Properly exegeted, the Christian Bible, the scriptures, have answers to pressing social and economic situations.
An excellent example of this is the work of David Gushee and Glen Stassen, Kingdom Ethics - Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. It is a most valuable contribution to the field of theological ethics. This book has deservedly been praised as masterful, innovative, profound, and challenging and Gushee has been hailed as the leading ethicist among evangelicals.
The basic and guiding thesis of the authors is that the coming of Christ heralded the launching of his Kingdom as both a divine and human work and that the framework of the Kingdom of God must be used as the basis of ethical discussions and analysis, and the Sermon on the Mount as a clear and present guide to ethical behaviour and a tool to interpreting, reforming and revolutionizing society toward the ethic of the Kingdom.
The Nature and Premise of the Kingdom of God
At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand. This ‘Kingdom message’, the good news of its reality, was the binding theme throughout the gospels, and the message and point of departure of the Pauline epistles and so on. The authors contend that even though there is no uncertainty about the proclamation of this Kingdom, it is the attributes of its nature that has caused considerable debate. They assert that this Kingdom Message ‘has often played little real role in Christian life,’ but that despite this, they believed that it is from a proper understanding of this, that a ‘Christian theology and ethics must begin.’
The explanation is that in the proclamation of Christ, was his understanding that his message was foretold by various prophets of the Old Testament. For Christ, this Kingdom was both here and now and to come, a reality that was both fulfilled and present, yet, in its fullness, was a reality anticipated. Gushee and Stassen insist that the covenant Christian must not only focus on the timing of the Kingdom, but on its characteristics, so that we might fulfil its requirements, its practices, in preparation and anticipation of it.
So, we enter the Kingdom by doing, by practicing an ethic that that Kingdom demands and by so doing transform our lives and the societies in which we engage. Understood in this way, the Christian walk is centred in the here and now, as well as in anticipation of the hereafter.
Sensing the value in moral reasoning, the authors explain that ethical reasoning is accomplished in three ‘modes’, the characterological, the teleological and the deontological. Special emphasis is placed on the deontological given their belief that ‘a Jesus-centered ethic takes divine commands seriously….’
From this premise the authors developed a methodology for interrogating all aspects of society using Christian ethics, grounded in the authority of scripture seen in its totality, without truncation, inclusive of the Old and New Testaments. The point of departure is viewing the Sermon on the Mount as the fulness of the teachings of the Torah and the prophets and as the yardstick from which to measure ethical behaviour and practices.
In the Beatitudes we find the highest expressions of God’s will for the practicing Christian. Jesus calls us to rescue the poor, to mourn for our sins and for the sins of the community and to hunger and thirst for justice. He calls us in this sermon to demonstrate steadfast love and compassion in ‘covenant loyalty’, to eschew duplicity and practice integrity as we devote our entire selves to God.
In this sermon, Christ echoes the call of the Torah and the Prophets, that we nurture peace and be willing to suffer for Christ, if need be. These virtues are echoed by Paul and throughout the New Testament, and so, as the authors explain, are clearly meant to be practiced as the ‘heart of the biblical virtues.’ In the practice of these virtues our characters are developed.
The explication of the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, demonstrates what the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ is all about, a Kingdom that is both present and future. The sermon is also, and especially, a call to action to bring Kingdom ethics of justice, peace, inclusivity, etcetera, to the ‘great social sins’ of our time, if not of all times- ‘including peacemaking, just war, nonviolence, sexuality and gender roles, marriage and divorce, race, economics, care of creation, prayer and politics.’
Application of the Kingdom Narrative to issues of Race
The authors apply the Kingdom narrative to the issue of race generally and in particular to the situation in the US. They point out the God created human diversity, and even though Israel was chosen, it was because if its insignificance. Jesus, even though operating within the Judeo-Jewish context, extended his ministry to all.
Critical race theory was used to analyze and interrogate racism in the US. The authors trace this untenable situation from the displacement of the original populations, through to chattel slavery as the socio-economic and politico-cultural context that gave rise to white supremist assumptions and the development of institutions that cemented this structure and practice.
While the ‘economic viability of this nation was built on the enormous wealth created by enslave persons’ the post-emancipation situation, was hardly better, as the ‘post-emancipation oppression of blacks was ‘sanitized, legalized and supported’ while Jim Crow laws were passed to maintain separation of blacks in all aspects of life.’ It is pointed out the idea of that slavery, though essentially an economic system, nurtured and cemented over four centuries, ideas of race. They use critical race theory as a tool to analyze the situation.
This theory asserts that racism is the result of the ‘social construction’ or race itself. The science, though available, is ignored for invention of racial categories, which is manipulated and discarded as needed. Out of a particular convergence of historical occurrences, whiteness becomes valued and an entire system now operates to the advantage of a particular race with the intention of perpetuating this reality. The results of this are seen in shortened life expectancy for black peoples especially, race-based hate crimes, income and employment racial gaps, the perpetuation of structured, institutional racism especially in the justice system and frequent episodes of mass protests, among others.
Describing racism as the original sin of the US, the authors call for a range of interventions. These include truth-telling in the form of a full apology for the evil of white racism, an apology for slavery. Viewing racism as both personal and systemic, they recommend racial justice as the appropriate methodology and paradigm, as opposed to racial reconstruction. With the goal of achieving an ‘interethnic balanced community’ they call for the dismantling of white privilege, through concrete political and social action. Significantly, they also recommend ‘the extension of grace of forgiveness’ needed for spiritual well-being ‘for anchoring racial justice itself.’
I especially enjoyed this analysis which saw the authors bring historical knowledge to clarifying the current situation that obtains the US. The well-know and largely accepted critical race theory was used to very good effect in examining this societal ignominy. This analysis also demonstrates that properly exegeted, the scriptures have answers to pressing social and economic situations.