A Question of Ethics

February 20, 2007

As I sit here still trying to ingest the actions of the Primates (you can read my latest thoughts on that more specifically here), I decided to go and do my reading for my ethics class tomorrow.

And straight out of my ethics textbook is the following quote:

[Christian] Social ethics asks first how institutions really work and what would be required to make them work better (p. 117).

This question has been asked so many times and I have never gotten an answer:  How is it that the conservatives believe that our institutions work better with the exclusion of gays and lesbians?  “Adherence to Biblical Scripture” I suppose is their answer– the argument for ethics can use Scripture as a foundation but should, I believe, go deeper to show how our “knowledge and experience… in government, family, life, work, church, and education” (p. 116)– our institutions– are affected by exclusion.  Adherence to Biblical Scripture doesn’t, in and of itself, do anything, other than appease a very Protestant “Divine Command” system of ethics which looks to the Bible and the Bible alone for a prescriptive way to run our lives.  Interesting that divorce is specifically prohibited by Jesus in scripture, yet the Communion is not in a “crisis” over this “Divine Command.”  I don’t think that “Divine Command” ethics is really our way of doing ethics in the Anglican tradition.

I hear arguments like, “it erodes the sanctity of marriage” and we’ve all gone through the ridiculosity (is that a word?) of that argument before.  You know, just yesterday in a class of mine we were talking about sex again in this debate– as if this was a discussion of sex and not caring and intimate human relationships, of which sex is a component but not THE major component.

So again, what is it that institutions get out of this struggle?  How do “they” win?  What do they have invested?

My ethics text goes on to talk about the imperative of being an ethical realist instead of an ethical idealist:  “Our willingness to change depends in part on considered judgments about what institutions require to function well, but it also depends on how well we are served by the way things work now… We will not expect people to give up power or accept others into their communities just because we have demonstrated that that is what they ought to do.  Realistic thinking about how to make institutions work better involves asking what kind of power will be needed for people to accept the changes” (p. 117-8).

Hmm.  Ethical realism.  What kind of power do people need to accept the changes?  That is a much different question than arguing just the merits of our case.  I think we’ve done that.  And successfully.  (Unless we’re talking to the drop-dead Divine Commandment folks, for whom there is nothing short of a new version of the Bible dropping out of the sky, there is no point in describing our experience as gay and lesbian people any more.  We are humans, created in the image of God, just like everybody else.  Its not about sex any more than hetero marriage is about sex.  You can’t prove that our relationships in any way devalue marriage, or anything like that.)  That means it is about something else.  I suppose it is about change.  Or power.  (Of course they will deny this– if it was really about the merits then we wouldn’t be in this position, would we?)

So, then, as the ones wanting change, this author believes that the ethical realist would look at the power that those on the other side need in order to accept the changes.  The book continues: “Every moral solution is a combination of ideals and interests.  It reflects both the situation we are trying to understand and the interests of the people who are trying to understand it… It will not surprise a Christian Realist to learn that few, if any, answers to the questions of social ethics are final; even the best of them require correction over time.  Demands for justice usually begin with people who want equality; but after a while the constraints required to secure equality begin to chafe” (p. 118).

I know I’ve “chaffed” a few.  The irritating thing here is that we haven’t even gotten even near the place of full inclusion yet and the backlash has spoken out so vociferously.

“The vision and commitment that emerges from Christian reflection is very important.  It needs to be celebrated in the churches and lifted up in public, so that there will be no mistake about the standard of justice to which Christians hold themselves and their society accountable” (p. 119).  I think we have done this.  We’ve said who we are and what standards we hold ourselves to.  We’ve articulated our vision.

What standard of ethics is on the other side?  By what standard of ethics are we to be excluded?  “Love your neighbor?”  Again, I only see “Divine Command” at play here, which appears to me to be an excuse to blame God for the homophobia of those perpetrating the injustice.  We have to find a way, if we are to take the realist view, to relieve them of their fears by looking at what power they need in order to accept the changes we demand.  The idealist approach, which I have wrestled with and made appeals under, sure feels good– but I’m not sure it accomplishes much unless you are talking to a sympathetic listener.

After all, in reality “no one’s vision gets turned into action without significant changes and compromises.  Christians who begin with the expectation that their ideal for the Christian life will become social reality are inevitably disappointed.  They may then become angry and disillusioned, abandoning their social concerns altogether, or using increasingly aggressive tactics to coerce where they were unable to persuade”  (p. 119).

Well, I am angry.  And I am disappointed.  And I don’t know what to do about it.  My Christian response right now is to wait and not respond to anything too quickly.  But I also live in this:

“If we really commit ourselves to a Christian understanding of justice in society, we will experience defeats and losses as well as occasional triumphs.  Some of those defeats will be real setbacks in which relief for those who suffer is delayed, resources are lost, and opponent of change get a stronger hold on the levers of power… However, some defeats give insight into the weak points in our vision and show us the places where our goals need revision so that they can serve a more inclusive community”  (p. 119).

That’s hard to deal with.  And I can’t do anything with it right now but sit back and know that maybe in a week, or a month, I’ll be able to sit down and analyze it in just that way.  But right now I just want to be angry with God and the Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates for choosing an action that not only stamped on us, but also seemed to ignore us;  that seemed to give more attention to the actions of those who have jumped up and down to express their own selected exclusion than our forced exclusion;  that’s just not right;  that’s wrong.  And I’m naming it.

So someday after I work through that anger, after I work through the corporate sin of humanity in this action, maybe during Lent, maybe I’ll be able to look forward to the Resurrection again, and Reconciliation, and realize that “The church would do more for the cause of reconciliation if, instead of producing moral idealists who think that they can establish justice, it would create religious and Christian realists who know that justice will require that some [people] shall content against them” (p. 120).

But today, I’m going to remain an idealist.

Only God knows what’s ahead of me tomorrow.


Work Cited:

Lovin, Robin W. Christian Ethics:  An Essential Guide.  Nashville: Abingdon Press.  2000.


3 Responses to “A Question of Ethics”

  1. FrMichael Says:

    I know nothing of Robin Lovin but I do know about the school of “Christian realism.” It is a creature of liberal Protestantism of the mid-20th century and rejected by numerous Christians, including Catholicism and Evangelicalism (not that there are many Evangelical academic ethicists). I’m not surprised that your opponents within the Anglican Communion don’t start with your textbook’s presuppositions about Christian social ethics.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Actually, my ethics professor is an evangelical Anglican Ethicist, also conservative.

    She is a moral realist.

    I’m not.

    I am not arguing that the opposition in the Anglican Communion should take the Christian realist approach.

    I’m arguing that they argue for the “Divine Command” or “The Bible Says so” approach, but they are inconsistent in their application of it, so there is something more there than meets the eye. The example I used to justify that argument is divorce– they complain about divorce, but they do not elevate divorce to the level of schism. Jesus actually talks about divorce in the Bible, which gives it a much more prominent Biblical position than gay and lesbian relationships.

    Therefore their position is taken out of something other than Divine Command or Scriptural Authority.

    They need something else. And that’s the point.


  3. FrMichael Says:

    OK, I now understand your critique.

    I too scratch my head at the high level of emotion over homosexuality in TEC while divorce, which is much clearer biblically, seems to be ignored.

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