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Mining the Motherlode (By Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)
Mining the Motherlode by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas is a venture that captures various resources of womanist analysis in one project in order to enable practitioners of Christian ethics to become familiar with womanist analysis, and better advocates of justice. Floyd-Thomas claims that womanist is a confessional title; a black woman claims the title in an effort to differentiate her theoethical efforts from the normative mode of ethical analysis that neglects her presence. Thus, in order to incorporate the lives and voices of black women in theoethical analysis, our perspective must be broadened in order to see them. This claim implies that our normative Christian social analysis has been too narrow. For example, Floyd-Thomas points to H. Richard Niebuhr’s notion of the responsible self which he described as a moral agent who has the power and autonomy to exercise freedom in relating to God and to neighbor (xii). Similarly, John Rawls classic theory of justice does not envision embodied people, but theorizes in the abstract. Both situations, Floyd-Thomas claims, the white-male derived notion of agency, and the abstract notion of justice leave out the everyday situations of black women. Floyd-Thomas borrows from Emily Townes to argue that much of what is considered virtue ethics also deprives black women of virtue. The virtues of thrift, hard work, and suffering are typically associated with economics. Yet, once again, calling these experiences virtues only serve to valorize the injustices experienced by black women.
Womanist theological ethics steps into this process of normative theological ethics with a disruptive voice that calls attention to “the least of these” among us. Womanist analysis highlights the value of every being’s race, gender, sex and class, recognizing in them a God-given voice to be heard and seen (xiii). It is an overall project of restoring agency where it has been denied.
With the task of womanism defined, Floyd-Thomas highlights three methods of womanist analysis: black women’s literary sources, sociological analysis, and historiography. She does her analysis through the lenses of what she calls “the four tenants of womanist ethics: radical subjectivity, traditional communalism, redemptive self-love, and critical engagement (8). With each womanist method, she peers through three lenses.
The literary sources of womanist analysis are mined based on the premise that the guild of Christian Ethics is not the only place in which codes of conduct and survival strategies are kept. Floyd-Thomas examines the literary method through the lenses of radical subjectivity (with a borrowed made-up word she calls biomythography), redemptive self-love (with an analysis of virtue-ethics) and traditional communalism (which she calls diasporic analysis).
The sociological analysis pays attention to the manner in which the social experiences of black women are transformed and the community—of men and women—uplifted. Hence, there is a relationship with black male liberation that is recognized when we pay attention to the sociological analysis. She examines the sociological method with the lenses of redemptive self-love (which she calls the dance of redemption), traditional communalism (which she calls case-study analysis) and finally radical subjectivity (which she calls emancipatory metaethnography).
Lastly, Floyd-Thomas describes a womanist approach to historiography as an effort to “debunk the historical accounts about black women and their trials and triumphs” (12). It is humanizing for black women to have their voices, experiences and perspectives included into the narratives of the history that we recognize as important. Floyd-Thomas examines this method with radical subjectivity (by attention to slave narratives), traditional communalism (what she calls moral biography and auto biography), and redemptive self-love (what she calls emancipatory historiography).
Womanist theological ethics challenges us to pay attention to the plight of everyone in our community because it encourages analysis from margin to center. It is a liberative analysis that does more to bring attention to the plight of the entire community than anything else that the academy has yet produced. Hence, Floyd-Thomas questions whether or not real Christian ethical analysis can be practiced without attention to womanist methods?
Kingdom Ethics (Chs. 16-17 by Glen Stassen and David Gushee)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)
In chapters 16 and 17 of Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen describes love and justice. These two notions are vital for an understanding of Christian Ethics because, as Stassen describes, they are contingent on one other; love is a drama in which justice is a main character, and justice is what love seeks to accomplish. Hence, they must be understood together. The Greek notion of Agape features prominently in many Christian interpretations of love, and its varied translation has had a checkered past with regards to its appropriation and consequent Christian living. For example, Stassen argues that Anders Nygren published Agape and Eros in 1932, in which he described Agape as the predominately used New Testament word for love. But Nygren interpreted Agape as sacrificial love. This was problematic. Agape love as sacrifice does not seek anything from the beloved; it is completely self-motivated and self-giving and self-sacrificing. To advocate a lack of regard for self for the practitioner of sacrificial love presents one of the problems that scholars identify with this definition; it seems to support voluntary victimization, as well as sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice (329). But Jesus on the cross is not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice is done for the well-being of those he came to save.
