Ethics East of Eden
In response to an invitation from David Currie to speak on the current status of Christian ethics, Foy Valentine delivered this address to the annual breakfast meeting of Texas Baptists Committed in Fort Worth during the 2002 convention of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Humanity is everlastingly going “out from the presence of the Lord.”
We are everlastingly choosing to dwell “in the land of Nod.”
We are everlastingly wandering around, like a drunk with one foot in a bucket “east of Eden.”
Although we know we are supposed to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, we keep wallowing in the scandal of Enron, we keep waking up in the morning to some new debacle like the WorldCom moral meltdown, we keep using the Arthur Andersen recipe to cook the books, we keep sliding down the slippery slope of the pedophile priests and crime-coddling bishops of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, we keep reeling under the devastating blows of violence, terrorism, adultery, child abuse, and greed, we keep tolerating perverted justice, bought elections, and rejection of campaign financing in the political arena, and we keep sheltering and blessing “all the little foxes” that gnaw our vines with their tender grapes (Cf. Song of Solomon 2:15).
Instead of coming to authentic repentance for our sins, we turn our major attention interminably to building bigger barns, bigger temples and bigger cathedrals, to what the author of Hebrews (whoever she was) called “forms and fasts and divers washings,” to good, safe matters like measuring the temple, counting the commandments, naming the apostles, and, yes, mounting new crusades to talk about family, or to talk about spirituality, or to talk about evangelism or to talk about missions, elaborating on the obvious, and pontificating about the aorist tense of Greek verbs.
East of Eden, indeed.
Believers really are seeking “a city whose builder and maker is God,” we realize that any ethics that ever gets done has to get done “east of Eden.”
So, let’s try to get the cart and the horse in proper juxtaposition.
What on earth is ethics?
The word itself is not a biblical word.
I was a grown man in graduate school before I learned it. It is still not a word that trip easily off the tongue of every glib religion huckster on the mass media circuit.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the best in our language, tells us that Ethics comes for the Greek word ethikos which itself comes from ethos meaning character. Ethics is defined as “manners….Relating to morals….Concerned with principles of human duty…by which a person is guided….Rules of conduct….The whole field of moral science….” (p. 900).
The Greek word ethikos was translated into Latin as moralis from which we get our English word morals, meaning customs, manners, habits, disposition, manner of life, conduct, character. The dictionary says that morals pertains to “the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions…of responsible beings; ethical….Relating to the…distinction between right and wrong; moral sense, the power of apprehending the difference between right and wrong….Treating or concerned with virtue and vice, or the rules of right conduct….” (p.1848).
Now, in addition to this pedantic effrontery, what else is ethics?
Ethics is somebody you are. It has to do with character, integrity, honor, duty, honesty, kindness, responsibility, sacrifice, involvement, engagement, and good works – personal and corporate.
Ethics is something you do, like Isaiah who under God’s command walked “naked and barefoot” for three years “as a sign and a portent” against Egypt and Ethiopia, unworthy allies in whom Israel had bullheadedly misplaced their trust. Ethics is something you do, like Virgil’s Aeneas who, obeying a divine mandate to find what was to become the seat of the Roman Empire, resolutely turned his back on the good life and faithful love he had found in Northern Africa during the long layover when his storm-ravaged ships were being repaired, and steadfastly returned to the mission to which his deity had called him, “Navigate,” Jove had commanded; and the man navigated. Honor called and he did it. Ethics is, indeed, something you do. James says, “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
Ethics is something you don’t do, like Joseph when Potiphar’s horny young wife, lusting after this attractive young immigrant, lured him to her bedroom and then tore his shirt off before he broke loose and ran like crazy to avoid her ill-advised passion. Ethics is something we don’t do when we obey the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet; and thou shalt not bear false witness.”
And ethics is something you say. All the things that ever get done in the world, good or bad, Charles Rann Kennedy says in The Terrible Meek, are done by words.
There is great power in words. When right words are harnessed to the plow of ethics, great teaching and preaching and writing can come to life and change the world. The contemplative life alone won’t get it. Silence may very well be golden; but words fitly spoken and properly harnessed to worthy ethics causes are priceless, more precious than diamonds and rubies.
Ethics is all of this, and more, much, much more.
And yet….Yet, like a defective gene, neglect of ethics keeps rearing its ugly head with every succeeding generation. Just when it appeared that Christendom in general and Baptists in particular were ready to take a giant step forward in Christian ethics 100 years ago. And particularly 50 years ago, the cause of Christian ethics surged mightily, but then fell back, gasping for breath like fish in a basket.
Walter Rauschenbusch flamed across the horizon with his detractors bellowing hot Irish epithets against him every step of the way but without quenching his prophetic fire. Giants emerged to preach and teach and write in an explosion of commitment to doing the gospel. Clarence Jordan started Koinonia Farm, Henlee Barnett put ethics on the map in Louisville, and T. B. Maston rose like Venus on a summer evening to champion the cause of Christian ethics for some forty years of profoundly important ethics leadership that influenced literally millions. Spawning an impressive array of students, men and women whom God had called and whom he had encouraged and inspired and nurtured and enabled, truly impressive strides were made. Second and third generations of competent and committed Christian ethicists have been in turn aided and abetted by the Maston heritage.
