty and unemployment . Social injustice was a key problem. Adolf Hitler, was able to provide hope to people by playing the card of  nationalism. To Bonhoeffer, doing nothing was as sinful as doing something violent. He had plans to assassinate Hitler and was finally executed. A very extreme pragmatist!

During time of first world war 1914 -1918, Niebuhr (Reinhold) served the War Welfare Commission. He also saw the Vietnam war (1955 - 1975). He saw the assumption  of pacifism that human nature was basically good that sin was not very powerful and society be getting better is wrong. He criticized Barth’s excessive emphasis on the transcendence of God but he also opposed to a radical immanence of God as it place too much emphasis on goodness of humanity !!)Between the two extremes : idealists  regarded  highly on human nature and historical progress but their failure to deal with Hitler’s invasion of Europe. On the other extreme, religious conservatism saw humans could do nothing good. Niebuhr tried to find a mid-way with Christian Realism was an attempt to base an ethic on a view of human nature and the possibilities of change within a society without overstating human potentiality and without understating the power of sin and evil.

Niebuhr’s only way of conceiving of overcoming the power of sin was via the use of force .He advocated pacifism is not a way for Christians to live in the world it only represents a way in the Kingdom of God.  For him, it is important we understand that this is earth that we are not in heaven. Jesus is only Savior and not example.  Violence is the only way to achieve social justice.

Martin Luther King  was s fighting against resistance and brining change to a well-established, unjust, social order, especially on from which many people benefit.

He warned the danger of people committed to justice to obey unjust laws .He urged people to get onboard with God’s justice. God is faithful and land of justice is clearly visible.

King believed there was little hope in Christian realism because it required faith in existing, unjust systems. Hope must be found elsewhere. To place hope in the God of Jesus Christ is to place hope in the one who raised Jesus from the dead. In other words, as King so often preached, even suffering and death will not undermine the hope that “we shall overcome•”

2.2.         Their standpoint on ethics

All of the theologians on this school of thoughts, view ethics beyond an individual character, virtue they presented an outward aspects of Christian ethics not only to church but to social systems.

To Karl Barth , Christian ethics is not about the rational process of deliberating and acting as an independent moral subject, as much as being dependent upon God by listening and responding to Gods prior gracious action. He links the doctrines of God and election to ethics through the divine command which provides the theological framework for his theological ethics.

More notably, Barth pointed out Christian ethics to be grounded in witness. Which is “the task of this human word to remind other men of God's reign, grace, and judgment”  . Christians remain a witness, not by their “religious and moral virtues” but by God’s grace alone which enables them to have hope and confidence that God has acted and will continue act in the future.

Bonhoeffer advocated to get Christian ethics right, we need to bring to unity two questions that are often separated: “What should we do?” and “Who are we?” To seek for who we are , he pointed to Luther. “Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself, and you will find yourself in Him eternally.”  It is the faithfulness to Jesus which guided on one’s principles, goals, and values.

I think Bonhoeffer pointed out a great point , he suggested  “theology and ethics are not about answering all the outstanding questions, but rather about living/dying in faith without final answers”

Niebuhr Reinhold started as a liberal but found that there was false assumption of human nature and will. It is neither practical nor realistic. eg the Sermon of Mount was not a set of guidelines a society can live by . It was fine for individual but not for the society. Liberal tradition is simply too naïve. Christian ethics needed an alternative that well worked out and realistic. He regarded the ethic of Jesus did not deal at all with the immediate moral problem of every human life. It was not related to the politics, economics nor the necessary balances of power , social relationships etc. The rule of Sermon on the Mount is not for this world but for a different era.  Jesus ethic is still relevant but it can only be so as an ideal that is impossible.

Niebuhr's said a lot on what Jesus ethic is not but little on what it is. His approach to Christian ethics can be summarized in his famous 'serenity prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; wisdom to know the difference’

Here we can see there was really no specific ‘guidelines’ and grounds he developed on Christian ethics, it is rather a more general appeal to God’s guidance of wisdom to deal with what is needed. I think it is very dangerous as it open to a lot of ‘human interpretation”.

King’s theological ethics is calling for a radical change on how Christian discipleship be understood and acted out. He proposed we have to live in a new world, new reality . He was fighting for justice, social justice, calling for a change in ‘structure’ to achieve Christian ethics.

1.3.         How did they extend ethics to church and politics

I think to further extension the understanding of these theologists’ views on church and politics will help us to understand in their Christian ethics application to the world ie why they are prompted to action as they need to influence social system. As we can see below – most of them were trying to deal with social, political , constitutional change. These issues could not be deal with only in one’s church but to the public and political arena.

Karl Barth proposed democracy being an important link to the church and civic communities. Based on God’s grace and the church, Barth advocated ideas such as dignity, rights of humanity, constitutional democracies, government addressing the needs of he poor, equality of all citizens, freedom of speech etc.  Barth clearly prefers a constitutional and liberal democratic state

In addition, he highly advocated Christians involvement in political duties.. For Christians, says Barth, the ''fulfillment of political duty means rather responsible choices of authority, responsible decision about the validity of laws, responsible care for their maintenance in a word political action, which may also mean political struggle”

To sum up , Barth saw the law is not simply a list of Gods moral commands. Gospel takes ‘priority over the law”.

Bonhoeffer did not only highlight Christian life is participation in Christ's encounter with the world,.,eg feeding the hungry and responding to the needy and unjustly treated person. He also reminded the churches of their identity as Gods people, He continued to emphasize that Christianity’s central focus should be the church-community.. Only Christ and the church can ground the Christian life.