Agape as mutual love looks more like the definition that Stassen agrees with. Daniel Day Williams’ book The Spirit and Forms of Love describes this interpretation of Agape as a corrective to Nygren. Agape as self sacrificial, non-interested love, makes it seem as if God is untouched by the affairs of our lives. Instead, Agape as mutual love sees God wanting communion, and capable of empathy. In a relationship of mutual love, Stassen recognizes 5 necessary dimensions: real otherness or individuality of the person loving and the person being loved; freedom with limits (we cannot give ourselves authentically to another in love without the will to assume the demands and risks that are present); acting and receiving suffering—we do not love unless our personal being is transformed through the relation to the other; power to change the other and be changed by the other—love intensifies the power to restrain one another, to oppose our wills to the other’s use of his freedom; impartial judgment and justice—love is concern for the need of our neighbor (331) Hence, with mutual love, we see a relationship of active participants.
Yet another definition of Agape sends us back in the direction of Nygren by positing one simple principle as a hermeneutical key to the complexity of God’s love. Gene Outka argued that Christian love is equal regard. In other words, we love everyone equally, regardless of special traits, actions, merits or what they can do for us (332). And though this definition fits well with the struggle for justice, in the name of equal regard, I can rationalize selfishness since my needs are just as important. Also, the special regard we may owe to family members is neglected with this one-size-fits-all approach.
By way of contrast, Stassen advocate an interpretation of Agape as a drama he calls delivering love. It is a drama that takes place in four acts: love sees with compassion and enters into the situation of the person in bondage; love does the deeds of deliverance; love invites into community with freedom, justice and responsibility for the future; and love confronts those who exclude. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of this drama, but Jesus also demonstrates delivering love in the Sermon on the Mount as a set of transforming initiatives that disrupt the vicious cycles of bondage and violence. Yet by dying on the cross Jesus ultimately demonstrated this definition of Agape by delivering us into community with himself. Stassen describes this understanding of the atonement as incarnational because Christ enters into our situation of bondage for our deliverance. This is the drama of Agape, and it is also justice.
Consequently, it is deeply problematic for Christians to miss the connection between love and justice in the ministry of Jesus. Justice is not a peripheral social concern, it is central to the heart of biblical theology and the ministry of Jesus. The four words for justice (two in Hebrew and two in Greek) appear 1060 times in the Bible, far more than any other concept (345). Failure to understand the significance of that core feature allows other concepts to fill the void intended for justice (rugged individualism, nationalism, racism, Kant’s persons-as-ends-in-themselves, etc…) yet none of the “fillers” can satisfy the biblical definition of delivering, and community restoring justice (346).
Stassen identifies a few groupings that are helpful to understand the New Testament focus on justice. The first four have to do with recent academic improvements in our theological hermeneutic of Jesus and justice: (1) Jesus identified with the tradition of Israelite prophets, (2) Jesus’ attack on the temple was an attack on a system of injustice, (3) Jesus promised a kingdom of justice (his constant references to Isaiah are indicative of this promise), and (4) Jesus’ confrontations with injustice. Next, Stassen argued that justice has four dimensions:(1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience; (2) lifting the foot of the domineering power off of the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence and establishing peace; (4) restoring outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and the refugees to community. Each of these dimensions are descriptive of what God does corresponding with the life of Jesus, often by his confrontation with injustices. They are not abstract principles; justice is not an abstraction, but a concrete experiences that are connected with the definition of delivering love. The four themes of justice help us see clearly the depth of Jesus’ compassion and love.
Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society
By Stanley Hauerwas
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
Stanley Hauerwas writes, “American society was increasingly becoming a pluralist and secular society. As a result Christian theologians, particularly as they dealt with social issues, felt it necessary to find ways in which their ethical conclusions could be separated from their theological framework.” (32) This description of early 20th century ethics in America defines the fundamental problem that Hauerwas is attempting to address in Against the Nations: the thinning out of Christian language (and therefore Christian ethics) in order to find a universal ethic that could apply to all.
He states his project plainly by arguing that the Christian moral life has too long accommodated itself to the desires and needs of national interests. To recover a thick Christian ethic, Hauerwas argues for “a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state.” (7) For Hauerwas, the church’s first social task is to be the church—a community of people who follow after Jesus and who are not at home “in the liberal presumptions of our civilization and society.” Therefore, his work is primarily focused on how to help the church recover “a sense of its own integrity” so that it might better be able to make discriminating judgments about its surrounding culture.
Hauerwas begins by arguing that morality requires a “tradition” to carry it forward. He maintains that two assumptions of the Enlightenment were mistaken: (1) that a universal ethic can be grounded in something like reason and (2) that ethics grounded in particular communities should be suspect. Both assumptions fueled a move by the church to translate its particular ethic, grounded in Jesus of Nazareth, into terms that were compelling for the larger culture. For Hauerwas, any attempt at translation is one simple step away from jettisoning the particularities of the Christian tradition altogether (40). And this is the story of the contemporary church in America today. The prescription for this problem of accommodation and loss of uniquely theological language is to recover the particularity of the Christian life in the witness and practice of the church as a distinctive community—A church that stands in contrast to the nations.
Hauerwas argues for three characteristics that will mark this kind of distinctiveness. First, that the church will be morally imaginative. For Hauerwas, morality and imagination are two aspects of the same reality (51). Moral obligations fuel necessity for imagination. For the church, it is an “imaginative commitment to be a community capable of living with such demands (moral obligations) and finding the resources to remain faithful.” (57) Thus, the disciplines of communal life under the leadership of Jesus Christ promote imagination in the moral life for living in the present reality of God’s Kingdom.
The second characteristic is the church’s ability to remember. Hauerwas maintains that the moral life is an extension of the character and the narrative of one’s tradition. He argues then, that illusions of universality should cause unease because different traditions have different stories. Hauerwas uses the example of the Holocaust as an unbridled attempt at universality that was morally reprehensible. Therefore, the community of faith needs to be a people who are determined to remember its own particular story; and who are discriminatory about any nation-state pretentiously believing that it represents universal values (74). Consequently, Christianity and any form of government should not be seen as bedfellows.
The final characteristic of this distinctive community called the church is that it should be committed to peace. For Hauerwas, the death of Jesus of Nazareth, history reached its turning point (165). Therefore, the church should not be concerned with making history “come out right.” Pacifism, then “is a belief that God, through Jesus Christ, has inaugurated a history that frees all people form our assumption that we have no moral alternative to war.”
Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Chs. 1-6)
By Glen Stassen and David Gushee
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
Gushee and Stassen set out to “reclaim Jesus Christ for Christian ethics and for the moral life of the churches.” (11) To avoid the moral drift of the Christian community that has occurred in history (e.g., the German church’s cooperation with Hitler’s nationalism and racism); they argue that the trajectory of Christian ethics needs to come full circle and return to the centrality of Jesus Christ and his teachings to frame our moral lives. To accomplish their project, Gushee and Stassen focus on the largest bloc of the recorded teachings of Jesus—The Sermon on the Mount (SOM).
