Christian Ethics 101: What Makes Ethics “Christian”?

I am teaching a five-week course at my Episcopal church on Christian ethics. In tandem with the class, I’m going to post a “Christian Ethics 101″ column on the blog once a week, reflecting on what my class participants and I discussed the previous Sunday.

What do we mean by “Christian ethics”? Ethics in general is a discipline that people of all religious backgrounds, and none, can participate in. In our diverse and pluralistic culture, we frequently call upon very general principles—principles that are not unique to a particular religious or philosophical world view—to help us figure out what actions are and are not “ethical.”

To kick off my Christian ethics class, I asked participants to list principles that the secular culture uses in ethical decision-making, and contrast that list with principles that are explicitly Christian. Here are our two lists:

Secular Principles

Fairness
Reason (We ask, “Is this reasonable?” about a particular ethical stance.)
Cultural norms
Level of harm to self and others (We ask, “What leads to the greatest good/the least harm?”)
Parental values and guidance (“What would my mom/dad do?”)
Autonomy (independence, freedom of choice)
Duty (What allegiance or actions we owe to family, community, nation)
Avoiding or preventing suffering

Christian Principles

Stewardship (caring for what God has entrusted to us)
Sacrifice — putting others ahead of self, doing the right thing even when it means our needs might go unmet
Valuing both self and others as made in God’s image
Respecting self and others because we belong to God
Dignity of all people (every person is valuable because they are made in God’s image)
Community/communal values over individual values
The Baptismal Covenant — staying true to all that we profess when we commit and re-commit to our Baptismal Covenant
The broader idea of “covenant” with God and others — allegiance not just to ourselves and our families, but to God and our community
Compassion (responding to suffering when we see it)

To me, the two principles that best illuminate the difference between how we discuss ethics in a democratic, pluralistic context, and how we discuss ethics in a Christian context, are autonomy and suffering.

A Christian View of Autonomy

Under both secular and Christian thought, we are autonomous beings. We have free will. We make choices. We have an inherent right to govern our lives free of undue coercion, even if such coercion is offered “for our own good” or the good of a wider community.

But Christians must exercise our autonomy within the context of our primary identity as God’s beloved children and as those created in God’s image. We have free will, but we are not free agents, with license to live however we like with no consideration for how our lives are connected to God and others. As Christian bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender explains, “What makes us true individuals…is that God calls us by name. Our individuality is not a personal achievement or power, and —most striking of all—it is established only in community with God. We are most ourselves not when we seek to direct and control our destiny but when we recognize and admit that our life is grounded in and sustained by God.”

Whatever autonomous choices we make, therefore, must remain consistent with the fact that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God. The difference between secular autonomy and Christian autonomy becomes particularly relevant in answering many bioethical questions raised by advancing technology. Technology may allow us to do many things that transcend biological limitations, such as conceive babies with genetic material from three or more parents, predict who is most likely to develop Alzheimer’s, or significantly lengthen human lifespan. Our identity as God’s beloved people created in God’s image forces us to ask whether we should do all that we can do, or whether such technologies lead us too far astray from who God has created us to be.

A Christian View of Suffering

In secular discussion of ethical questions, it is often assumed that relieving or preventing suffering is one of the highest, if not the highest, moral imperative. For example, laws allowing for assisted suicide often make suicide legal only for people with particular types of illnesses in which a significant level of suffering is expected. We perceive the prospective occurrence of terrible suffering as justification for two activities that we don’t condone under other circumstances: taking one’s own life, and allowing doctors to hasten a patient’s death.

Christian theology, however, offers a unique take on suffering. Christ’s death and resurrection illustrate that suffering can be redemptive, that suffering can have meaning, and that suffering is not necessarily the worst possible thing that befalls human beings. This does not mean that we embrace suffering as an unequivocal good, that we are supposed to seek out suffering, or that there is no place in Christian thought for compassionate relief of suffering. But it does mean that we must avoid the temptation to believe that any activity that alleviates suffering is ethical and good. As Meilaender describes, “We must…always be of two minds about [suffering]. We should try to care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose…Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means that is available to us, for a good end does not justify any and all means…to make elimination of suffering our highest priority would be to conclude mistakenly that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. We should not act as if we believe that the negative, destructive powers of the universe are finally victorious.”

Ethics Through a Christian Lens

Starting with these basic understandings of the similarities and differences between secular ethics and Christian ethics, my class and I are going to be discussing several specific ethical issues in the coming weeks. When we talk about ethical quandaries, we often think first of those issues that make for juicy news stories and contentious debates, such as assisted suicide and abortion. But I’ve decided to devote our first few discussions to questions around money. Most of us are likely to confront difficult decisions around topics such as abortion or assisted suicide very rarely, if at all. But every day we make decisions about money—how to earn it, how to spend it, whether and how much to save, whether and how much to give. My next two “Christian Ethics 101″ columns will focus on these and related questions.