Bonhoeffer tried to stand in the front of the public . After Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer  intended to address the public,  warning  the German people of the immorality of the states actions and of coming disasters. He saw sins and salvation on both individual and corporate levels.

Bonhoeffer also believed justice and peace are embodied in institutions, which means that injustice and violence are often structural.

.               Niebuhr talked little but church. Since Niebuhr saw the Kingdom of God as in the future , different, distant from the world we are  now. He argues that the Christian churches are not pacifist because the Bible does not advocate pacifism as a way for Christians to live in this world. It advocates it only as a representation of the kingdom of God,. These can never be the same. Pacifism is itself an unjust way of ordering a society because it does not address the problems such as getting rid of bullies

He was a pragmatist. He was interested to make the society a more just place (in his way). He believed moral responsibility required that force be used to overcome the bullies. Such as US to enter into war to end wars. ‘making the world safer for democracy is a justifiable end. His pragmatism made him appealing to Washington, there seem to be a ‘Christian solution’ to every political problem.

Martin Luther King’s education from liberals taught him that Christian churches have an obligation to work for social justice. His whole effort is to make a change in the social , legal , constitutional systems.

King believed every government has beholden to God, and therefore was called to govern justly.

King strongly believed in non violence love as a strategy for social change. Agape is the core of Christian discipleship. Non violence is grounded in agape which is a unifying power; it does not destroy. He was moved by Gandhi love is more powerful than hatred; that mercy is greater than revenge; and truth more life-giving than deception. Both Gandhi and Jesus proposed a model of social change that was built on suffering and patience. The power of nonviolence, direct action, is complementary to the ‘way of the cross”

3 Differences and similarities of these two school of thoughts

3.1. Addressing different arena – mostly political change

I think they key differences cause these two school of thoughts is greatly impacted by the political events and aspects of ethics they were trying to deal with. The pragmatists need to take more public actions as  they were challenging the social system and dealing with social issues  eg Barth on constitutional democracy, Bonhoeffer on structural institutional of justice and peace, King on social injustice and Niebuhr making society a more just place.

It is not true that the character ethics theologians did not care about ethics to church and community . As we have seen above, they did presented views aligned and integrated both individual and community. McClendon and Yoder prepared to deal with injustice. Hauerwas advocated the church to be a political body. However, they took a different approach.

McClendon emphasized on  pursing ‘solidarity’ and Yoder’s witness to the community being faithfulness. Character ethic theologians grounded not only on the views but ‘solutions’ on Jesus.

3.2. Jesus as the model

The character ethics are proponents of non violence means – they all focus Jesus as the core foundation. However, even among the Pragmatists  they are divided into violence and non violence means. King held very high standard of love and non violence . Unfortunately Niebuhr believed force is the only means. Bonhoeffer with the plan to assassinate Hitler also chose a violence means. I think a key difference is how they see Jesus  and the act of God in history.

King held Jesus as a model of social change that was built on suffering and patience. The power of nonviolence, direct action, is complementary to the ‘way of the cross”. That is what he followed. However, Niebuhr only looked at Jesus as a Savior rather than an example and did not see him before politically relevant. Contrary to his brother, Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr did not see God in control of history and only see Kingdom of God in as in the future.

Niebuhr commented “precisely because we have no way of knowing whether, or if so, how, God acts in history, that we must act, and we must do so to the very highest moral standards possible. Ultimately, God will redeem us out of history, but for now we must learn to act within the confines and contingencies of history”

Thus he turned to ‘his’ means and act according to his own accord more even though he has the famous serenity prayer !

3.3. Kingdom of God

Another important factor is whether one believe the Kingdom of God is in the future or in present. Clearly King and McCelendor see they are contributing to the Kingdom now as opposed to Niebuhr who believe the Kingdom is for the future.

4. Conclusions

Accessing the background , thoughts and the extend they see Christians ethics on influencing the church, community and society, I actually see more similarities across the two thoughts – ie grounded on Jesus, having the hope and patience, seeing we are already in the Kingdom. There are more similarities of the character ethics proponents to focus on witness and deeply grounded on  Jesus. But we can also found that in the pragmatists.

While all of the pragmatists are common in driving changes and influence to the social, institutional systems, the key different lies in their means. Why was that different , is how he see Jesus’s relevancy in politics, still in action now and whether the kingdom is ‘not for now’. Most notably Niebuhr had a different view with most of the others which he did not see positively to the above.

I think Niebuhr’s approach and interruption is wrong. Jesus does not only teach good ethic character, He was an example making social change at the time. More importantly , He is still present to guide us, to make things work. The Kingdom of God is not fully realized , thus it is important we do our best but also has hope and faith and patience that the final justice will be realized one day.

We also need to have faith –as McClendon pointed out we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. He turned us to  a new era with new rule even thought it is not fully realized. God is in charge of directing the affairs of history.

The kingdom of God is ‘performative’ – it is God’s performance in which we actively participate. To me, I think there is not a set path in either character ethic or pragmatic for everyone. The critical learning is depending what talent, roles , ability, influence God grant us and under what areas we can contribute and participate in God’s plan. The focus shall always be grounded on Jesus. Have faith, hope and patience. We are not there to ‘fix’ injustice and problems of the world. We are in God’s plan and do our best until the Kingdom fully realized.


Last Updated on Thursday, 04 April 2013 23:31
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