However, before exegeting the SOM and illuminating its ramifications for Christian moral life, the authors spend time placing Jesus in the appropriate context in order to understand his teachings more clearly. Three things are important here: (1) Jesus is to be understood as grounding our moral life in a messianic vision of God’s reign—a vision of a kingdom where Christ rules in justice and we participate in his delivering grace, (2) Jesus is to be understood and interpreted in the great prophetic tradition of Israel, especially the prophet Isaiah, and (3) Jesus is to be understood as taking the Scriptures as his moral authority—and consequently submitting other moral sources (e.g., tradition, reason, divine experiences…) to the authority of Scripture.
Thus, the authors place Jesus in his Jewish, first-century Palestinian context and argue that his teachings should be seen as a creative continuation of the Hebrew tradition. Following in the way of Jesus then, for modern-day Christians, means finding ourselves in a larger narrative than isolated individualism. It means that we are participants in the same grace of God that was evident in the great tradition of Judaism and extends through the history of the Christian church. And it means that the teachings of Jesus in the context of this larger drama guide our moral reflection and practice.
The authors argue for a four-dimensional “holistic character ethics.” (ch. 3). The four dimensions that influence our ethical decision-making are (1) our way of seeing, (2) our way of reasoning, (3) our loyalties, trusts, interests and passions, and (4) our basic convictions—how we think about God, human nature, justice, etc…Each of these dimensions plays a role in shaping our character and the decisions we make. For example, Stassen argues that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s experience of the Sermon on the Mount in the Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem moved Bonhoeffer to return to Germany without the nationalist loyalties he once had and resist Hitler’s authoritarianism.
Stassen laments the absence of the SOM in Bonhoeffer’s later Ethics, and maintains that this absence is “deeply symbolic of a strange phenomenon that has diverted much church tradition from fully following Jesus.” (127) That is, avoiding the SOM because of its high ideals and its hard teachings—because it is just not ‘doable’ in actual Christian practice.
To remedy this problem, Stassen and Gushee argue that the SOM should not be interpreted as an antithesis—“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”—rather it should be interpreted as fourteen triads. The structure of these triads begins with begins with “the traditional righteousness”, moves to explaining a “vicious cycle,” and culminates with a dynamic “transforming initiative.” For example, in Matthew 5.21 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said….You shall not kill”, this is the traditional righteousness. Further, Jesus says, “But I say to you that every one being angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother…” Here Stassen and Gushee argue that Jesus is not giving a command, but identifying the vicious cycle that leads to killing—anger and insult. The culmination is not a command not to be angry or not to insult, rather, the command is the transforming initiative found in Matthew 5.23-26 to leave your gift at the alter, go and be reconciled, offer your gift and make friends quickly. This is the concrete teaching of Jesus on how to avoid the violence of killing and this pattern of; traditional righteousnessàvicious cycleàtransforming initiative is repeated in fourteen triads of the SOM. (ch. 6)
Interpretation and Social Criticism (By Michael Walzer)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)
Social criticism is typically considered to be the practice of one who can be detached enough to examine a particular society from a vantage point located “no place in particular” (5, 16). What does this sort of analysis and criticism yield? Walzer demonstrates three sorts of criticism in this book, two of which can be called a detached analysis. Walzer calls them “paths to moral philosophy” that we find in the practice of social criticism. The first path is the “path of discovery,” the second “the path of interpretation,” and the last one “the path of interpretation.” This final path, “interpretation” is the one that Walzer claims “accords best with our everyday experience” (3), and is not practiced from a critical distance. Walzer argues that interpretation recognizes that a stance of detached observance, which the other two paths rely on, is in fact not possible. Critical interpretation is the real practice of social criticism.
The attempt to engage a society from no particular point of view is an attempt to see as God does. A “God’s eye perspective” is in theory, an objective, dispassionate perspective, untouched by the bias, or parochial near-sightedness that comes along with membership within the society under scrutiny (36). From this vantage point, the path of discovery yields a morality in the same way that an explorer finds a new continent. “The religious leader (God’s servant) is like an explorer” Walzer argues, “who brings us the good news of its [the moral world’s] existence and the first map of its shape” (4). But even if the morality he “discovers” is new to some, perhaps its first hearers, it does not hold that advantage for long. For once this new moral world is inhabited, the critical edge provided by its discovery is lost, and we must soon begin the practice of interpreting what we are now familiar with in the face of daily-lived experience [i.e. the Israelite experience of the Law of Moses]. This is the case whether the discovery is philosophical, or religious in nature.
