Marion G. Deckert is professor emeritus of philosophy at Bethel College. For fourteen years he served as academic dean.
For if the ethicalthat is social moralityis the highest and if there is in a person no residual incommensurability in some way such that this incommensurability is not evil, then no categories are needed other than what Greek philosophy had, or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought. (1)
Mennonite thought over the past several decades has exhibited an increasing disaffection with the traditional two kingdoms theology. There have been a number of accounts of the drift away from a two kingdom theology; for example, see Mennonite Peacemaking by Driedger and Kraybill, (2) or Two Kingdoms Two Loyalties by Perry Bush. (3) Still, the debate is by no means over as the contents of The Mennonite Quarterly Review show. The January 2003 issue contains "Thinking Theologically about the War Against Iraq" by Ted Koontz (4) while the current issue contains "Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy" by Ted Grimsrud. (5) Koontz is more positive about a two kingdom stance, Grimsrud more negative.
From my point of view the shift away from a two kingdom theology is fundamental and consequential for Mennonite identity. Some years ago there was a student at Bethel College who was, and still is, a convinced atheist. Despite this incongruity his college experience was very positive. He continues to admire Bethel College and has a deep respect for it. Several years ago he visited me and wondered how Bethel had changed in the twenty five years since he had graduated. I tried to give him some sense of the increasing interest in moving away from a separatist vision toward more relevance and in particular more involvement in political and governmental affairs. I could see immediately that he was dismayed by this news. His comment was to the effect that such a shift would make the Mennonites truly irrelevant, a mere drop in a surrounding ocean.
The debate over the two kingdom stance is usually conducted in theological and political terms. It can be argued, however, that the root issue is ethical. A two kingdom stance is often said to assume two ethics, a worldly morality and a kingdom morality. This immediately sets up a problem. How can citizens of the world be found to fail if they are faithful to their morality? On the other hand the one kingdom stance usually claims that there is only one moral standard. This creates a different problem. How can a non-Christian be held responsible for a code that she does not understand or even know? Much ink has been spilled trying to resolve these questions one way or the other. Both problems, seem to me, to stem from a like mistaken assumption. Namely that ethics encodes God's complete and final will for humankind. To assume that if we had the true ethics and if all people obeyed it perfectly the Kingdom of God would be achieved is to make a fatal error. Yes, the moral life is the will of God for all people but it is not the complete will of God. Here one has forgotten the basic distinction between law and grace.
I propose in what follows to explore the dilemmas of Christian ethics as they have appeared in several recent Mennonite authors. This will allow me to show how we always end in paradox and allow me to suggest a way of thinking about ethics that seems to me to allow one to make sense of a two kingdom view.
In chapter 5 of his book Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective, Duane Friesen tries to clarify his views on the nature of ethics. Early on he is explicit in rejecting the notion that ethics should be understood outside of any faith commitment. He identifies such approaches as "natural law theory," and characterizes them as holding that "no particular content can be ascribed to 'Christian' ethics... that is distinctive from what can be known by all rational human beings." (6)
He says that his reason for rejecting the natural law theory is that this theory "destroys the distinctive content of Christian ethics." (7) There can be little argument about this objection, since natural law theory as defined rules out any ethical content that would require a faith perspective. In contrast to natural law ethics, Friesen claims that Christian ethics mayindeed, musthave content that cannot and should not be agreed to by those outside of the faith. In what follows, I will refer to moral obligations that flow only from distinctive faith perspectives as "special ethics." Friesen holds to a special ethics, in contrast to natural law views which aim at a purely rational and therefore general ethics.
Any commitment to special ethics sets up a serious problem for those who take this position. The heart of the problem arises when one claims that ethical norms must apply to all people while, at the same time, holding that the ethical principles from which the norms come cannot be agreed to by all people.
From one point of view Friesen's book is a sustained effort to provide a solution to this problem. The heart of his solution rests on the idea of "mediating principles." These mediating principles are necessary because "no direct application of theological-ethical norms to political reality can be made, since political institutions exist for quite different purposes than the church." (8)
The central question for Friesen is how to apply norms to situations in which they are not directly applicable. The solution is to make the application indirectly by way of mediating principles, principles that are true to the spirit of Christianity but stated in terms understood by the state. In essence mediating principles are viewed as a translation from theological language to political language.
Friesen's way of handling the central problem of special ethics suggests that the difficulty is how to make things clear. To suggest a kind of translation as a solution is to think of the central problem as one of understanding. But the real problem is not that non-believers do not understand the Christian, the real problem is that non-believers have no reason to accept the position of the Christian. The central problem is a logical problem, an essential inability to find an agreed upon starting point.
