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Category: Faith in a Wounded World

Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

There is dramatic showdown between a prophet and state religion supported by the royal palace narrated in the Old Testament. 1 Kings 18 tells the account of a faithful person of God in conflict with the 450 representatives of Baal on a mountain of Israel. We need to remember that the worship of Baal was promoted by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The royal palace issued orders to seek and kill prophets of Yahweh.

The Biblical account narrates that God responded to Elijah’s prayers in a way that was decisive, powerful, and political. There was no doubt that God had triumphed over the forces of evil.

The fire on Mount Carmel matches our longing that God will reveal himself in power and strength in our own time. I find that prayerful desire expressed in Isaiah 64.

 

Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

So that the mountains would quake at your presence….

To make your name known to your adversaries,

So that the nations might tremble at your presence.

 

I read these words from Isaiah as a statement of despair about the world coupled with faith in God. The prayer comes out of a context of confusion and disappointment. It was uttered during a time when public and individual morality were on shaky ground. There was little confidence in national leaders outside their tight circles of sycophants. People of faith felt marginalized and weak.

People of faith had felt this way during the time of Elijah. They were on the losing side in contests of power.  The civic religion of Baal had become dominant in the nation. King Ahab was corrupt. Elijah was forced into exile in Phoenicia during the purge of Yahweh’s prophets. He knew that Ahab had search parties in surrounding countries with orders to kill him.

Elijah kept his faith during the dark period of marginalization and threats to his life. I am attracted to his faith and his faithfulness. I am reminded that Jesus spoke about resiliency using the phrase steadfast endurance. I need this virtue in my life and witness.

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Stress

Stress

2017 has been a rough year for many people around me. I understand. It is hard to be optimistic about the world around us, and, at times, our own participation in it.

We all deal with different forms of stress. The tensions we feel may come from troubled relationships, employment demands, health issues, financial difficulties, and the general state of the world. Under stress, most of us function at a reduced level. We may find ourselves going through the motions of our vocation without being fully in the game. We show up as required, but our hearts are not engaged. We perform our duties but with the nagging sense that something is missing.

I gave attention to the relationship between stress and resiliency of international workers a few years ago. I have a respect for those people who answer the Spirit’s prompting to work in the borderland areas of our world. The communities of the poor face immense issues. Let me name a few; lack of food security, contaminated water, unstable employment, ethnic violence, gender prejudices,the prevalence of disease, inadequate housing, the education of children, and the oppression of the rich. At some point, community development workers may become discouraged and despondent. They may show up for work but retreat to their homes when the day is over. They prefer reports to relationships. Drug dependency, alcohol addiction, and family problems may add further elements of stress.

A chronic illness brought my international career to an end in 2011. I now live in Canada and have many opportunities to observe similar patterns of stress in our country. Pastors, social workers, and community agents seek to participate in individual and social transformation. At the same time, they must deal with their own stuff along with workloads that may seem insurmountable. The best of us go through dry patches. Some of us are worn out and emotionally empty. We wonder if we can ever regain what we lost.

Jesus taught his followers to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18.1). I have been wondering what that means for me and my colleagues called to vocations of service and witness. Please allow me to give a few thoughts that I am trying to apply to my own life:

First, prayer means something more than simply SOS calls that ask God to bless your to-do list for the day. Prayer involves locating yourself in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The intimacy with God allows us to share our emotions, our emptiness, and our confusion. God never looks at the clock on the wall and rushes his child away to work. Ruth Padilla DeBorst recently invited us to engage in lament with the Lord. She reminded us that we can lay before God the brokenness of the world and the wounds of our hearts. We can express a profound sense of grief and ask the Spirit to transform our broken hearts. We can ask God for new eyes through which to see his presence and work in the world around us.

Second, we can confess that we have lost heart. We know it. People around us probably sense it. God certainly holds us in sight and understands that we need renewal. The Spirit specializes in heart work. But finding heart again takes time and some deliberate decisions about priorities. One small suggestion that I have is to spend time with positive people. Last Sunday night, Regine and I had dinner with friends in Christian ministry. Each of us had personal struggles that were weighing us down in one way or another. The time together, with good food and laughter, made our hearts light. Each of us shared about a moment in which we experienced grace in the past month. We felt God’s presence through the testimonies that we heard.

 

Pray. Do not lose heart. I want to carry these words of Jesus into the last two months of 2017.

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When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

Racism and prophetic protests against racism are part of the Biblical message. I wonder why we hear so few sermons in our churches about this moral issue.

Perhaps Stassen and Gushee (2016) are correct that the dominant white culture (to which I belong) has taken a social evil and neutered it by reducing it to the level of individual relationships while protesting that we are nice people. That argument does not work in groups where we hear the stories of people and groups that have suffered from oppression and prejudice embedded in the structures of economics, law, education, and social relations.