Similarly, the path of invention is taken when philosophers seek to aid in the creation of a better common life. It too is developed from no place in particular, and without a blue-print to guide its development. For Walzer, John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas are characteristic of this type of moral philosophical endeavor. Rawls’ “difference principle” deprives would-be moral legislators of any knowledge of their standing, interests, values, relationships, or talents in the world in which they seek to provide a notion of justice. Similarly, Habermas argues for conversations that are free of ideological confrontation; conversations in which moral legislators are liberated from all bonds of particularism and enabled to speak based on reason (11-12). But discovery and invention, deny the truth of our lived experience. The truth is, there is no starting place for morality other than where we actually are. We are always in some particular place of value (17). Discovery and invention are, as Walzer argues, “efforts at escape in the hope of finding some external and universal standard with which to judge moral existence” (21).
But why escape? Because the real work of social criticism is challenging. The work of interpretation is an internal job, not external. The social critic is connected to the society he/she speaks critically of. As such, the critic is more like “the local judge…who earns his authority by arguing with his fellows—who angrily and insistently…objects, protests…the critic is one of us” (39). The critic pays attention to the consistency of her own society’s moral life, and critiques it internally on that basis. A critic can come from the outside, but he would have to get on the inside, into local practices and arrangements before criticizing. To be sure, Walzer does argue for the presence of a universal morality; a thin minimalism that consists of prohibitions as a universal code (like murder, deception, betrayal, gross cruelty), but we cannot deduce the shape of a fully developed moral culture base on minimalism (25). Thus, the social critic is an interpreter of her own culture, like the prophets of Israel. Walzer uses Amos as an example of the social critic. Indeed, the prophets were ancient social critics, inventors of the trade (71). Amos did not find, nor invent the message he gave to Israel. He assumed that his hearers could immediately understand and accept what he had to say (72). The prophet did not seek to rule the country, and in that regard, sought a critical distance from authority within his society. But the prophet invoked values that the community shared. Walzer also refers to Jonah as an example of universal critique in the form of minimal values universally held. In Jonah’s case, with Nineveh, he confronted them about a common understanding that violence and oppression is bad. But between the two, Amos and Jonah, Amos’ critique goes deeper. For, we are not capable of knowing the details of a transformation that needs to occur in the life Nineveh other than repentance, because minimalism is abstract. But the thick, maximalist code shared between Amos and his culture is more than the abstract, it is reiteration and interpretation of their own values.
By Ron Sider
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
In Just Generosity, Ron Sider argues for a comprehensive holistic program for reducing the problem of poverty in America—a reprehensible problem given the great wealth of America. Sider paints a picture of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in America through narratives of people who suffer from poverty and statistics that show that the United States, more than any other developed nation, has the greatest inequalities of income in the world. (JG, 45) Sider contends that we as Christians have an unprecedented opportunity in America to move toward the vision of elevating the 36 million people who live below the poverty line out of poverty.
Sider argues that the problem of poverty is more than an economic or political problem; rather it is a moral and spiritual problem in America. (50) Therefore, the solution needs to be moral and spiritual. Sider cites six biblical “foundations” to address the problem of poverty: (1) God is over all and owns all and thus challenges our preoccupation with material abundance, (2) we are to be stewards of what God has entrusted to us, (3) human nature is a complex unity of the spiritual and the material, thus the material needs to be addressed, (4) human flourishing includes the inherent worth of each individual in the context of the larger community as well as the ability to create in partnership with God, (5) The real presence of sin, and (6) a definition of distributive justice. Each of these foundations is worth pursuing on their own, but Sider concentrates the rest of his argument on articulating and applying distributive justice.
