A Failure of Christian Ethics

At the heart of the crisis of the public presence of Christians in our tormented world has been their inability to offer any consistent and penetrating ethical critique of political subjugation, economic exploitation and racial (or sexual) oppression. In fact, Christian churches have often been in the forefront of championing and legitimating these explicit forms of human immiseration.

Those on the secular left are seldom aware of the role that exegetical interpretation of the Bible plays in shaping Christian responses to phenomena such as the state of Israel’s dispossession and brutal treatment of Palestinians or apartheid in South Africa (two of endless examples).

The question of “what kind of exegesis” is appropriate for Christians in the public square will be examined by analyzing how Christian thinkers and actors have read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to legitimate apartheid in South Africa (Richard Burridge, “Apartheid: an ethical and generic challenge to reading the New Testament”, in Imitating Jesus: an inclusive approach to Christian ethics [2007]).

Burridge, a well-known scholar of the New Testament gospels, has written a perceptively disturbing and unsettling commentary that reveals that Christian ethical thought offers different ways of understanding how to read texts into the world, each of which legitimized the South African apartheid regime.

Burridge identifies four types of Christian ethics (rules, principles, paradigms and symbolic world). The general call to “imitate Jesus” does not present itself with translucent clarity to faith-communities of interpretation. The first type imagines that imitating Jesus means obeying rules and prescriptive commands. The second looks for principles and universal values that can be read out of particular texts. The third offers examples and paradigms as the pedagogical form that can make transparent what Jesus requires of Christians in specific situations. And the fourth calls Christians to embrace an overall symbolic worldview. For Burridge, none of these types by itself is an adequate way of understanding the ethical demands of the gospel. He himself offers an inclusive vision, which in the end runs aground as well.

The first type “treats the New Testament as a kind of moral handbook and looks for specific material in prescriptive form or the genre of commands.” This approach is troublesome right from the start because of the absence of specific material dealing with contemporary problems. Christian rule-based ethics finds texts that are most compatible with the “genre of direct command” such as the Sermon on the Mount or select Pauline injunctions (or with some of the Old Testament material on law and commandment).

But this ethical approach runs into serious problems. The Bible reflects the culture of different times and places. For instance Paul instructs the ornery Corinthians to not eat meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8; 10:18-35). This command does not translate easily into our world. Nor do most others!

And the concerns of our own world—nuclear war, international lawlessness, abortion, embryo research or euthanasia—are absent from the ancient texts. When the Bible does deal with violence, the state or other matters, it offers morally reprehensible ideas. Problematic considerations tumble in like falling rock on communities of interpretation.

Christian readers have to sort out the differences between the two testaments, with one counselling the use of violence; questions pertaining to whether all laws are binding (just read some of the laws in Leviticus to send shudders down your spine) or even the contradictions and variations in the gospels and letters (such as the Lutheran theme of “faith versus works” (Romans 4 set against James 2).

How has the type of ethical interpretation worked in South Africa? Burridge argues that: “The use of the Bible to defend apartheid is a good example of the problem of the selectivity of texts, especially those of rules, norms or commands.” The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) infamously used the text imitatingjesusfrom Genesis 1: 28—“Be fruitful and multiply”—which included the “diversity of humanity” as declared in Deuteronomy 32: 8-9, which reads: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share”–to justify both their own sense of identity as “people of the promise” and their command to live as a separate people in this land.

They also took the Old Testament injunction forbidding Israelites to marry other peoples, and legitimated the prohibition of mixed marriages in South Africa under the Immorality Act. William Vorster, Professor of New Testament at the University of South Africa, Pretoria, viewed the Bible as an “oracle book” of “proof texts” or a “book of norms.” Here, then, the political system of power and white privilege assumes the role of hermeneutical key. “The main difference is the (political) grid through which the Bible is read….In its essence there is no difference in the use and appeal to the Bible between apartheid and anti-apartheid theologians.” Vorster finds the texts he needs to justify “separate development.”