In this blog I want to give two Biblical examples of racism and the protest against it for a higher ethic of justice, equity, and mercy.

The Good Samaritan

A well-known expression of racism is found in the gospel of Luke. Luke 9:51 marks a key transition in the mission of Jesus. He tells his followers that they will leave Galilee and begin the long journey to Jerusalem. The chosen route takes them through Samaria, a region with an ethnic population that has a troubled relationship with Hebrew people.

Jesus sends messengers ahead to request hospitality. However the elders of the community reject this traditional duty because he was traveling to Jerusalem. The Samaritans considered that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the legitimate place for the sacrifices stipulated by the Torah.

Two of the disciples request permission to pray for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the village. I read this as a genocidal petition with an appeal for God to utterly blot out the people of another ethnic group for a perceived offense. Jesus rebukes them and moves on to another village.

The protest is found when a lawyer asks Jesus to define the term “neighbor” (Luke 10.29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which a despised foreigner is faithful to God’s law.  The story is meant as much for the disciples as it was for the lawyer.

A House of Prayer for All the Nations

I submit that there is an earlier example. After the Babylonian exile, there were tensions between the returnees and the people who had remained in the land. The former exiles had the advantage of political power through their connection with the Persian Empire under Cyrus. The Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah show concern for a pure bloodlines. Marriages between former exiles and the daughters of the people of the land had contaminated the holy seed according to those in positions of power (Ezra 9.2). The solution was to send away wives and children of these intermarriages.

The protest is found in the third section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66). The prophet speaks into the social situation of post-exilic Jerusalem and the surrounding area. He encourages his listeners to maintain justice and do what is right (Isa. 56.1). He advises that the temple will be a house of prayer for all the nations (56.7). Foreigners joined to the Lord will be admitted to the temple and eunuchs will be welcome in the house of God (Isa 56.3-8). At the close of Isaiah, God speaks that he will gather people from all the nations and that some from these foreign ethnic groups will serve as his priests (Isa. 66.21). There is an inclusive prayer in Isa. 64.8-9.

O Lord, you are our father;

We are the clay, and you are our potter’

We are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

And do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Embedded racism is such a destructive force in the USA and Canada. Surely we do not need to be convinced. We need to ask questions about doing justice and loving our neighbor across boundaries of race and ethnicity? I don’t think we can leave the protest up to professional athletes!

I am bold enough to make a few suggestions for pastoral leaders.

  1. Confession is important. Can we confess before God that we live in social settings with a history of racism? Can we ask God for forgiveness and for direction in living by the standard of his kingdom?
  2. Can we expose our congregations to stories of people whose experience of life is different from our own? My seminary ethics class listened to a Youtube speech of Dr. Cornell West speaking about racial justice. We realized that our tendency was to evaluate social issues from our personal perspectives rather than from those who have suffered from the oppression of the dominant culture.
  3. Can we seek to build relationships with other people in order to enter more deeply into their experiences. In Canada, the challenge is to build relationships of equity and repentance with Indigenous people. Majority caucasian churches in the USA are challenged to share their congregational life with African Americans and Latinos in particular. We should expect suspicion and questions about our motives. People from other groups will be looking for attitudes that are patronizing and bear messages of superiority. A contrite heart and broken spirit are more compelling before God and before those who feel pushed to the margins.
  4. Can we discover some shared projects in which caucasian people serve in secondary roles? We do not always have to be the leaders.

Racism is offensive to God who created every human in his image. Let’s do something about it.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

Students in my Christian Ethics class at Ambrose discussed an excerpt from Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations (1992) on Monday.

I was not surprised that no one had previously heard of Havel. The relative lack of public recognition of is not surprising. We do not pay much attention to political leaders outside of North America unless they threaten us or represent a major power.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). Subsequently he was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Prior to entering into the political life of his country, Havel had been a dissident who was imprisoned by the communist government. The Velvet Revolution, which he led, was credited as a major factor in bringing down communism is Czechoslovakia.

It is important to know his background. Havel’s reflections on political life were forged in the heat of the furnace of experience.

I have listed below some of the things that impressed the students in my class as they reflected on his writing.

  1. Havel believed that there was a moral nature to politics. He attempted to nurture a sense of “higher responsibility” in conducting his duties as president. One aspect was to cultivate goodwill, decency, and respect for others.
  2. He recognized evil in the way political candidates displayed “… an extravagant hunger for power.” “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” He also understood that he had the same inclinations and was required to begin the work of moral renewal in his own heart. “As in everything else, I must start with myself.”
  3. He had a lifelong commitment to non-violence. “Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.” “Violence only breeds more violence.”
  4. He tried to use the office of the president to as a model for the larger government. He encouraged “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.
  5. He saw himself as a servant who had moral duties to the community and to future generations. Although not a professing Christian, he understood that he would answer to a higher power. “… we are observed from above, … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten…”
  6. He displayed what the New Testament calls steadfast endurance in times of discouragement. “I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”

We spent class time reflecting on two questions:

  1. How does the political morality of Havel compare to Jesus’ teaching about the virtues of leadership that were to guide his followers? The context of a European president is, of course, very different from a Galilean rabbi and his disciples.
  2. Is there one thing that each of us could learn from Havel for use in our own context where we are leaders by position or by influence?