To think of the difficulty as one of understanding is to place the emphasis in the wrong place. The central difficulty is one of justification and acceptance. It is one thing to understand a position, it is another thing to accept it as valid. Friesen is, of course, quite concerned that the Christian claim not only be understood but also be accepted. The problem is that these two different tasks are blurred in such a way as to obscure the lack of grounds for acceptance. There seems to be an assumption that if understanding is sufficiently complete acceptance will automatically follow.
Friesen claims to hold the following things to be simultaneously true:
[L]oyalty to the "Christ" paradigm is the final standard by which to evaluate Christian action.... It is neither possible nor proper, then, for Christians to attempt to develop the norms for politics on independent rational or philosophical grounds apart from revelation. (9)
It is the task of the Christian from a Christian narrative context to give an account of an alternative definition of justice and in the context of the public arena of debate rationally explain why a Christian definition of justice is more adequate. (10)
It is clear, not only from this last quote but from the whole argument of the book, that Friesen is committed to showing non-Christians, on their own grounds, i.e., without reference to faith, that they ought to accept the validity of the Christian norms of action as translated by the mediating principles.
This raises the question of the status of the mediating principles vis a vis faith. The mediating principles would have to be purely rational in order to persuade the non-believer that the Christian idea of morality (justice) is preferable (more adequate). If the mediating principles are purely rational and sufficient to persuade the non-believer, then they would suffice in and of themselves, making faith unnecessary.
Can the mediating principles be known on purely rational grounds? Then they surely cannot be adequate translations of what cannot be known on those grounds alone. Are they principles that are grounded in a faith perspective? Then how can they be rationally persuasive to people without that perspective? Either mediating principles are persuasive on purely rational grounds, in which case their source in faith is irrelevant, or they make essential reference beyond reason, in which case they cannot be persuasive to the non-believer.
The mediating principles might be understood hypothetically but how could they be accepted, i.e., how could they be shown to be true from a non-faith perspective? How can they be understood by persons who operate by reason alone or from a different faith perspective? Do they need another set of mediating principles? Friesen's effort to escape this dilemma is as follows:
Though these mediating principles are firmly rooted in the Christian faith in that they are not necessarily principles all human beings would adhere to as a result of the exercise of reason, they are also translated in such a way that they can be applied to institutions which do not share the Christian narrative framework. (11)
Here is the essential blurring. To show that the principles "can be applied" may be to show that a coherent society would result if they were accepted. On the other hand, to show that the principles "can be applied" might be to show that they will result in a more acceptable society on purely rational grounds, i.e., on grounds that owe nothing to faith.
While there is good reason to expect that mediating principles could make clear what society would result from the Christian idea of justice, there is no reason to suppose that that vision must automatically be seen by the non-believer as preferable to her own vision. Of course, the Christian may assume that anyone who understands the beauty of Christ must find it preferable to all else. But a moment's thought about the centrality of the cross should be enough to dispel any such fantasies.
If Friesen's translation is successful it must result in persuading people that the mediating principles ought to be accepted on purely rational grounds, i.e., from the perspective of natural law. This means that in so far as the translation is persuasive to the non-believer, the principles cannot appeal to anything that is beyond reason or natural law. Therefore, a persuasive translation cannot be an accurate translation if it translates what is beyond reason.
Kant in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals says that if there is such a thing as ethics it must be universally applicable to all rational beings. How does the one who advocates a special ethics, and in particular Christian ethics, deal with this claim? There would seem to be two basic options. First, one could accept Kant's dictum and claim that Christian ethics is in fact the only true ethics, obligatory for all people. Second, one could reject the claim and hold that there are in fact many valid ethics.
If the Christian ethicist takes the first option, the next question will be whether any part of Christian ethics depends essentially on faith. If not, there would seem to be no reason in principle why Christian ethics should not be fully available to reason alone. Under this option it is certainly misleading, if not arrogant, to speak of Christian ethics rather than ethics in general. On the other hand, if some part of what is universally obligatory is accessible only to faith, then the non-believer will be morally obliged to do things that she cannot know or justify.
It is hard to defend a concept of obligation in which some of what is demanded cannot be owned. Still, there is a good deal in the history and tradition of the Christian West that tends in this direction. In many places it is implied that the non-Christian cannot know the full moral law. Kant claims that philosophy must defend "God, freedom, and immortality" so as to secure the foundations of morality. This implies that the atheist cannot have a secure moral foundation.