Sider defines distributive justice as, “the fair distribution of wealth, resources and power. (55) This definition moves beyond procedural or commutative justice to include community building and restoration. It includes four key characteristics: (1) a unique tie between biblical love and biblical justice, (2) opportunities for those who have been oppressed, (3) God’s unique concern for the poor, and (4) restoration of the marginalized and excluded to community. (56-60) Sider sees this kind of distributive justice built into the law of the Jewish community in the OT. For example, the Jubilee year restores land to its original familial ownership. This provided a necessary check against the inevitable inequality that comes with commerce.
Sider goes on to apply this notion of distributive justice to the problem of poverty in America. He argues that it moves beyond the traditional “conservative” solution of personal transformation and also beyond the traditional “liberal” solution of more governmental provision. He advocates a holistic effort that includes personal transformation, structural and social change initiated by the government and faith based initiatives centered on distributive justice. He maintains that concern for the poor is becoming common ground on which conservatives and liberals can agree and begin to move forward addressing.
Go and Do Likewise
By William C. Spohn
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)
When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he finished the story with the admonition “Go and do likewise.” William Spohn makes that command the title of his book, in which he probes the implications for contemporary Christian obedience to that command. What does it mean for us to follow Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” today? Spohn, asks and answers that question as a matter of Christian ethics, and when asked the question “what does Jesus have to do with Christian ethics” some Christian ethicists say “everything” and others “very little.” Spohn agrees with the Christians that claim “everything” but his appropriation of the “everything” sees Christ-the-norm very differently. Indeed, Christ is the normative paradigm for the Christian moral life (10). But Spohn does not relate Jesus to daily moral living on a one-to-one basis, that is, he does not advocate that we try and mimick Jesus’s first-century behavior in the face of twenty-first century life. But we make use of what Spohn calls “analogical imagination” to draw from the gospel narratives spiritual practices to shape our moral perception, our disposition on our world, and form in us the identity of twenty-first century Christ followers. This is an interdisciplinary task. Spohn draws on historical Jesus work, virtue ethics, Christian spirituality, and even psychology to form his theoethical method. From the historical Jesus movement, Spohn gathers the insight into the cultural and historical context of Jesus and his followers, while eschewing the detached attempted objectivity of the Jesus scholars (22). From there, Spohn argues that scripture is best described in the language of virtue ethics for three reasons:
(a) It fits the narrative form of the New Testament and can explain how the particular story of Jesus shapes the moral character of individuals and communities.
(b) It attends to the deeper levels of moral existence which the teaching of Jesus addressed: the heart, the personal center of convictions, emotions, and commitments.
(c) It fits the dominant mode of moral discourse in the New Testament, namely, paradigms that establish certain patterns of disposition and action that guide action. (28)
And finally, Christian spirituality provides the link between the New Testament and virtue ethics (37). Spiritual practices form virtues by “activities that make up a way of life, including the Christian way. The ritual of baptism, sharing life in community, solidarity with the poor, meditating on scripture, and mutual forgiveness are some of the concrete practices that make up a Christian way of life” (45). But, the analogical imagination provides the link between Jesus’ historical context and our own; it is the hermeneutical guide that connects us with the way of Jesus for our world. The result is transformation for a Christlike interaction with our world as we are made capable of identifying with Christ and his followers today. The process of analogical imagination is not without its safeguards that deflect bad intentions as Spohn describes “analogical imagination judges certain action to be appropriate based on the compatibility between the proposed course of action, the facts of the situation, and certain paradigmatic frameworks. The entire process also depends on the level of moral sensitivity and virtue of those who are discerning what to do. The images of the Gospel will easily become evil imaginations of the heart to those whose hearts are unwittingly dominated by self serving and evil dispositions (70). By shaping our moral perceptions, moral disposition, and our Christian identity, analogical imagination enables us to “go and do likewise.”