I leave those questions with the readers of this blog post.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics at Ambrose Seminary. Next week we will discuss ethical issues of political leadership. In preparation for the class, the students are reading an assigned excerpt of Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations ((1992).

Havel was a playwright, essayist, and dissident under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. He spent several years in prison. His movement, the Civic Forum, played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought communist rule to an end in his country. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). He was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. This summary simply shows that Havel was not a detached theorist or a critic from the sidelines.

The book Summer Meditations was written during a ten day holiday in 1992. It represents the unique reflections of a president during his term in office.

I asked my students to identify the virtues of character displayed by Havel and then compare them with current leaders, local and global. I will report on our discussions in my blog next week. Today I would like to share some of his thinking about his role as president at a critical time in its history.

Havel emphasized the moral nature of genuine political leadership. He believed, that as president, he should stress the significance of moral values in all spheres of life including the economy. He engaged in a deep reading of his context. Liberation from communism had unleashed “… an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” The new breed of politicians was hungry for power. “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” Havel was particularly pained by the imminent separation of the Slovak population to form their own country.

Havel remained convinced that politics itself was not a disreputable business “… and to the extent that it is, it is only because disreputable people make it so.” “Those who enter politics “… bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society, and to develop and strengthen it.”

Havel wrote of three personal convictions that guided his work.:

  1. He felt that his public speeches should repeatedly and regularly draw attention to the moral dimensions of social life. He sought to stir the dormant goodwill in people and emphasize the importance of placing the shared good above personal interests. “… people want to hear that decency and courage make sense ….”
  2. He felt that the office of the president should act as a positive influence on the government and the country creating “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.”
  3. He felt that his ideals and values should be injected into the decisions that he was required to make as president: “… my longing for justice, decency, and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call the moral state.”

 

As far as I know, Havel never fully identified with the Christian faith. In an interview he once stated that he tried to live in the spirit of Christian morality. The excerpt my students will read displays his belief that a higher power stood over his life: “… we are observed from above … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten …”

I hope the students benefit from reading Havel. I feel that his reflections provide a helpful place from which to evaluate the moral qualities of political leadership in our own time and context. It means little to call oneself a Christian. It means a great deal to act as a follower of Jesus. Havel helps point the way forward.

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

Part 3: Jesus and the WOA Principle

The WOA principle drives the mission of Jesus. He constantly moves to meet people on the margins of the social world of Galilee and Judea. The lack of direct references to widows, orphans, and aliens as vulnerable social groups does not negate our premise that the ethics of the gospel requires us to consider moral issues from the perspective of people in the borderlands.

The following examples show the two features of WOA ethics. First, Jesus moves to the margins to meet people. Second, he acts in ways that offer transformation and restore dignity. The examples below are drawn from the different streams of the synoptic tradition. A more comprehensive list is provided at the end of the article.

The Markan tradition provides the example of leper who takes advantage of a deserted space to approach Jesus Mk. 1.40-45). Jesus has the moral right to send him away with a blistering censure for threatening to spread the dreaded disease. Instead, Jesus touches the man and cleanses him from his impurity. He instructs him to show his healing to the priest and to re-enter into the life of his family and community. The transformation is physical, emotional, and social.

The shared material unique to Matthew and Luke, commonly called Q, is composed largely of sayings of Jesus. From the prison of Herod Antipas, John the Baptizer sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the expected deliverer. Jesus sends them back to John with the report that he has restored sight to the blind, healed the lame, cleansed lepers, given hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and proclaimed good news to the poor (Mt. 11.5-6 par.). These kingdom actions allow people to re-enter their communities as active participants.

Matthew’s special source includes summary statements of healings, exorcisms, teaching, and proclamation (Mt. 4.23-25; 8.16-17; 9.35).  Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who would take up the infirmities and heal the diseases of the weak and marginalized (Mt. 8.17). He feels compassion on the crowds that are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd ((9.36). The Lucan special tradition includes an emotionally charged narrative in which a woman from beyond the margins of respectability intrudes into a Pharisee’s home to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears (Lk. 7.36-50). She experiences the hostility of the host and his other guests. Jesus treats her tenderly and responds with firmness to the others in the room. Her faith has saved her and she may go in peace. Her dignity is restored.