Whatever the pedigree, the notion that only a person of faith can fully know the moral law is a notion that should not find credence in Christian circles. It is not true that only Christians have a full or true morality. Most of us know people of other faiths as well as atheists who have the highest understanding and practice of morality.
Another version of Christian moral priority is to claim that Christians have a better moral track record than non-Christians. This is certainly open to dispute. Bertrand Russell in his famous essay "Why I am not a Christian," argues that Christianity has had a negative moral impact. Whatever the value of his argument, it does show that Christians should be wary about claiming moral superiority. There is little or no empirical evidence to support the idea that morality is a strictly Christian concept.
Christians need to recognize that morality is a universal human characteristic. They need to recognize and value its highest expressions wherever they are found. It does the cause of Christ no good for Christians to imply in any way that they stand on higher moral ground, or have a private pipeline to moral truth. Even if history did show that Christians were morally superior, there still remains the logical difficulty of holding that non-believers are morally obliged to do something that can only be understood or accepted by believers.
These considerations make it difficult if not impossible to take the position that a special Christian ethics is the only true ethics. The alternative is to say that there are many ethics, Christian ethics being one of them.
If there is more than one system of moral obligation then, in so far as these systems disagree, it must be the case that only one of the systems applies to a single individual at a given time. It cannot be the case that one is morally obliged to do and to not do something. This logical consideration would seem to preclude the application of a separate Christian ethics to the world in general. If Christian ethics is one among many valid systems of obligation then there would be no moral grounds for claiming that those following a different ethics are doing anything blameworthy when their moral system diverges from that of the Christian.
If Christian ethics is a special ethics that applies essentially to Christians, then there can be no mediating principles that will make it applicable to those with a different, equally valid, ethical system. Under this assumption, one cannot, by definition, appeal to any universal ethical principles or standards. Under a system of many ethics, the task of mediation is even more hopeless than if one claims that Christians have the only or final moral truth.
The above difficulties appear to be inherent in the claim that there is such a thing as Christian ethics. What would be entailed in the denial that there is such a thing as Christian ethics? On first thought, one might assume that this entails that Christians cannot have a different code of expectation than non-Christians. But, of course, this is not so. Special expectations, commitments, even obligations are all a common part of life. The only point would be that such special expectations would not, strictly speaking, be ethical or moral obligations. There would certainly be Christian ethos and mores, there would not be any special Christian ethics or morals.
In moral theory it is sometimes suggested that the morally obligatory is not always the maximum good. In many situations one can easily think of going beyond the law. Whereas justice is a moral obligation, there is no moral obligation to love. Ethicists talk of supererogation when one goes beyond the call of duty, or does more good than is morally required.
If one denies that there is any special Christian ethics, one does not thereby assume that there is no distinctive code of Christian conduct. The expectation on Christian conduct might be thought of as supererogatory. The Christian is strictly expected to meet the moral law, but then also to go beyond that law. There is much in the Gospels that seems to point in this direction.
From this point of view the task of the "Christian ethicist," or better "the definer of the Christian ethos," would be quite different from that envisaged by Friesen. By definition the Christian could not bring any specifically Christian ethical insights or Christian moral pressure to bear on the state. But this would not imply that Christians had nothing to say to the state, nor that Christians could not be useful in improving their society.
Two different ways of approaching the state would still be open to the Christian. First, there could certainly be efforts to encourage the state to live up to its own highest moral vision. Second, there would be many times when it could be shown that it is in the state's own long term self interest to go beyond what is strictly demanded by justice. Ted Grimsrud in the recent article mentioned above seems to assume that either Christian principles apply directly to the state or the Christian is totally irrelevant to secular life. If he were to acknowledge the many ways in which a "two kingdom" Christianity is relevant to secular society it would make it much harder for him to make his case.
