The Myth of Christian Moral Guidance
The title of that Time piece was of course click-bate for me. The author goes on to make a point that should be obvious to most of us.
Before the election, for instance, Pope Francis repeatedly denounced the building of walls as un-Christian. “Dear brothers and sisters—all walls fall,” he cautioned in November , echoing his blunt statement about wall-building from February 2016: “This is not the gospel.” Yet on the morning of Trump’s inauguration, in stark contrast to the pope, Pastor Robert Jeffress praised the building of walls as sanctioned by the Bible. “[The] first step of rebuilding the nation was the building of a great wall,” Jeffress said , referring to the prophet Nehemiah’s work building a wall around Jerusalem. “You see, God is not against building walls!”
Violence and walls aren’t the only issues that divide the faithful. Christian leaders and laity have been split by every fundamental ethical question: abortion, torture, divorce, the rights of both slaves and the LGBTQ community, women’s suffrage. And of course, the same is true of every religion: Just as there are Christianities, not Christianity, so too there are Buddhisms, Judaisms, Hinduisms and Islams, and the inexorable march of history will produce countless others.
This of course breeds skepticism about the power of religion to shape behavior. If religious people can’t agree on what is good then what good is religion?
A lot of attention then gets turned to a holy book, in the case of Christianity the Bible. The hope is that reading the book a certain way will dispel the conflict and usually bring your religious opponent to heal according to your reading of it. This proves similarly frustrating.
Part of our difficulty is that we tend to look upon the religious/ethical landscape of the USA through the lens of the secular media. Because not all reporters have much experience with religion and because the media has an economic incentive to be inflammatory they usually create straw-men alignments
This arrangement like all stereotypes has a certain amount of validity but if you look too closely you’ll immediately see problems. One of the most glaring is that it ignores what is by far the nation’s largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic church which is pro-life, pro-refugee, against the Trump wall and has a long and complex tradition of Bible reading and interpretation.
How good can the stereotype be if it doesn’t even hold for the largest denomination in the country?
All of this in some ways makes the point for the article I began with. What is the point of referring to the Bible when the Bible doesn’t seem to produce the kind of agreement we assume it should.
Christian Smith, a sociologist who teaches at Notre Dame makes this point in his book The Bible Made Impossible.
My line of reasoning in this book will run as follows. First, I will argue that most biblicist claims are rendered moot by a more fundamental problem (which few biblicists ever acknowledge) that undermines all the supposed achievements of biblicism: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics. My suggestion is that it becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters. Authority implies and requires definitive instruction, direction, or guidance. As the nineteenth-century Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge stated, “If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible.” But definitive instruction, direction, or guidance is precisely what pervasive interpretive pluralism precludes.
Smith, Christian. Bible Made Impossible, The: Moving from Biblicism to a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Kindle Locations 108-116). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The Mouth of God doesn’t resolve the problem
In response to this people yearn or pray that God somehow “turn on the light” or “make his will known” so that all this disagreement would disappear like valley fog before the bright California sun. We often wish that “God would show up” and that it would all get resolved.
In wishing this we forget this this is precisely what Christianity asserts God did. He sent his son, he showed up, and the pervasive interpretive pluralism did not evaporate.
Someone might say “well that is because he came incognito. If he showed up glowing like the sun throwing lightening bolts then surely we would believe” but that too is addressed in the Bible. Yhwh comes down on Sinai and very quickly the reaction of the people who he just rescued from slavery is “make Him stop!”
We see similar results when Jesus does outlandish miracles. Both Jesus disciples and curious but uncommitted observers might have moments of belief but it seems that the fog very quickly returns and their clarity about who and what Jesus is is quickly lost.
A Divine Law does not resolve the problem
So then we might imagine that if only God would speak and tell us the rules then we would follow them and all our problems would disappear. If God would just be clear and then consistently enforce them THEN everything would be good. But isn’t this exactly the setup of the book of Deuteronomy? The experiment of Israel seems to scream out the point that the problems are deeper than all of the solutions that come to mind. We are a hopelessly embattled species who cannot bring ourselves to agreement on “the facts” never mind “the good”.
The Sermon on the Mount
For the last two weeks (miracles, beatitudes) we’ve been talking about the invasion of God’s kingdom upon the earth announced and enacted by Jesus. The biblical gospels all reveal that Jesus disrupted the status quo of the religious/political culture war of his time and place. Those around him couldn’t easily place him with any of the warring factions so because of this he was labeled differently by different sides.
