Despite the large number who readily describe themselves to be Christian, underlying cultural and denominational differences among followers of Christianity make it hard to detect common attitudes to Christian ethics. This should not surprise us. Each Christian community has to decide where to put its emphasis in choosing which behaviours and which attitudes are most important from a Christian perspective. Although many would agree that the Bible and Christian tradition is important in making moral choices, different backgrounds, different dominant settings and different pressures and perceived dangers, help us select which of the many religious ideas will be valued in practice. In addition our personal experiences in education and feelings about the history of our nation (and even of our local region) inevitably shapes our attitudes (and fears) directed to people who don’t share our particular strand of religion. For those secure in their own denomination there is often the assumption that those in radically different Churches must therefore be in error.
While large numbers accept the Bible to be an important source document, there is far less agreement about how much of the Bible is intended to be followed in our modern world. Some fundamentalist Christians may not like the fact, but simple observation tells us traditions of the early Israelites and early Christian communities don’t resonate with all Christian communities. The Book of Leviticus might tell how a past tribe was instructed to eat, drink and dress, but few modern Christians feel constrained by the same traditions. Although there is plenty to admire in the Bible, it would take an obtuse or poorly informed Christian to fail to notice that along with the positive examples, there is much which is negative or archaic. Elijah’s murderous treatment of the Priests of Baal is hardly appropriate inspiration for modern interfaith dialogue any more than Moses or Joshua with their recorded acts of ethnic cleansing provide guidance as to how best to treat those born into different faith communities.
While notions of love, justice for all and forgiveness for one enemies are supported in some scriptures, in other places, so too are harsh attitudes to wrong-doers, rejection of those born into different faiths, ultra-strict discipline for children (including an injunction to execute a child who curses his parent), harsh treatment of old women, support for owning slaves (including permission to sell one’s daughters into slavery). In the Old Testament there is instruction for taking retribution against the descendents of those who were consider to have sinned, an injunction to stone to death adulterers, even laws requiring execution for those who work on the Sabbath, routine punishment of people for the sins of others, together with permission to rape females captured in battle.
Dominant views in separate faith communities inevitably influence how much freedom should be encouraged when it comes to new ideas. We might lament a resistance to scientific discoveries when at the time the new knowledge was thought to threaten Christian faith eg the very late Church acceptance of Galileo’s views of the Solar system, or the creationist dismissal of the theory of evolution, yet this can also be understood as a choice of which authority is preferred as part of a chosen world view. This spills over to our ethical choices. An assumption that Biblical injunctions are true for all time might give us a feeling of security but makes it more difficult to deal with modern ethical choices where new factors come into play. Mercy killing might be unacceptable to one who sets great store by the Ten Commandments, yet it becomes more problematic when a suffering patient is being kept alive artificially in a modern hospital. If our faith community valued a family structure modelled on Biblical tradition, it would be hardly surprising to find a pattern of male dominance and female submission in such a community.
There is irony in the way which conservative positions strongly defended in the past by Church leaders gradually morph into equally strong support for the opposite points of view as the mood of the majority evolves. For example universal suffrage was once strongly opposed by leaders and spokesmen of many denominations yet is now almost universally supported. I suspect few modern Presbyterians would now support the 19th Century prominent Southern US Presbyterian minister quoted as insisting: “The hope of civilization itself hangs on the defeat of Negro suffrage.” Similar changes are noted in attitudes to dancing, the acceptance of divorce, attitudes to slavery and more recently some relaxation of attitudes towards homosexuality.
It is also possible to have a mismatch between the self image of the faith we claim to follow and our actual behaviour. A number of commentators have noted that the very States in the US where claims of faith are the most strident also have the highest crime rates. Not all murderers are atheist. By way of example, many would accept that Jesus’ inspiring teaching from the Sermon on the Mount was wise, yet in practice, influences of nationalism are sufficiently strong to ensure no shortage of those prepared to kill instead of forgive those designated as enemies by the State. To bring it closer to home, taking no thought for the morrow and not storing up treasures on Earth is not often the visible characteristic of today’s Christian in the first World.
Christian ethics have changed through the centuries. From the earliest Christian communities through to modern times various Christian community leaders have sought to reinterpret the essential Christian teaching for changing circumstances. Paul’s letters to the various Churches of his day provide advice to members of those congregations to meet specific ethical problems but later thinkers further developed these ideas. For example Augustine made a serious attempt to incorporate some of Plato’s ideals into a Christian framework.
Even where a Christian group will try its best to follow the Spirit of the Christian teachings in the New Testament, the simple truth is that many moral issues in the twenty first century have no Biblical precedent. Issues like genetic engineering, stem cell research,euthanasia, deforestation, air and water pollution, trade imbalances, mineral exploitation, sweat shop practices, debt forgiveness, the arms trade etc all take us into new and often uncharted territory. It is also difficult for a group which has chosen to accept one particular standard to accept that those with a different background and different set of accepted authorities can choose a different set of standards. This leads to some curious anomalies. For example most Western Christians are horrified at the willingness of Saudi Arabians to support the beheading of criminals accused of capital crimes like murder. Some Christians in the Bible Belt of the United States are on record as wishing their equivalent criminals to be executed by gas chamber or lethal injection. The degree to which this represents a difference in moral leadership is a moot point.
A further problem for individual Christian communities is that majority democratic views often run counter to the wishes of those attempting to be true to the ethics of a particular Christian group. As a consequence treating others as we might wish to be treated implies a much more generous treatment of refugees and third world nations than most democratically elected Governments could countenance.
Even within a Christian denomination there are competing ethical positions. Many Church congregations for example might claim to support notions of helping the most vulnerable in society, yet in practice spend the bulk of their income on Church buildings. Christians who adopt liberation theology with a consequent concern for injustice and concerns for freedom of the oppressed finish up with a radically different ethical emphasis to those who seek to conform to religious patterns of behaviour or those whose main concern is to expose the un-churched to the teachings of Christ.
QUESTIONS (Your thoughts please!!)
What are the observable ethical characteristics of your faith that are observable to an outsider or newcomer?
Does your faith community challenge any of the community norms – if so how?
Is the choice of Christian ethics influenced by rewards? (in this life or even the next?)
Which ethical standards are shared by most Christian denominations in practice.
Which ethical standards are obviously variable between denominations?