The Bible has become an instrument of oppression. It is used to reinforce and strengthen this apartheid order. Burridge comments further: “What happened in South Africa stands as warning about the temptation to choose or interpret such prescriptions according to the reader’s own prejudices or presuppositions, with both sides using similar passages and commands to justify their own previously held positions.”

Ethical position number two searches for principles and universal values. It is tied to the first type, but only in the sense that it looks “for principles and universal values lying behind the commands.” Two such general principles would be “call to love” or the “call to liberation.” These liberation theologies have widely influenced “black theologies” in South Africa. Those choosing this hermeneutical perspective work with “texts of revelation, epistles and sermons where theology is expounded in more general terms which can then be applied to our situation.”

The “principles” ethical approach leads to what Burridge calls “hermeneutical gerrymandering to annex New Testament texts to foreign modes of ethical discourse.” Thousands of disastrous sermons and teachings emerge from the promiscuity of saying, “The text says x, but it couldn’t really mean that…so let’s get at the underlying principle (which is then pulled out of the magician’s hat.” But this rampant subjectivism leads Christian ethical thought and practice in an array of conflicting directions.

Liberation theology confronts this form of critique. It uses the Exodus mythic legend without accounting for the destruction of the Promised Land’s inhabitants and a Marxist class analysis to illuminate selected texts. And one can also raise the question of whether “love and liberation” hold across Scripture.

The DRC loves principles. They begin their major pronouncements with a “statement of principle.” It is a constant refrain: the Bible “contains guiding principles for all spheres of life.” But the key question becomes “how one decides which are the important biblical principles, and the source from which they are derived.” What we now see, Burridge claims, is that the same creation stories lead to “contrasting ‘principles’ of either ‘separate development’ (God made us all different) or ‘unity’ (God made us one in our (God made us one in our diversity).”

The DRC extracted from the Tower of Babel legend (Gen. 11:1-9) the “principle of different language groups and different cultures in separate development.” The famous text of Acts 2: 6-11—where everyone hears God speaking in their own language—produces the pro-apartheid reading that “everyone hearing ‘God’s great deeds in our own language’—and thus justified separate radical church services, according to language group.”

In sharp contrast, the anti-apartheid hermeneutic saw “breaking down the barriers that separate humanity.” So, the same method of searching for a principle, once applied to the same text, evoked two divergent principles.

Burridge argues that “given this difficulty of extracting principles from within the text itself, the alternative is to bring a principle from elsewhere as a means to interpret the text.” For Jan Botha, for instance, “human rights” becomes the Archimedean point that contains critical power to illuminate previously darkened texts and reject certain particularistic teachings in the Scriptures. Itumeleng Mosala’s black theology imposes a liberation ethic on the “texts from the outside, rather than being read from within them.”

Desmond Tutu’s case is “more complex” because his “commitment to the principle of ‘justice’ … constantly stresses God’s love for everyone, regardless of their race, colour or the ‘shape of their nose’.” Nonetheless, the authority of this reading (popular among left-leaning Christians) is not firmly established. Is it derived from the Bible or did it arise from liberation theology or even Tutu’s own peculiar spirituality and life experiences? It is difficult to say. This is cold comfort for ordinary members of faith-communities who trudge along baffled by the Bible’s opaqueness in our pluralistic world.

The third ethical position—following examples and paradigms—emerges because of the sheer difficulty of “interpreting commands and prescriptive material, as well as discerning the correct principles.” This hermeneutic perspective focuses on scriptural narratives which might serve us with exemplars for us today. How does this hermeneutic work? For Catholics adhering to the idea that humans are moral creatures, biblical stories may serve as a kind of “moral reminder.”

One can imagine, then, that one could examine a story (where God approves and disapproves) and extrapolate the teaching that we ought to live as “moral beings ourselves.” Burridge links this approach to “virtue (or character) ethics”: the Bible is read to form ethical character (even though the Old Testament is chock full of non-ethical instructions). This mode of reading requires that one “formulate imaginative analogies between the stories told in the texts and the story lived out by our community in very different setting.”