Nowhere, however, are ethicists now finding much of a hearing or much of a platform on which they are affirmed and encouraged to stand. The climate that allowed Rauschenbusch to teach and publish and prophesy in public changed. The support that in the fullness of time made a place for Maston to flourish, faded and withered. The denominational base that blessed the burgeoning work of the Christian Life Commissions crumbled. In three or four short decades much of these foundations had been eroded by what Patrick Moynihan called “benign neglect” at the hands of the principalities and powers who are ever ready and mostly eager to leave ethics till the last and then leave it out.
We owe our blind spots about ethics, I reckon, to several sources.
Ethics is nearly always controversial; and any time institutionalism confronts controversy, the establishment runs like a scalded dog. Bishops and administrators have never welcomed ethics-focused boat-rockers, status- quo disturbing prophets; and the hoi polloi can nearly always be roused to throw the boat-rockers overboard and to stone the prophets.
Theologians, philosophers of religion, religion writers, and CEO-style pastors, in little churches as well as in big ones, are nearly always more comfortable in safe cubicles or secluded studies with unlisted telephone numbers, far behind the front-line fighting where a body can get hurt.
Great religion popularizers like John Bunyan generally much prefer to have their redoubtable heroes like Pilgrim spend their time arguing fine points of theology, focused mainly on what Bunyan called Beulah Land (Cf. Isaiah 62:4) rather than getting them embroiled in the excruciatingly hard decisions that cling to social ethics: male chauvinism, slavery, military violence, terrorism, racism, dysfunctional families, systemic poverty, citizenship, public affairs, church-state separation, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, gambling, pornography, corporate greed, world hunger, and the like.
Today’s influential contemporary church music, anthems as well as choruses, generally does not have enough ethics in it to help a horse. They are all too often musical monstrosities, theological travesties, and ethical cop-outs. Who will move to set us on track?
Preaching from today’s pulpits mostly eschews ethics like the plague, pussyfoots around prophethood, and recoils from relevance as if it were the sin against the Holy Ghost.
In spite of the fact, then that in the fullness of time these Christian ethicists are sometimes lifted at high tide to powerful witness and great Kingdom effectiveness, Jeremiah is still our man, the weeping prophet. Ethicists do well to weep.
Still, as Martin Luther put it, the right Man is on our side.
Though all the ethics we do must be done “east of Eden,” the people of God have no choice but to make the most of it. We have to heed the advice of the angel Raphael, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, who said to Adam, restless in his situation in the Garden of Eden, “Dream not of other worlds” (Book VIII, Line 175).
Now, if there is any meat in this coconut, I’m fixing to come to it.
Specifically, the people of God need to preach and practice an authentic evangelism that insists on genuine repentance (the keynote of the New Testament) and true faith in God issuing in a commitment to live under the Lordship of Christ in every area and relationship of life, before the baptismal waters are ever troubled.
The people of God need to help our pastors and teachers to understand that we simply will not tolerate the proclamation of a partial gospel that has been shorn of the moral imperative. Ethical conviction has to begin in the house of the Lord if we are to see better days.
The people of God need to communicate with our song leaders that we need and indeed require songs that do not ignore the ethical demands of the Christian faith and that we simply will not stand still for either ditties or anthems that signal bad music, bad grammar, bad theology, and bad ethics.
The people of God need to discipline ourselves to preach, teach, and write ethics so as to communicate the full gospel that reaches out with relevance to touch the needy world, not a truncated, abbreviated, watered down, emasculated gospel that concerns itself only with the winning of Greek souls followed up by a painfully monotonous droning to read the Bible more, pray more, “go to church” more, and most especially give more.
The people of God need to embrace the insight that church is not steeples and stained glass but God’s kind of folks doing God’s kinds of things here and now, no matter that it is our lot to live “east of Eden.”
The people of God need to demonstrate daily that by the grace of God changed people can change the world, that changed people do change the world.
The people of God need to bless and not curse our fellow Christians who heed God’s call to work in the business world, or to involve themselves in the political arena, or to toil in one of the professions, or to commit themselves to homemaking, or to serve God by milking cows, growing vegetables, repairing plumbing, or typing letters, for ethics has to do with being the church in the world, with being the salt of the earth, with being the light of the world, and with being leaven for the lump – “east of Eden.”
The people of God need to pray that the Lord of the harvest will call forth ethics laborers who will stand up and speak out like Tony Compolo, who will take up the cross of teaching Christian ethics like T. B. Maston, who will write and talk and agitate publicly like Bill Moyers whose disciplined mind and compassionate heart have been long employed to keep holding the world’s feet to the fire, who will act in the public square like Millard Fuller with his burning vision of Habitat for Humanity, who will champion such specific causes as religious liberty and separation of church and state like James Dunn, and who will not rest in retirement but like Jimmy Carter will press for justice, relieve the oppressed, heal the sick, and take good tidings to the poor.
Karl Barth sings my song when he calls the church today to …Look and see whether she is not now really compromising herself with the Devil, to whom no ally is dearer than a Church so absorbed in caring for her good reputation and clean garments that she keep eternal silence, is eternally meditating, eternally discussing, eternally neutral; a Church so troubled about the transcendence of the Kingdom of God – a thing which isn’t really so easy to menace! — that she has become a dumb dog….[The Church and the Political Problems of Our Day by Karl Barth, p. 21, Charles Scribner’s Sons.]
Although we live “east of Eden” may God help us to do ethics “while it is day, ere the night cometh.”