 

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Dave

    > But it does mean that we must avoid the temptation to believe that any activity that alleviates suffering is ethical and good.

    Would it be useful to make a distinction between individual suffering (local suffering?), and the total suffering of everyone in the world (global suffering)?

    If an activitiy decreases global suffering, then is it ethical and good?

    If an activity decreases local suffering, but increases global suffering, then is it unethical and bad?

    If an activity increases local suffering, but decreases global suffering, is that the essence of sacrifice?

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m not sure that it can be boiled down to such straightforward equations. I hesitate to make “local suffering” (that is, the well-being or painful sacrifice of individuals) less important in God’s equation than “global suffering” (the well-being or suffering of large groups of people).

      For example, I think that a Christian parent, in the name of doing some great work to alleviate poverty or work against something they see as evil (abortion or the death penalty, for example) might make sacrifices that are damaging and hurtful to his or her family and his or her relationships with family members. I have a friend, for example, who still resents her father’s frequent absences because he was off picketing abortion clinics. While she respects his passion for the cause, the cause became more important than his family, and that hurt. In the name of decreasing “global suffering,” her dad increased the suffering of his family. I can’t agree that this is an unequivocal good.

      While Christianity is a communal faith, one of the remarkable things about it is that we also believe that God cherishes individuals. Often, great damage can be done in the name of communal good. While Christians might have a different perspective on autonomy than the wider culture, we do still believe that God created us as autonomous, dignified, beloved individuals. The Gospel message is not that we must hurt ourselves (or accept hurt to ourselves) to make the world better. It’s that if we are willing to care for the “other” AS WE DO OURSELVES, then everyone will have what they need, everyone will be cared for. The people who willingly handed over their loaves and fishes didn’t end up starving. They ended up feasting alongside their brothers and sisters.

      • Dave

        > I’m not sure that it can be boiled down to such straightforward equations.

        Me neither. I think one difficulty is judging whether something reduces global suffering or not. Individual suffering is a little easier to tell (“the pain is gone, my meds are working!”), although not always (“will having an abortion decrease my suffering, or will it only add to it?”).

        > I have a friend, for example, who still resents her father’s frequent absences because he was off picketing abortion clinics.

        That’s a good example: the father increased local suffering for his family, but did his picketing actually decrease global suffering, or did it increase it, or did it not make a difference at all? I can’t tell.

        > The Gospel message is not that we must hurt ourselves (or accept hurt to ourselves) to make the world better. It’s that if we are willing to care for the “other” AS WE DO OURSELVES, then everyone will have what they need, everyone will be cared for. The people who willingly handed over their loaves and fishes didn’t end up starving. They ended up feasting alongside their brothers and sisters.

        Hmm. I’m not sure that it’s entirely as clear as that. What about “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13? Someone who does that doesn’t end up feasting alongside his brothers or sisters.

        Also, if Jesus had cared for others as he did himself, I think he would have had to nail others to crosses.

        It would be nice if we could decrease global suffering in such a way as to always decrease individual suffering, but I think that sometimes an individual has to suffer in order to make the whole world a better place. For example, Jesus dying on the cross, or Hitler getting killed at the end of WWII. Yikes! Jesus and Hitler as examples of the same principle!

        • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

          “What about “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13? Someone who does that doesn’t end up feasting alongside his brothers or sisters.” – Yup. You’re right. There are definitely times when loving others requires us to allow harm to come to ourselves. I think one of the hardest things for us to figure out is when this level of sacrifice is called for, and when sacrificing of one’s own well-being is misplaced.

          • Dave

            > There are definitely times when loving others requires us to allow harm to come to ourselves.

            Pregnancy and childbirth might be really good examples of that.

            > I think one of the hardest things for us to figure out is when this level of sacrifice is called for, and when sacrificing of one’s own well-being is misplaced.

            Yep, agree totally with that.

  • bookdragon

    I think if you had divided this as secular/religious it would make more sense to me. Honestly, ‘baptismal covenant’ is the only principle in the list that I see as being specifically Christian. (Other than baptismal covenant, all of the ‘Christian’ principles fit just as well in Judaism, for instance).

    Sacrifice and compassion are also secular ethics. Regardless of their faith or lack thereof, parents sacrifice for their children, soldiers, police and firefighters sacrifice to protect others, etc. The word ‘hero’ is used by secular society to describe those who sacrifice for the sake of others. People who are ruthless and cruel are looked down upon in secular society and caring about the feelings/well-being of others is taught as virtue in secular public schools. (And honestly, I meet more non-Christians than Christians volunteering in animal rescue).