- The religious isolationists saw him as contaminated by his contact with people they considered sinful and corrupt.
- Political insurgents saw him as weak because he didn’t advocate violence against the Roman occupation
- Cultural insurgents considered him too soft on the corrupting influence of the culture on God’s people in God’s holy land
- Roman authorities eventually crucified him with insurgents as a political favor
Even before the political authorities took an active interest in him he was in hot water with the conflicted religious factions. This is clear by how he begins this section of the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:17–20 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
We might begin by asking “who is thinking that? ” and “what actions of his are leading people to think that?”
Clearly Jesus by his actions is not fitting into the expectations of many of those watching what he’s doing and listening to what he is saying. He is clearly getting pegged by some conservative religious groups as someone who isn’t keeping the law.
When I first to read the Bible with interest as a young adult I was always annoyed by the kinds of stories the Gospels had about Jesus. What did I care bout first century Judean sabbath or cleanliness observance. I wanted Jesus to give insider information for the issues I was interested in in the 1980s.
I could in my imagination cast Jesus as a rebel, thereby aligning him against the legalisms I felt were excessive, unloving or unkind. Continuing to read the Sermon on the Mount, however, would reveal that Jesus is not morally flexible but in a certain way more demanding than the most strident reading of the Mosaic covenant. He was both more compassionate AND more demanding, and that didn’t make much sense to me.
Jesus here makes the point to his listeners that he isn’t simply an accommodationist as his conservative critics held. Something else was happening.
Exegetical Contextual Amnesia
We’re about to enter the part of the Sermon on the Mount that Virginia Stem Owen’s students found most objectionable. Many have read this part of the sermon as Jesus setting down a new set of rules, updating the rules that Moses gave but now he’s tightening them.
- Anger and contempt are against his law, not just killing
- lust is against his law, not just adultery
- no divorce allowed
- now vow taking
- turning the other cheek, no self-defense
- rolling over to your enemies
When we see this list we begin to believe that Jesus is either an outrageous moralist or simply insane. None of this seems advisable never mind workable in this brutal world we live in. If these are Jesus’ new rules then what’s the point of listening to anything more of what he says. It seems that many who heard him thought precisely this.
What we have done, however, is immediately forget the ending of Matthew 4 or the beatitudes. Jesus is talking about an invasion by God into a world in rebellion against Him. The miracles demonstrated that no material opposition can hold back this assault. The beatitudes illustrated the radical availability of this kingdom to all. Now what are we to make of this ethical assault that looks not only impractical but quite possibly unjust.
The Project of Righteousness
In Matthew 5:20 Jesus tells his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees or they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This is surprising given the charge that we assume he’s addressing that his actions have lead people to believe that he is loosening the Mosaic law, a reputation that is commonly held about Jesus even today. Moses was a legalist, Jesus understood and therefore just shrugs and says “it’s all good”.
Part of the problem is that we don’t use the world “righteousness” much at all, and usually if we do it is after the prefix “self” as in “self-righteousness”. Righteousness has the connotation of personal piety or religiosity. We have the image of the SNL church lady.
Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy notes how the word in Greek behind “righteousness” dikaiosune was the center of intense interest in the Greek world of trying to figure out what was good and what made some people good and some people bad.
Jesus’ account of dikaiosune, or of being a really good person, is given in Matt. 5: 20– 48. We need to stop for a comment on this special term that plays such a large part in the thought world of classical and Hellenistic Greek culture, as well as in the language of the Bible and in the early form of Christianity that emerged to conquer the Greco-Roman world of the second and third centuries.
The search for something deeper had become a serious intellectual and spiritual project in the Mediterranean world by the fifth century B.C. or even earlier. That search was, in fact, worldwide in scope, but nowhere did it achieve a higher result than in the great prophets of Israel, such as Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.
Its first thorough and systematic treatment within the powers of human reason is found in Plato’s Republic, which would be more accurately translated The City. This book is really a study of the human soul and of the condition in which the soul must be in order for human beings to live well and manage to do what is right. The condition required is called, precisely, dikaiosune in the Republic. This is exactly the term that Jesus centers on in his Discourse on the Hill, as we have it in the Greek language. It is usually translated “justice” in Plato’s texts. But this is, once again, an unfortunate translation, for dikaiosune is only indirectly related to what we today understand by justice.
