What Is “Situation Ethics?” What Should Be a Christian’s Response?
When I was a kid growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity in the 1960s there was one great horrible “bugaboo” (cause for fear and alarm) against which we were being warned lest it infect our thinking and lead us down a road to complete personal decadence and eventual loss of salvation: “situation ethics.” I don’t recall anything being as forcefully condemned as that—by my spiritual mentors.
Now, you have to understand a little bit more about the particular flavor of American evangelical Christianity I grew up in and what it was like in the 1960s. Our church youth group was used by pastors, evangelists, denominational speakers who happened to come to our church, to inoculate us teenagers against all things contrary to our particular, very strict, ethical code. That code included the usual ones (not drinking alcoholic beverages, not smoking tobacco, not having pre-marital sex, not thinking “dirty thoughts,” not cursing, etc.) (Even using “minced oaths” was considered cursing and therefore punishable. An example of a “minced oath” we were not allowed to say is “darn.” That was a form of the curse word “damn” and therefore banned from our speech.)
Sometime in the 1960s “situation ethics” loomed very large in our spiritual mentor’s collection of horrible ideas and it was especially attacked because, so it was said, it would lead to the acceptance of every kind of sin—large or small. It was the most sinister secular idea in modern American culture that underlay all the other terrible things happening (e.g., rock music, “hippies,” drug use, “free love,” etc.).
1966 was a watershed year in American culture. Suddenly, so we were told, the whole country began to lose its soul. That was the year Time published its shocking red and black cover issue that said (on the cover) “Is God Dead?” The article was about the so-called “Death of God Theology” or “Christian Atheism” (Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton). It was also the year that Episcopal theologian-ethicist Joseph Fletcher’s little book Situation Ethics: The New Morality was published.
We were not warned as forcefully against “Christian atheism” because it was so manifestly absurd. Yes, we sang songs like “God’s not dead” and had on some church members’ cars bumper stickers that read “My God’s Not Dead! Sorry about Yours!” But, for the most part, that particular movement was not considered such a danger to our adolescent Christianity. Nobody in our religious circles was attracted to it and it was not viewed as “filtering down” to us—at least not in the same way as “situation ethics.”
Numerous speakers at youth gatherings railed against situation ethics. The normal description of it was “Do whatever feels good because all rules are oppressive.” It was described as the ultimate justification for the hedonism that lay dormant, or came to life, in every human soul. There was really nothing worse—for us—than situation ethics because of its insidious nature and attraction. I remember some of my spiritual mentors saying that the above description of it did not always come through so blatantly, but that it was the essence and inevitable result of situation ethics.
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Later, I don’t recall exactly when, I actually read Fletcher’s book for myself. I remember thinking that it was not actually as bad as I had been told. Its essence, as I recall (I don’t have a copy ready to hand) was the principle laid down by Saint Augustine “Love and do as you please.” (“Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12”)
Unlike Augustine and Luther, however, Fletcher seemed to toss out rules or at least reduce mature Christian ethics to needing no rules. Like them, however, he did emphasis love as the sole moral-ethical absolute for Christians.
Just lately I have been reading a lot of Augustine and Luther. Some of it I’ve read before; some of it is new to me. For example, if I ever before read all of Luther’s “Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation” I have forgotten it. I know I’ve read parts of it before, but this time I read all of it. And toward its end there are some pretty shocking thoughts about, for example, marriage with some exceptions made to prevailing norms (both Christian and civil).
Am I suggesting that Augustine and Luther ought to be categorized as “situation ethicists?” Hardly. What I am suggesting is that there is some common ground between them and Fletcher’s proposal. The major difference is rules. As I recall, Fletcher portrayed all rules as flexible, able rightly to be violated in the name of love depending on the circumstances. I do not think Augustine or Luther would go along with that. They would see the obvious dangers in it.
First of all, though, as I read them, both Augustine and Luther in some of their writings on ethics emphasized principles over rules. In other words, if a mature and truly converted Christian should happen to find a conflict between love rightly understood and a venerable rule, whether Christian or civil, he or she could rightly violate the rule and abide by the demands of love.
Neither Augustine nor Luther, however, left such a decision solely in the hands of individuals; both emphasized Christian community as the context in which such unusual ethical decisions should be made. “Lone ranger Christianity” was foreign to them while it seemed to be a part of Fletcher’s overall ethical thinking.
Stickier, however, are some cases in which both great Christian thinkers allowed violations of rules commonly accepted as universal and absolute Christian norms for behavior and conduct—insofar as violating them is the only way to act out of love. By “love” they did not mean “romantic love” or lust, of course, but love of neighbor within the wider context of love for all of God’s creatures. Both treated love—as they defined it—as the sole absolute for Christian ethics. (Both tended to view justice as a form of love.)
Again, a major difference between Augustine and Luther (and one might add Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer!) and Fletcher is the latter’s tendency to believe that a Christian might live without rules. Augustine and Luther believed very strongly in the need for civil and Christian rules to guide and direct Christian living, but they declined to absolutize rules.
However, especially Luther also (to some extent in agreement with Fletcher) emphasized situations, circumstances, contexts in moral decision-making. Not because he was attracted to relativism; far from it! But because he believed that sometimes “God’s will” is not knowable except in the “moment” of moral decision-making. He was adamantly opposed to scholastic casuistry which tended to believe and teach that one could decide God’s will for every specific, concrete situation completely apart from it.
Where does that leave us?
Well, first of all, we could say “Who cares what Augustine and Luther said?” I suspect that would be the approach of my 1960s spiritual mentors and their heirs among fundamentalists. But, then, what is the point of making any distinction between principles and rules and can that really work in such a complicated world? Who has not found it necessary to lie occasionally out of love? A classic example there is Corrie Ten Boom’s story of an argument with her nephew over whether telling the Germans who invaded their home looking for hidden Jews that the Jews were under the dining table constituted truth or a lie. (They were under it—in a hidden cellar.)
Surely Fletcher was right that when innocent life is at stake, lying is justified by love. I could muse about whether the lie is still a sin, but I’ll set that aside because what I’m talking about is what a mature, serious-minded Christian ought to do.
I suspect that my spiritual mentors’ condemnations of “situation ethics” were not bad for me when I was an adolescent. However, later, their caricature of it did tend to make me doubt other things they said and whether they were well-read and well-versed in Christian ethics of just interested in steering me and my peers toward legalistic rule-keeping for our own good.
When speaking to a group of Christian adolescents I would never quote Augustine’s “Love and do as you please” or Luther’s “Sin boldly!” Neither, however, would I teach them that all rules are always good and right and absolute. Any thoughtful, intelligent one of them would doubt that immediately.
As a Christian ethicist I am sometimes asked, both by students (mostly in their mid-20s) and church folks (often who remember Fletcher’s book and the 1960s controversy over it) what I think about “situation ethics.” I always insist on first discussing what is meant by “situation ethics” and explaining that if and insofar as it means discarding all ethical rules and norms except “love,” I am opposed to it. However, if and insofar as it means love reigns supreme over all rules, I have to admit it and say that I have Augustine and Luther on my side.
Now, I realize someone will inevitably ask me for an example. Here’s one; don’t ask me for more. Luther married Prince Philipp of Hesse to a woman while he was still married to another woman. He by default justified bigamy which was technically illegal (within the Holy Roman Empire) and almost universally considered immoral by Christians—both Catholic and Protestant. Luther had his reasons but did not feel the need to explain them all to everyone. I don’t say I agree with Luther; I just offer this as an example of the flexibility with which he treated rules.
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