Each of the narratives and sayings contained in the appendix could be analyzed in depth. We believe that they illustrate the feature that Latin American liberation theology called the preferential priority of the poor. The point was not that God loved the poor to the exclusion of those that enjoyed wealth and security. Rather, the God of the Bible expresses his redemptive love and concern for the most vulnerable members of the community. Their needs are to be given importance. We see this in a narrative contained in all three synoptic gospels. Mark 5.21-43 contains two healing accounts. Jesus is approached by an elite member of the community whose twelve year old daughter is critically ill. Jairus is named in the story and is described as a ruler of a synagogue. As Jesus moves toward the home of Jairus, his way is impeded by a crowd of people. An unnamed woman in the midst of the crowd has been ritually impure for twelve years because of uncontrollable vaginal discharges. Anyone who makes contact with her will share her impurity. The woman is desperate and destitute. She touches Jesus and is immediately healed. In spite of the urgency of Jairus, Jesus stops to meet the woman who with fear tells him her whole story. Instead of censuring the woman for breaking the laws of purity, Jesus pronounces a blessing on her. Jesus does not neglect Jairus and his daughter. However, priority is given to this poor woman who has been marginalized in her community.

 

Part 4: Defining the WOA of Our Age

An ethical challenge of our time is to identify those people that are vulnerable, marginalized and powerless. Each context will be different. Strident voices are not always a reliable indicator. Often those who live in the borderlands are without voice and representation. Zygmunt Bauman (2011) uses the expression “the underclass” to describe people that are viewed as a social problem and deprived of meaningful roles in their communities. They live in a “horrifying wilderness” in communities where they are silenced, excluded, and humiliated. The words portray the painful experiences of people that struggle on the “outside,” with few prospects for moving into a life of dignity, stability, and security.

The horrifying wilderness of the vulnerable exists in our local communities and the nations of the world. The WOA of our time include:

  • People that flee their homelands for reasons of persecution, poverty, or environmental degradation and live as aliens in another land.
  • Minimum wage workers trying to balance two or three jobs.
  • The sick, and in particular those without medical insurance.
  • Victims of racial or religious prejudice.
  • Indigenous people that hold on within a dominant settler culture.
  • Women that live in fear of violence.
  • People that depend on food banks for their nutrition.
  • Hungry people in South Sudan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, and the Middle East.
  • Survivors of mass violence that can never find freedom from the trauma of abuse, torture, and the loss of loved ones.

This list is, of course, partial and incomplete. Each context requires analysis and discussion. The voices of those in the borderlands need to be heard so that their experiences enter into public discourse.

The WOA approach to ethics requires that we move deliberately into the borderlands to meet with those who are vulnerable and excluded. The new relationships that we establish will enable us to see the world from the perspective on those who live on the underside. Through the challenge of sharing friendships, meals, and prayers we will engage in mustard seed projects that give hope and dignity to the poor. Our ethic approach seeks to restore the dignity of people created in the image of God and to enable them to contribute to the shared life of their communities.

In a subsequent article, the authors will offer a criterion for ethical actions in the borderlands based on the virtues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23.23).

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

Part 2: Defining the Widow, Orphan, and Exile 

 The traditions contained in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures span a period of almost 2000 years.[1] The mega-narrative has stories of creation, the early patriarchs, delivery from slavery in Egypt, settlement in the new land, the monarchy, a divided kingdom, exile and national humiliation, the return to Palestine, the domination of Greece and Rome, the mission of Jesus, and the birth of the early church. Life is contested and fragile at every turn during these two millennia. At one end, Abraham is forced to reside as an alien in Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12.10). Near the other end of the mega-narrative, the apostle Paul organizes a collection of funds from churches in the Roman Empire to alleviate a famine in Palestine (2 Cor. 8-9). He has accepted the ethical standard of remembering the poor (Gal. 2.10).

The widow, the orphan, and the exile are social groups that represent extreme poverty and marginalization. Of course, not every member of these broad categories was destitute. However, in general these three classes of people lived at the edges of social and economic life in their communities. They came to represent the poor that struggled to survive deprived of dignity and security.  Accordingly, the prophetic tradition provided moral instruction that recalled the Torah’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

Render true judgement, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor. Zech 7.8

 

In the following paragraphs we will show how these three groups provide meaningful descriptions of poverty and vulnerability.

 

The Widow

Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) describe widows as the stereotype of all oppressed and exploited people.[2] More than half of the references to widows in the Hebrew Scriptures are in connection with orphans or orphans and aliens. Widows were characterized by their marginal social position, vulnerability to exploitation, and poverty.

