Lesson 19: The Right Questions

Moral Man, Immoral SocietyIn last week’s comments, Don pushed us in the right direction when he observed that we ask the wrong question by responding to Jesus’ “return good for evil” with inquiries about self-defense. Anne, Bob, and Derek already started us in that direction with their objections to the passiveness we usually associate with nonviolent resistance. Quite frankly, I can not remember reading any Christian ethic giving more than a paragraph or two to self defense. What I do recall echoes last week’s comments. If you want to read a classic treatment, use Rita’s link for Frida Berrigan’s reflection on responding to violence.

Don suggested the right questions revolve around how to stop bad guys from getting guns and how to stop them from becoming bad in the first place. I would build on that proposing the deeper question is: “What is redemptive action; how do we make evil good?” That requires a positive, not passive response.

A few weeks ago Bob noted the critical turning point was Constantine’s legitimizing the Church in the fourth century. We no longer had the luxury of living as pacifists while pagans defended us from violent attackers. Now we had to assume the responsibility of citizenship. You see a similar situation when the Amish end their education at eighth grade but send their sick children to highly educated doctors.

The fourth century change led theologians to make a distinction between private and public life. Killing, such as capital punishment and war, was reserved for those authorized by society. They acknowledged, as Paul did in Romans 13, that God gave government a role in creation. The issue became not whether self defense was allowed, but whether your actions were a form of vengeance or vigilantism and whether they denied governmental authority. That is perhaps the primary error of LaPierre’s “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a guy.” It promotes vigilantism that gives individuals the right to kill, because government can not be trusted.

Modern technology blurs this important private-public distinction by introducing cheap, easily accessible, and powerful tools and techniques. That is evident in the gun control issue, but even more with the angry public debate about abortion that gives an individual the right to kill some form of life.

Technology also challenges the private-public distinction used in just war theory. Soon after Constantine, the Church tried to control violence by insisting only legitimate governments, not private groups, could declare and engage in wars. Powerful weapons and easy mobility now enable groups of thugs to attack a nation, often leading that nation to declare war on another nation rather than taking police action against the thugs. Drones and cyber attacks enable warfare without declaration. International corporations without any legitimate authority engage in international affairs. It is not hard to see this often takes the form of vengeance. Governments and corporations act like the barbarian Lamech, bragging “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” (Genesis 4:23, 24)

This brings up what might be the most important ethical issue of our time: how to make institutions accountable by bringing the private-public distinction up to date. Myron, speaking from his background in Foreign Service, often reminds me that Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, a Christian ethic, has appeared on lists of important public diplomacy works for decades. Many politicians, including presidents Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, and Obama, acknowledge this is the text by which they understand their role as Christian statesmen.

As the title indicates, Niebuhr believes we cannot expect moral action from institutions. His argument has been used for over fifty years to bypass institutional responsibility. It fails to acknowledge their God-given role in creation and their potential for redemption if they fail to fulfill that proper function. Surely that function is not only for corporations to make profits for its share holders and governments to act solely from self interest.

In order to participate in restoring a proper balance between private and public, the Church must find the courage to speak prophetically to our institutions. Where do you think she should start? What is the prophetic word the Church must speak to institutions, such as government and corporations?

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    I read Niebuhr 50 years ago. I don’t recall that he said that we can’t expect moral actions from institutions (perhaps he did). I recall his point was that the ethics of individual morality don’t apply simply to institutions. I assume the conclusion of this is not to leave institutions in a moral abyss, but to formulate an ethics that is relevant and forceful them.

    People may fight over issues of individual morality with the motive to maintain power and authority that the new ethics may undermine. Institutions may well oppose changes in institution morality not merely over issue of power and authority but also on the issue of maintaining financial hegemony. It is pretty clear why corporations are underwriting folks who deny the onset of Global Warming.

    It is hard to fight for change against traditional power and authority. Add financial power and resources to the mix, and a new institution morality becomes even more problematic.

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