In reading the recent book Mennonite Peacemaking by Kraybill and Driedger, it became clear to me that the history of U. S. Mennonite peace theology in the past half century has been driven by Reinhold Niebuhr's view that Mennonites are irresponsible. Exactly why this critique should have been so humiliating to Mennonite intellectuals would bear some research, especially since a variety of rebuttals might easily be imagined. One only has to think of the importance of a faithful witness, or the service and development work, or note the large fraction of John Howard Yoder's work that is devoted to showing all of the hidden ways that Anabaptist presence has been consequential in the world. In any case, it has been and continues to be the case that many Mennonite leaders want desperately to be viewed as relevant. The fear of irrelevance would seem to lie near the surface for Friesen when he argues that any natural law approach, "destroys the distinctive content of Christian ethics" and goes on to say that, "The key issue for the church is how to remain faithful to its own norms as a community of faith and at the same time be relevant to the larger political community." (12)
One very natural way to avoid the sting of Niebuhr's rebuke is to make it clear that all Niebuhr himself can hope to do is to prod the state to live up to the highest ethical vision, and in this regard Mennonites have no inherent disadvantage. The young Gordon Kaufman made an eloquent plea for this approach:
If we would truly be disciples who would love, we must go beyond merely witnessing to our faith, we must concern ourselves with attempting to help our nation come to a deeper understanding of her own faith, her own convictions, the moral insights which are the context in terms of which she lives and acts. (13)
In light of the difficulties surrounding the idea of special ethics, Kaufman's article is well worth re-reading. Nor would one need to limit the church's response to strictly justice language. There surely are times when it makes sense to call on the mercy and compassion of the nation, and to work toward solutions that go beyond strict justice, explicitly on grounds of the long term interest of the state. All of this would seem to be open to Christians in general and specifically to Mennonites.
How could it have entered our minds that we would only be relevant if we could find some purely rational argument that would get secular society to act as ideal Christians? Could it be because we have assumed that somehow God's will and power can only be manifest through law?
To my mind, Lawrence Burkholder's "The Limits of Perfection: Autobiographical Reflections" is required reading for anyone struggling with the question of Christian ethics/ethos. This little piece has the virtue of putting our dilemma into the clearest possible light in the most concrete way. It has the further essential virtue of valuing and respecting the traditional Mennonite two world stance.
I would not want to claim a full solution to the dilemmas that Burkholder presents. What I would suggest is that a number of the tensions and problems that arise for him are reflections of an underlying commitment to the idea of special Christian ethics.
One of the things that strikes the reader of Burkholder's piece is his wholesale acceptance of special ethics. Some examples: "Christian ethics," "the ethic of Jesus," "the ethic of the Old Testament," "social ethics," "My ethics," "ethics of filial trust," "ethics of personal relations," "[ethics of] corporate responsibilities," "Kingdom ethics," "ethics of assertive power," "personal ethics," "ethics of withdrawal," "the ethics of the conquest of Canaan," "ethics in the grand style," "Mennonite ethics," "ethics of nonresistance," "Sectarian... ethics," "perfectionist ethics," "traditional ethics," "undialectical ethics," "impossible ethic," "Kingdom ethics," "Gospel ethic," "ethic of Christ," "ethic of Paul." (14)
This bewildering array of ethical types is very likely meant to refer to a smaller number of fundamental "ethics," but it is highly unlikely that Burkholder intends to refer to a single thing. The almost pathological need to fragment ethics points to a deep source of Burkholder's bewilderment and pain. His way of understanding his struggles is to see these conflicting demands as coming under the categories of "Tension between evidently contradictory but equally true ideas," "contrasting if not contradictory claims," "an abyss of tragic fate," "an ambiguous world epistemologically, historically, morally and religiously perceived," "[being] dialectically related to other normative structures." (15)
Ultimately, Burkholder thinks that the central fact of a conscientious life must be "moral conflict," (16) and ethical "compromise." (17) The root of his problem lies in the conviction that there are many ethics, together with the more puzzling conviction that we must be accountable to several, sometimes contradictory, ethics.
If one abandons the idea that there can be many true ethics, the root of this titanic struggle will be cut. In order to believe in a unified ethical system it is probably necessary to believe that there is some kind of hierarchy of ethical demands. Under such a hierarchy, when prima facie ethical demands conflict, there will be a single demand that has highest priority. Such a belief does not entail the belief that one could always know or figure out the highest priority. What it does entail is the belief that ethics does not require one to both do and not do the same thing.
A belief in an ultimately rational ethical system makes the category of compromise logically unnecessary. There would never be a logical need to compromise the demands of ethics, though of course there is always our human need to avoid the demands of the ethical. To say that there is no essential category of ethical compromise is not to take away from the ambiguity, tension, struggle, and tragedy of life. Life is no garden of roses. Life will and does serve up the most wrenching decisions. But it does not require one to do two contradictory things at once, and so guarantee compromise.