 

Our brief presentation will concentrate on widows in Palestine while noting that there was greater freedom for women (including widows) in the cities of the first century Roman Empire. In Palestine, women were raised in the home of their fathers until marriage was arranged. At that point a woman entered into the patriarchal structures of the kinship group of her husband. A woman always lived under the authority of a man. The life of a married woman was often difficult. Child birth was precarious and infant mortality rates were high. It has been estimated that the average life expectancy of a woman during Biblical times was 34 years. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993) observes that a woman’s social position was just above that of a male slave in a household.

Women generally slid down the social ladder upon the death of their husbands. They had a right to stay in the family home, but could not inherit title to the property. In times of scarcity, their presence could be an inconvenience and burden for relatives and children. Widows could not defend their rights in legal tribunals apart from the intervention of a sympathetic male to represent them.

King David’s conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of “the city of David” (2 Sam. 5.6-12) was an important hinge point in the social and economic history of Israel. The nation rapidly made the transition from a federation of rural communities to an urban monarchy with an established elite class. The egalitarian nature of village life was eroded and replaced by a wealthy minority that increased landholdings, wealth, and power. The eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem criticized members of the ruling class that used their power to make widows their spoil (Isa. 10.2). The domination of the elite minority in Samaria in the northern kingdom likewise had an adverse impact on the well-being of the orphan and the alien.

The book of Job offers significant portrayals of the treatment of widows, orphans, and aliens.[3] In regard to widows, an unrighteous man hears the entreaties of a widow but sends her away empty handed (Job 22.9). He may even exploit her by taking her productive assets as a loan guarantee (Job 24.3). In contrast, a righteous person brings joy to the life of a widow (Job 29.13). Widows, and other people in need, can count on the generosity and counsel of those who are righteous in their community (Job 31.17, 21).

When we move to the New Testament, we find that Jesus spoke about Torah experts (scribes) that devoured widows’ houses – a probable reference to cheating a widow while pretending to represent her interests. The death of the only son of the widow of Nain was beyond tragic because she had lost her male family representative and protector (Luke 7.11-17). The persistent widow in a parable was forced to humiliate herself in public because no male would take up her cry for justice (Luke 18. 1-5). The early church in Jerusalem distributed food to widows (Acts 6.1) and the book of James urged congregations to care for widows in their distress (James 1.27).

 

The Orphan

Life was difficult for children in the ancient world. It is estimated that only about 50% of children lived past the age of ten years. The children of slaves were “assets” that worked from an early age. In rural areas, children were needed to assist in farm and domestic labor. Childhood ended with puberty when girls were married and boys were introduced to adult responsibilities. Unprotected children were objects of physical and sexual abuse throughout the Mediterranean world, although the treatment was probably less grievous in Jewish society.

The Hebrew term yathom actually means fatherless. A child without a father shared with the widow a social position of weakness, marginalization, and poverty. The danger for girls was even more acute than for males. They were particularly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and slavery. Daughters had inheritance rights only if there were no sons (Num. 27.8-11). Orphaned girls would be less desirable as future wives.

The Torah made certain provisions for orphans, along with widows and aliens.

  • The harvest of crops was to be done in such a way that some production was left for orphans, widows, and aliens to glean (Dt. 24.19-22).
  • A tithe of production was to be collected every third year for the benefit of orphans, widows, aliens, and the Levites (who were landless) (Dt. 14.28-29).
  • Provisions were to be made so that orphans, widows, aliens, and Levites were included in the celebration of annual festivals in communities (Dt. 16.11, 14).

 

The previous observations about the monarchy, the urban elite, and the loss of patterns of rural life apply to the vulnerable position of orphans. The prophet Isaiah publicly criticized powerful men who made legal decrees for preying on orphans (Isa. 10.2) and called on the general populace to defend their cause (Isa. 1.17). The portrayal of righteousness in the book of Job includes feeding orphans and rescuing them from oppression (Job 31.17, 21; 29.12). The book of Sirach, containing traditions from Jerusalem in the second century BCE, encourages adult males to act as fathers to orphans (Sir. 4.10). Sirach’s words mean that males should embrace the duty of providing protection from predatory enemies and assume responsibility for the needs of fatherless children.

It is surprising that the Greek word orphanos is found only twice in the New Testament. In the fourth gospel, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples as orphans, a description that implies that they will lack his protection, guidance, and care (Jn. 14.18). The letter of James encourages the church to seek the welfare of orphans and widows (Jas. 1.27). The compassion of Jesus for children in general is well attested in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Mk. 9.33-37; Mt. 18.1-5; Lk. 9.46-48; Mk. 10-13-16; Mt. 19.13-15; Lk. 18.15-17).