Karl Barth wrote about biblical stories containing parables for our time. But this scriptural reading tip requires an imaginative leap from ancient text to contemporary pertinence. Burridge states that this approach “obviously works best with narrative, story-based texts, so in the New Testament all the gospel stories and parables are well used here, in the same way that Old Testament narratives, especially from the Pentateuch, play their part.”

But there are a series of immense difficulties with the third position. For one thing, one immediately faces the “cultural relativism gap”. Many preachers, perhaps hiding their own desperation, love to quarry the Bible for examples to follow or to find a “thought for the day.” Open up the Gideon Bible found in hotel rooms and find a verse for every problem you might have. Cultures are not closed tombs, but, alas, building bridges between ancient cultures and modern ones is no easy task. The Bible would simply shut the door if a radical historicist position were embraced. We can communicate across the ages and cultures, but not fluidly, easily. Burridge provides a lovely image to capture the enigmatic nature of the Bible. “The Bible is more like a river, containing the ‘water of life’ but which has flowed a long way from its source and picked up things along the way which make it unthinkable for us.”

Applied to South Africa, we return to the deeply problematic problem of the Promised Land mythological legend. Right up front, Burridge proclaims: “The paradigmatic claim to be emulating the example of a central biblical narrative lay at the heart of both the justification for apartheid and the Afrikaner mindset.” Like the Puritan pilgrims to New England in the seventeenth century, the early settlers who came to South Africa “saw themselves as similar to the ancient Israelites, making an exodus from oppression and being guided on the journey by God, eventually following their example of entering into the Promised Land.” Of course the natives—the Canaanites—were accepted as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

The interpretations of the myth of the Promised Land (with its exodus, exilic wandering restlessness and entry into the already occupied divine real estate) crash into each other: “For the one, God is a God of deliverance. For the other, he is a conquering God. Same texts, two views, two experiences.” Nonetheless, eminent South African theologian Jan Botha attempts to use the Bible as a “powerful means of promoting a culture of human rights and democracy in South Africa.” Applying stories, however, risks “being extremely subjective, especially in its comparison of biblical hewers with people now alive.”

The ethical approach of embracing an overall symbolic worldview carries the idea the Bible somehow provides a “basic orientation towards particular judgments.” Theologian Oliver O’Donovan claims that the Bible is read seriously “only when we use it to guide our thoughts towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims.” Burridge thinks, however, that theologians who advocate a holistic view extrapolated from the Bible override the genre of distinctive individual books. The Greek—ta biblia—is plural; the New testament has twenty-seven books and four not easily harmonized gospels. And Burridge posits rather compellingly that a text can become a “convenient peg from which to hang the argument, which is actually driven by dogmatics and systematic theology.” The Bible is not easily wrestled to the ground and corralled between fences.

With reference to South Africa, Burridge thinks a general theological approach such as Patrick Hartin’s five themes of creation-sin-incarnation-redemption-resurrection does not necessarily provide the enlightenment values of “equality, freedom and justice.” Nor does the “virtue of equality” stream forth from the “story of creation” in translucent fashion. As we have seen from Burridge’s analysis thus far, the diversity of the creation (or natural world) could be interpreted to mean that we must act to nurture separate development along its own trajectory. It is difficult to escape the charge of importing values from outside the text; and Burridge does not think that Hartin eludes this judgment.

In the end, repeated attempts to “construct a biblical theology…has proved to be so problematic that it has been abandoned by most biblical scholars and theologians, because of the difficulty of locating ‘the centre or trajectory of the Bible’.” In “Why I am not a progressive Christian,” James Metzger (Free Inquiry, August/September, 2014) asks: “How can we really know whether God is on the side of the poor and marginalized? It certainly would be nice if God were a god of justice and compassion who took a keen interest in all who suffered, but this new deity seemed to be more a product of what people desired, more a response to recent social changes, than a genuine discovery that propelled these social changes. As Freud observed long ago, when we construct precisely the god we most desire, we open ourselves to the charge of wishful thinking. Is the creator of the universe just as we moderns wish him to be?” (p. 36).