    The dignity of all people has often been recognized as a virtue earlier by the non-religious (who had no scripture they could interpret to say that God liked them best) than by the religious. ‘Valuing self and others’ and ‘respecting self and others’ are ethics taught in every dojo I’ve ever belonged to, most of which were religious only in that the sensei was a Buddhist.

    Likewise, the principles involving community/communal values can be found in non-Christian, and even purely secular, societies.

    I don’t disagree with your longer discussions on suffering and autonomy, but again, they are unique to Christianity as other faiths view things in the same way.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Absolutely agreed. Many values overlap secular/religious and Christian/other religions. Also, the lists my class and I came up with were simply a brainstorming, not necessarily exhaustive!

      But while many values overlap secular and religious/Christian ethics, I do think that there is a difference between secular and Christian/religious ethics when it comes to interpretation and emphasis—how we assess sacrifice and when sacrifice is called for and when it’s not, for example, as well as what values we emphasize over others. I also believe that the redemptive nature of suffering as exemplified by Christ dying on the cross IS unique to Christianity. Even if other religions and secular thought recognize that suffering can be redemptive and that good can arise from bad, God himself taking on the world’s pain in order to redeem that world is unique. I have a friend, who is a theologian, who says that the Christian view of suffering is the key to why he is a Christian, because he believes it says something unique about God’s relationship to humans. Also, one of my pet peeves is how the redemptive nature of suffering is misapplied in both Christian and secular circles, via such cliches as “Everything happens for a reason” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” both of which are bad theology and terrible pastoral care!

      But fundamentally, yes, I agree that these values transcend many categories and are common to many ways of approaching ethics. I do think it’s important, though, that Christians think long and hard about the specific applications of these values in ethical decision-making. There is no doubt in my mind, for example, that our culture emphasizes autonomy (freedom of choice) a greater extent than Christian ethics does without sufficient weight being given to our “belongingness” to God and others. And it’s also very common in bioethical discussions for people to name the alleviation of suffering as the highest moral imperative, but this is NOT the highest moral imperative for Christians. That’s a vital distinction as we grapple with medical technology and the ethical questions it raises.

  • bookdragon

    Arg – meant to say ‘not unique’ in the last sentence

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Ellen, you’ve hit on a subject near and dear to my heart. For over a decade I have been very involved with ethics in my profession, serving on the California Judges Association judicial ethics committee, teaching judicial ethics to other judges statewide (three classes coming up next month as a matter of fact), and even drafting curriculum to be used by others in teaching ethics. Ethics as codified for the California judiciary (http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/ca_code_judicial_ethics.pdf) and biblical ethics that apply to Christians are often in confluence but also diverge at times.

    It’s a fascinating subject for me to work through. Glad you are getting a chance to do the same, and that you are bringing it here for us as well.

    Tim

    • Dave

      > Ethics as codified for the California judiciary (http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/ca_code_judicial_ethics.pdf) and biblical ethics that apply to Christians are often in confluence but also diverge at times.

      Is that a problem for judges? Or is there a standard way to handle that (by recusing oneself, etc)?

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I hope you’ll chime in with your expertise when it’s appropriate, Tim. I am most definitely an amateur!

  • RuQu

    Do try and be careful when leading these secular vs Christian discussions to avoid an “us vs them” mentality.

    Many of the topics your group came up with under Christian I would consider secular. Sacrifice, Dignity of all people, respect for self and others, stewardship, community values / community before self. These come across as Christian specifically because of the conditions tacked onto the end. ie: Dignity of all people *because they are made in God’s image.* The secular person would simply say “Dignity of all people, because they are people.”

    I realize this was just a brainstorm in a group and isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but the group is inherently biased since it is a group of Christians and not a discussion panel between Christians and non-Christians. It is easy in these cases to start thinking that being Christian gives a certain level of ethical superiority, not because your ethics actually differ but because lack of a non-Christian perspective allows you to think that they differ.

    • RuQu

      I wish I could edit. I wanted to specifically mention that environmentalists are heavy on stewardship, but are often not Christian. Most groups in the world believe that the individual owes something to the community, or that community values trump personal values, regardless of faith or lack thereof. Every developed nation except the US is opposed to the death penalty and has nationalized health care for everyone because they see those policies as fundamental to human dignity and quality of life, even though the US is far more Christian than most of those nations. These might be Christian ethics, but they aren’t unique to Christianity and America’s Religious Right often opposes many of these very policies for reasons that are not entirely clear to the observer.


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