The  Alien

The Hebrew term ger can be translated as alien, sojourner, stranger or even refugee. In rural patriarchal societies, aliens were forced to leave their homelands and kinship groups due to adverse circumstances. The factors included famine, disputes, and violence. The alien is an ethnic outsider, landless, vulnerable, and poor. Das and Hamoud (2017) emphasize that aliens suffer from residing in a social location where they do not belong.  The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20) provides insights into the vulnerability of aliens in places dominated by other ethnic groups. The couple and their band leave the Negeb region because of a famine. Abram realizes that he is vulnerable because Sarai is a desirable woman. He feels compelled to lie by referring to her as his sister rather than his wife. Court officials force her to enter the royal palace as a concubine of Pharaoh and Abram is unable to defend her. God’s intervention is required to save the couple.

While other ancient near eastern cultures showed concern for widows and orphans, the Hebrew Bible is unique in elevating the just treatment of aliens as a sacred duty. The previous section showed how communities were to make provision for widows, orphans, and aliens by leaving some crops in the field, collecting a special tithe every third year, and including these groups in community celebrations. In addition, the Torah accorded aliens the same legal protection and obligations as enjoyed by ethnic Hebrews (Ex. 12.49; Lev. 24.22)). Aliens were to participate in the Sabbath rest along with Hebrew (Ex. 20.10; 23.12) The wages of aliens (along with other poor laborers) were to be paid before sunset and the community bore responsibility to ensure that they were not deprived of justice (Dt 24.14,17). Hebrew community members were to embrace them with love and to recall their ancestors had been aliens in Egypt (Lev. 19.34).

The book of Psalms reveals that aliens, along with widows and orphans, lacked protection from violence (Ps. 94.6). God watches over aliens and brings down those who exploit them (Ps. 146.9). The book of Job is instructive once again about the virtue of righteousness in regard to marginalized people. The righteous champion the cause of aliens ((Job 29.6) and offer hospitality in their homes (Job 31.32). The latter theme reappears in the gospel tradition where Jesus self-identifies with aliens and commends hospitality (Mt 25.35, 38, 44). St. Paul writes about a Christian communities that overcome the boundaries of ethnicity and social class so that no one is marginalized as a stranger (1 Cor. 12.13; Gal. 3.28).

In the final paragraph of this overview, we wish to make a further observation following Donald Gowan (1987). There are certain characteristics to the social vulnerability and isolation of these three groups:

  • Widows are poor and powerless because of an unexpected event (the death of their husbands) and their gender.
  • Orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of an event (death of their fathers), their age, and gender in the case of girls.
  • Aliens are marginalized because adverse circumstances forced them to relocate outside of their ethnic and kinship groups. Gender may be an additional factor of their vulnerability.

These different factors are suggestive as we seek to apply the WOA principle to ethical issues of our own time.

In Part 3 we will examine how the mission of Jesus moved him constantly to the margins of communities to meet with and care for vulnerable people.

[1] Abraham probably lived in the middle bronze epoch (around 1850 BCE). The last books of the New Testament were written around the end of the first century CE.

[2] 1992, page 368.

[3] The dating of Job is challenging. The traditions seem rooted in the time of the monarchy although the final form may be post-exile.

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

The WOA Approach to Ethics

Gordon King & Rupen Das

Rupen Das and I have have been colleagues at World Vision Canada and Canadian Baptist Ministries. He is one of Canada’s leading experts in humanitarian relief and international development. Over the past eight years Rupen has worked in the Middle East with the Lebanese Baptists and, most recently, with the European Baptist Federation based in Amersterdam. We share a mutual concern for people that live on the margins of their communities. The WOA approach to ethics seeks to express their conviction that God moves us into the borderlands to bear witness to his transforming love and grace. We intend to develop this approach in further writings and speaking over the coming months.

 

Part 1: Introduction to the WOA Approach to Ethics

WOA is an awkward acronym that represents the Biblical triad of widows, orphans, and aliens. These social groups represented women, men, and children that existed on the margins of their communities. They struggled for dignity and survival. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the quality of care provided for widows, orphans, and aliens was a criterion for evaluating the morality of a community or nation.

We propose that the biblical WOA approach to ethics offers an important perspective that can be used to analyze current social issues. This way of doing ethical analysis demands that we consider moral dilemmas based on the needs of people whose lives are impacted by poverty, discrimination, hunger, and violence. Do our actions give priority to addressing the hardships and isolation of those who live in the borderlands looking over the fence at those who live with relative security and dignity? In a latter article we will suggest that the Biblical virtues of justice, mercy and faith can be used to shape the ethical positions we take and the nature of our actions on behalf of the people we meet at the margins of the economic and social life of our nation and the global community.

 Ethical Approaches and the WOA Principle

An ethical approach provides a vantage point from which to analyze moral issues and evaluate proposed actions. The utilitarian approach gives priority to results that bring happiness to the largest number of people. The ethics of egoism emphasizes personal responsibility and agency for one’s own well-being. The virtue approach enquires about character and values required to face moral dilemmas. Duty ethics concentrates attention on wholesome motives and social obligations that are inherent with responsible citizenship. The altruistic approach seeks the common good of all people.