The best translation of dikaiosune would be a paraphrase: something like “what that is about a person that makes him or her really right or good.” For short, we might say “true inner goodness.” Plato (following Socrates) tries to give a precise and full account of what this true inner goodness is.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy (p. 145). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
δικαιοσύνη represents the second stage of word construction in relation to δίκη-δίκαιος. Words in -σύνη date from the beginning of abstract thought. This helps us to understand why a term not found in Homer or Hesiod occurs frequently as a virtue in the post-epic period. We can also see a link between this construction and the development of the Greek sense of law. The very close connexion between legal, ethical and religious terminology results from the central position occupied in early Greek thinking by δίκη as right not merely in the legal, but also the political, the ethical and above all the religious sense
Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 2, p. 192). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
We thus have a mystical conception of virtue. δικαιοσύνη is a δύναμις, a power of virtue with which the regenerate is invested
Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 2, p. 193). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
For Plato dikaiosune was expressed in one’s actions towards others with the Greek city, the unit that gave people their life and identity.
This all gets complicated when we take a look at the Old Testament because by it we look at the relationship between Hebrew writers and the Hebrew language and this term. I’d challenge Willard’s off hand remark about its translation as “justice” here while agreeing with how this works in contemporary language. I think most Americans today would say that justice is public and righteousness private. Most Americans would say that justice is fairness or equality and righteousness character and integrity. The public/private dynamic would be denied by Plato and Jesus here.
The two Hebrew words often translated in the Old Testament as “justice” and “righteousness” often are found together but they are not synonyms.
Justice and Righteousness
An interesting place to check out the usage of the Hebrew and the translation into the Greek dikaiosune is in Genesis 18 and 19.
In Genesis 18 we have a text where the regular practice of God’s justice is operating. In the Old Testament God regularly responds with justice by bringing judgment upon the oppressors of the earth. God heard the cries of the children of Israel oppressed in slavery in Egypt. God is very often said to hear and respond to the cries of the oppressed and does so by bringing violent justice against the power of the world who enjoy wealth and privilege at the expense of the poor and the weak. This was the case for God’s judgment against Nineveh in the book of Jonah and his case against Sodom in Genesis.
Genesis 18:20–23 (NIV)
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” 22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Here in this moment we have what seems to be a clash between the justice of God to defend the poor and the righteousness of some, Lot in this case that should stay the hand of justice.
Righteousness seems to be something that God possesses. It is his character but is also a power. It is complex in that it may be manifest in an act of justice, like doing violence against violent oppressors, or it may be manifest in something like mercy which works to rescue guilty people and save them.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament Lot thanks the angel that rescued him for his dikaiosune.
Genesis 19:18–19 (LES)
18 Lot said to them, “I pray, Lord, 19 since your servant found mercy before you and you increased your righteousness, which you are doing concerning me, in order that my soul might live, but I will not be able to come safe to the mountain. Let not the bad things lay hold of me, and I die.
God’s righteousness was at work both in him enacting justice against the city AND in his rescue of Lot.
Righteousness and the Law
Now we can see the relationship between righteousness and the Law. Jesus comes not to overthrow the law but to fulfill it.
We can imagine that the Law was given because Israel requested and needed explicit instruction on how to live with God (See Exodus-Deuteronomy). The law itself was a manifestation of God’s righteousness. It is no secret or mystery how and why Israel could not fulfill the law.
Now Jesus has come announcing the invasion of this rebel world by its maker and owner. Jesus has show in his miracles one side of what this looked like, the side that John the Baptists struggled to understand. Jesus announced the Good News in the Beatitudes that nothing can stand against this invasion and Jesus is radically available to all and all are radically vulnerable to him. Now he wants to illustrate what this kingdom looks like when it comes to ethics. By it he shows that the source and power of this righteousness actually goes beyond, overflows and fulfills the heart of this Mosaic law.
Dallas Willard nicely summarizes it in this chart.
Jesus goes right to the source of where all human strife and enmity begin and shows how this invading righteousness goes beyond.
We would imagine that this would be welcomed as a good thing but Jesus’ life should illustrate that it often is not.
Why God’s Righteousness Annoys and Offends
We set up systems to try to create justice and goodness but try as we might all of our systems fail.
Consider how we try to manage nearly every area of human civilization or community and how even our best solutions to things fall short at the extremes.