Metzger argues—compellingly and disturbingly so—that theologians seldom take the “implications of all the suffering and waste of sentient life in our world seriously. By far, the most common solution to the problem of suffering is to divest the deity of power, so that he becomes incapable of alleviating gratuitous suffering or of altering the fundamental laws of the universe in any way. This God is said to feel our pain, to suffer with us; yet he remains impotent to introduce any changes in how his own universe operates.”

The end of formal apartheid did force the South African churches to admit, says Burridge, that “the Bible does not lend itself to be a blueprint for any political agenda.” While this may seem “vague and commonplace to outsiders, but within the ranks of the Church it represented a seismic shift in theological thinking.” This is very sobering for the problem of Christian faith-communities faced with the learning challenge of translating from religious discourse into secular discourse and action. The four approaches were used by both pro-and-anti-apartheid forces.

For Burridge, then, we ought to start from the premise that the gospels present Jesus in the ancient biographical form: the mimetic form of imitating Jesus himself. But we respond to him in the “context of his action in maintaining an open and inclusive community.” Burridge defends his own position from the charge of importing-from-the-outside by claiming that his approach is embedded in the genre of the gospels themselves.

This appears somewhat plausible, and the compelling idea of “imitating Jesus in the context of an open and inclusive community” would call into question a “violent society in which the majority of people were excluded and oppressed, suffering violence and even death,….” Still, the notion of openness and inclusivity has to break free from the evident exclusivity of God’s love for his Chosen Ones in the Bible. The notion of openness and inclusivity has also to break through restriction to faith-community-based readings.

Burridge is attracted to the reader-response mode of interpretation, in particular, viewing the community of interpretation as listening and reading together for clues about the text’s original intention. But community-based readings can run aground on the rocky reefs when a reading community discovers that earlier readings were erroneous and oppressive. We have already seen how the conquest of Canaan narratives was used by the Dutch immigrants; even the conquistadores in Latin America found them congenial. In the eighteenth century slavery was justified through community-based readings as were Nazi anti-semitic readings in mid-twentieth century Germany. And in 2015, the American right-wing evangelicals (led by the likes of Rev. Franklin Graham) can be rightly accused of islamophobia.

Recognizing the urgency of finding a way forward for Christian faith-communities, Burridge recommends opening of the faith-reading community to a wider range of voices. That is, any discussion of poverty or wealth ought to include bank managers and financial investors. That’s sound advice (though we may recall that Jesus didn’t think the rich could easily make it into heaven and perhaps the wretched of the earth want a voice, too). But Burridge remains ambivalent regarding the inclusion of secular participants in Bible reading.

He mentions—almost in passing–the need to set biblical material “alongside other sources of moral guidance such as reason, tradition and experience, as well as all our modern resources from the human sciences, medicine, psychology, and the like.” Burridge only tiptoes to the edges of the Habermasian notion of complementary learning processes wherein secular participants join in translational dynamics and together arrive at defensible positions that guarantee justice and recognition for all.

Burridge observes: “The Dutch Reformed Church thought it was doing its interpretation of the scriptures in a Spirit-guided, prayerful community, supported by excellent university faculties of theology with biblical scholars very experienced in the area of hermeneutics.” But the attempt to justify apartheid biblically is now seen as by the DRC as incorrect. How did they get it so wrong for so long? How could the Dutch Reformed Church not make the “connection between gospel and society”, and fail to “adequately understand the sufferings of our many black members…”

This catastrophic failure mainly leads to affirmations of confidence in mission and calling. As Burridge notes, speakers before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were confident regarding the Bible’s relevance, but they never explained why mistakes were made in the first place or how they could be avoided in the future.

The DRC faith-community did not listen to “outsiders” in the rest of the world. This would require the unsettling of personal and communal perceptions; this can only happen if critical theoretical tools that reveal the extent to which the dominant ideology permeates our thinking are embraced. Then the outsider would come to us as the presence and voice of the most vulnerable members of the society. One cannot help thinking that, unless this unsettling self-criticism occurs, the Bible simply becomes a ventriloquist for the hegemonic rule of the System; and religion plays its comfortable role of priestly legitimator of the established order.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.