We submit that there is need for another approach to ethics that will cast light on some of the most pressing moral issues of our time. Poverty, hunger, racism, violence, and disease are social evils that drain and extinguish innocent lives. The model we propose is inspired by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in particular by the story of the gospels.   We use the somewhat clumsy term “the WOA principle” because the Bible brings these three groups together in a manner that emphasizes the community’s obligation to care for its vulnerable members. The Hebrew Scriptures identify God as the protector of the widow, orphan, and exile.

For the Lord, your God … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the aliens, providing them with food and clothing. (Dt. 10.18)

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Ps 146.9)

 

We suggest that the WOA principle requires us to examine every ethical issue from the perspective of the poor who are unable to participate meaningfully in the economic and social life of their community. These people are found in Juba, South Sudan and New York City, USA. Every city and rural village has its borderlands.

Tomorrow our post will examine the social identity of widows, orphans, and aliens in the Biblical world.

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Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Critique of Duty Ethics

I will offer five initial observations about the duty approach to ethics and conclude by expressing my concern that “duties” can be defined in ways that actually lead us toward evil in the name of virtue.

  1. The principle that each human life has inherent value resonates with our Biblical faith traditions. We believe that each person was created in the image of God (Gen. 1.27). This doctrine asserts that each individual has the dignity of bearing the divine image regardless of differences in social position, gender, capacities, and race. In our time, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has challenged us to value and receive the gifts of women and men that live with intellectual disabilities. A foundational value of L’Arche is that each life is sacred. This fundamental doctrine has great meaning in facing the ethical challenges of our world.
  2. Duty ethics holds that people are responsible moral agents and accountable for their actions. Kant went as far as to propose that there is moral equality of all people based on the capacity to reason. The difficulty is that we do not always function based on intellectual reason. We can be swayed by emotion, passion, anxiety, and past experiences. In regard to the last factor, we know that children raised in physically abusive homes have a tendency to engage in domestic violence as adults. One might argue that moral equality fails to consider other important factors that may somewhat mitigate culpability.
  3. There are obvious challenges in creating an official list of universal categorical imperatives that are binding on all people. Who could be given this power? What would be the criteria? Are categorical imperatives really that self-evident? For example, one assumes that the prohibition against killing is a categorical imperatives. Would this duty apply to soldiers and police officers? Honesty would likely be another obligation. What if someone told a lie to save the life of another person? Does the fact that we qualify even these two basic duties mean that they are not universal and permanently binding?
  4. The emphasis on ethical motives seems to match the teaching of Jesus about the heart. “… it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7.21-23). However, the heart is always a project. Motives are seldom pure. We need regular gut checks, confession, and prayerful discernment to do “heart work.” Reflective and grounded people will recognize that they constantly struggle with mixed motivations.
  5. Different duties may sometimes enter into conflict with each other. There is seldom an accepted standard for addressing the issue of weight that should be accorded to distinct obligations. Last football season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest the treatment of people of color in the United States. He clearly gave greater weight to what he perceived to be a moral duty than he attributed to the civic duty of standing during the anthem. Many fans and team owners disagreed with Kaepernick and he now languishes without a contract for 2017. Was his action morally correct?

 

I find myself to be both attracted to duty ethics and to be resistant of it. As a follower of Jesus, there are certain categorical imperatives that are central to the faith. Jesus’ teaching instructs us to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors to the same extent that we care about ourselves (Mt. 22.37-40). The moral code of the Hebrew Scriptures hangs on these two great commandments. We might add other obligations such as bearing witness before hostile authorities (Mk. 13.9), serving the needs of others (Lk. 22.24-27), and loving enemies (Mt. 5.44). One could argue that these sayings represent categorical imperatives.

I have three hesitations. First, I am concerned about isolating “gospel duties” from the story of Jesus and the stories that Jesus told. The ethical teaching of Jesus comes to us embedded in a narrative that carries its meaning. We need the story to help us understand the duties. Second, I wonder how we might determine which people are authorized to make up the official list of duties and obligations for the global church.  The example of Kaepernick, cited above, illustrates how individual convictions about duty may clash with the majority opinion. Who sets the ethical standard?

Third, my greatest concern is that duties can be perverted and manipulated by people in positions of power and influence. The observance of the Sabbath in first century Palestine was a sacred obligation (Ex. 20.8) and a patriotic duty. Sabbath regulations created a boundary between Jewish people and other nations. In this way, Sabbath observance could be likened to a categorical imperative. Jesus challenged the prevailing Sabbath obligations by healing broken people and defending his hungry disciples who had plucked (harvested) grain. He held that mercy prevailed over rules and regulations that governed the day of rest. The gospel narratives reveal that Jesus believed that the purity regulations, including Sabbath, had become a tool of social control by people in power.