Divorce makes the list because it was an issue of contention in Jesus day just as it is today. In that society a man could divorce his wife of she displeased him. It could be anything from burning the food or aging or annoyance. This was hard on women because if she was divorced there were few good economic and social options for her. She might remarry if she were young enough but her status would be diminished. She might find a family member to move in with but she’d likely be put to work as a servant just above the level of a slave. Beyond that she’s likely have to resort to begging, gleaning or prostitution.
Because this seems cruel you make divorce more difficult. What do you do then? You might trap women or men in abusive relationships.
Well then you decide to allow divorce of a judge grants it. Soon, however, both the judge and the rest of us see that in many cases no one can realistically adjudicate such an intimate conflict, figuring out who you find fault with. Then you decide on no-fault divorce but then you realize that people are divorcing because at one moment they decide “it doesn’t work for me” and children and others are hurt in the process, so then you raise the bar again, and round and round we go. There is no way to legislate the kind of righteousness we need.
It also explains the pervasive interpretive pluralism because there are endless spheres in which which legislation or administration fall short. We are hopelessly befuddled, biased, unable to create and secure the kind of well-being our hearts call for.
The Example of C Everett Koop
C Everett Koop was a pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia. His wife was a church goer and so he started going with her to an evening service to get her off his back. When he first started going he thought “How can people believe this stuff…” Things started happening in his life, he kept going, and a few years later to his own surprise he began to realize “I believe this stuff.”
He begins to identify with his church tribe and become against abortion. Because he’s against abortion he gets attention from the Republicans and Ronald Reagan nominates him for Surgeon General. The political opposition did what you would expect. A NY Times editorial called him “Dr. Unqualified”.
Into the Reagan administration gay men began to die of pneumonia at an alarming rate. Some evangelical leaders began to declare this to be the judgment of God on a degenerate population. They were getting what they deserved. C. Everett Koop, however, became an advocate for studying and addressing this new epidemic. The man who was reviled for being against abortion began to be hailed by the left for his work on what would eventually be called AIDS. See the Atlantic article on this.
How can we understand this? There was a righteousness at work that didn’t fit out systems. It didn’t fit our categories. It was something that could both be expressed in justice but also mercy.
Misery: Losers at the Law
We have a complex relationship with the law. On one hand it reveals the righteousness of God to us. This was not a hidden truth. When Jesus was asked to summarize the law he gave what at that time was a standard answer. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In that answer we see that the Law is a result of God’s righteousness. Unfortunately not only are we unable to satisfy any manifestation of the law, but we are even worse at satisfying what the law manifests. We have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor.
The Apostle Paul begins the book or Romans in this way.
Romans 1:16–17 (NIV)
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Jesus is the invader. The gates of Hades cannot prevail against him. This righteousness has invaded too by his Holy Spirit. It is the power of God to change us sometimes even when this kind of change is the last thing we want.
Jesus miracles in a way simply come out of the sky, overwhelming the brokenness they heal. Jesus announces blessing to the groups the world counts as least able to fend for themselves. Now Jesus declares that this righteousness of God, this character that moves God to justice and to mercy is invading and if you wish to align yourself with the new regime the standards are no lower than these. Mere compliance with the law is insufficient. We must be changed in our deepest places. We don’t obey the law out of fear, desire to manipulate or appear good but when this righteousness takes hold of us all the way down we genuinely begin to desire to do good. This doesn’t contradict the law but goes far beyond it in the ways that Jesus illustrates in his six points.
This is what the kingdom looks like. We see it in the miracles. We see it in the most unlikely, wretched and evil people turned dramatically around, and the direction they march is remarkable and considered out of place in the power structures of this world. They begin look just like their master.
Now you might say “I am way too far from any of this. I can’t possibly achieve that level of righteousness” and you would be right.
Jesus’ admonitions here are the result of the invasion. This is why they come third in the illustrative sequence after the miracles and the beatitudes. We are as shocked by what Jesus says as his original audience. No one can live up to these standards! This is exactly the place we begin when we turn to face God. We recognize that we are unable to accomplish these things so we turn to God with empty hands recognizing that this righteousness is a gift. It is a power. It is an invasion. We ask that God give it to us and the we respond to his offer of this gift to us in gratitude and begin, to the degree that we are already able, to align with this righteousness in the small baby steps that we can muster.