Duty or obligation can be manipulated by government and religious leaders to encourage evil actions. My wife is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Genocidaires killed 800,000 innocent people out of a perverted sense of duty to the government. German soldiers sent Jewish people to Auschwitz out of a sense of duty.  Allied soldiers killed German prisoners of war out of a sense of duty to their superiors. Priests, pastors, and chaplains were complicit in these immoral deeds. Currently, in the Middle East, ISIS promotes violence as a duty to Islam.  These examples, and countless others, make me hesitant about a deontological or duty approach to ethics. As a Christian, I want to be sure that Jesus, and not contemporary society, is shaping my understanding of my moral obligations in a broken and wounded world.

 

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Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

The Duty Approach to Ethics[1]

There are two parts to my blog post this week. The first section provides a brief description of the duty approach to ethics. Part 2 offers a personal critique based on my understanding of following Jesus in the context of moral issues and ambiguities.

Part 1: Description of the Duty Approach to Ethics

Deontological ethics is the technical term for this approach to moral issues. The Greek noun deon can be translated as duty or obligation. Students of New Testament Greek will be familiar with the Greek verb dei which signifies a moral necessity or obligation. An example is found in Mt. 18.33. The unforgiving slave is brought before the ruler that previously had pardoned his massive debt. His master asks why he had thrown a colleague into prison who had not paid a much reduced debt. The ruler poses an ethical question: Was there not a moral obligation for you to have mercy on a fellow slave as I had mercy on you? These words point to an ethical duty that should have informed the actions of the unforgiving slave.

It may be helpful to contrast utilitarian and duty approaches to ethics. The utilitarian approach uses the criterion of end consequences to evaluate the moral nature of an action. Has the action resulted in happiness for affected people? Accordingly, something that seems immoral such as the assassination of a cruel dictator could be considered to be ethically sound if the murder resulted in greater happiness for the citizens of the country. One can sense the “moral quicksand” of disregarding laws and basic human rights to achieve certain ends related to the purported well-being of the general public.

The duty or deontological approach to ethics is different in that attention shifts from consequences of an action to its moral nature and accompanying motives. It is argued that often outcomes are beyond the control of a social agent. However, individuals are responsible for examining their motivations and using reason to analyze the ethical quality of their actions. The “happiness” goal of utilitarian ethics is critiqued and replaced by the concept that people experience happiness when they fulfill their duties and obligations. They become worthy of happiness or contentment. In this way, there is some alignment with virtue ethics. However, virtue ethics concentrates on character while the focus of duty ethics is social obligation.

Deontological or duty ethics is associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant lived during an age of optimism. The enlightenment emphasized human capacities, intellect, and the importance of freedom. New inventions such as the steam engine transformed transportation and industrial output. The American and the French revolutions seemed to herald a new form of national governance. The continued exploration of the world was accompanied by the growth of European colonialism. It was in this setting that Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of universal moral obligations. He referred to these duties as categorical imperatives.

Our lives are separated from Immanuel Kant by more than two centuries. While most of us are not familiar with his work, we stand under his influence. The pondering of moral dilemmas frequently elicits a comment about “the right thing” to be done. This remark is “Kantian” in nature. The phrase “the right thing” expresses a conviction that there is a moral obligation or duty that can be discerned though reason and accomplished.

Kant’s ethical approach had a number of key principles that are rooted in enlightenment thought:

  1. People are rational in nature. They are responsible for both their motivations and their actions.
  2. Each human life has an inherent value. (This point is important for an appreciation of Kant’s ethics.) A person’s value is not instrumental — productive capacity or potential contribution to society). As a consequence, people are not to be used, abused, or oppressed in any manner. One can see the link between duty ethics and modern human rights discourse.
  3. A particular action is ethical in nature if done with the right intentions. Readers may remember an example I offered in an earlier blog. A man rescues five children that are held hostage by armed kidnappers. The question was posed: Is the “moral nature” of the act compromised by the fact that rescuer was motivated by a reward of one million dollars per child? The utilitarian approach maintains that the action should only be evaluated by the outcome. In contrast, according to Kant’s reasoning, the motive of reward taints the ethical value of the rescue.
  4. A particular action is moral in nature if an ethical imperative is accomplished regardless of the consequences.
  5. Ethical imperatives are universal in nature. They apply to all people in all circumstances.
  6. Duties play an important part in the formation of communities and nations. People are bound by mutual obligations and shared ethical imperatives.

 

I offer some observations on duty ethics in Part 2.

[1] I wish to signal at the outset that MacKinnon and Fiala (2016) offer a helpful introduction to deontological ethics. I have drawn on their work in writing this piece.

 

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