If one accepts the singularity of ethical demands, the moral struggle that is so beautifully portrayed in Burkholder remains, and its personal importance is validated. What is taken away is the notion that the root of this struggle lies in Christian commitment. Struggle, uncertainty, the agony of decision in the face of competing goods, all this and more remains true of the Christian life because it is true of the human condition. It is a mistake for the Christian to think that these conditions are somehow endemic to the Christian life. In this regard the Christian must claim solidarity with fellow humans. From the ancient Greeks on, pity, fear, and tragedy have been understood to be at the heart of the human condition.
There is much of Burkholder's struggle that is due to the facts of finitude, evil, and ignorance that characterize any human. But might it not be the case that the Christian ideal creates additional tension? If one views the Christian life as the ethical life plus the command to love, i.e., the command to go beyond the moral requirement, then it would seem to be true that the Christian will find heightened agony in life's choices. This would be the case when the Christian wishes to perform some supererogatory act of love which would by its nature violate some other person's moral right. There is certainly no guarantee in this world that one can expect do the loving thing for a given individual and not thereby violate the ethical demand (or the act of love) for another. If you have difficulty imagining this, read Burkholder.
In so far as the Christian tries to live a life beyond the moral, the Christian will necessarily find more situations of conflict, more agonizing choices, more tragedy. But this heightened sensitivity and compassion is logically of the same order as that of the moral non-Christian. It is more but not different, because we surely do not serve a God who commands us to both do and not do the same thing and then punishes us for failing.
If we hold to the goodness and rationality of God, then we must believe that God wills one of the terrible alternatives that face us, not both. If we face one of these terrible alternatives there will be two possibilities, God's primary will is the ethical, or God's primary will is love. If God's primary will for the Christian is the ethical, then the Christian must first and foremost fulfill the law. There may be much pain and unhappiness in having to forgo love if it violates the law, but there cannot be compromise or guilt or sin.
This ethical view of God is tempting and may in the end be the correct view. It would certainly be a high calling for the Christian to always carry out moral demands and in addition to do the loving thing where it can be done without violating a duty.
Any realist view of the nature of evil and sin will lead one to understand that it cannot always be shown that doing the loving thing is following enlightened self interest. The belief that love it ultimately good is a faith statement, based on the belief that God is good and in God's own time love will conquer. The Christian committed to love will do and wish many things that are not rationally supported. Such things it would not be appropriate to urge the state to do.
One view of Christian life, then, is "everywhere morality and where possible love." But, as noted above, there is another possible view, namely that God, in some cases, requires love over morality. To take this view would be to accept some version of Kierkegaard's "teleological suspension of the ethical." (18) It would be to claim that there are some acts that God requires even though they are in contradiction to what ethics demands. Under this view, there must necessarily be, from the standpoint of ethics, moral failure and moral guilt, though from the standpoint of heaven there is no sin.
One could interpret Burkholder's moral agony in this way. This would be to take him to claim that God requires the Christian to violate ethics in order to actualize love. This is a troubling view of Christian faithfulness. If it is what the gospel enjoins, then certainly Kierkegaard is right that one must live the life of the Christian with fear and trembling.
I personally do not find the Gospels to require the general and universal priority of love at the expense of ethics. Still, I am not inclined to dismiss this view out of hand. In fact, I am inclined to embrace a limited version of this view. It does seem to me that there is a clear teaching of absolute non-violence in the Gospels. If I take this as an absolute, I cannot escape the conviction that I am required, at the extreme, to violate ethics.
I am not a scholar of ethics, but I would hazard the opinion that there is no widely accepted understanding of morality in which one is prohibited from defending person or family with whatever means necessary. This is certainly the case for the Jewish law as presented and practiced in the Old Testament. Violence may be closely restricted and may be allowed only as a last resort, but ultimately self defense and defense of the defenseless loved one is permitted. In fact, this defense is most often seen as a moral obligation, at least in the case of one's family.
I do not think there are any purely rational grounds, or for that matter purely ethical grounds, for the pacifist Christian to claim that there is an absolute moral injunction against the use of violence, either on the personal or the political level. Ethics as a purely human, rational enterprise will sanction, or even enjoin, the use of violence on the communal and national level for the same reasons that it does so on the personal level. Absent a faith commitment, one would be hard pressed to articulate a valid set of reasons why it is always immoral to defend one's self, or family, or community, or nation. Just the opposite is the case. Ethics, outside of religious commitment, requires violent defense in extremis. The pacifist Christian, far from finding ethics to be a friend, may well find ethics to be a foe. Refusal to fight may very well violate a moral obligation.
Pacifist Christians would be well advised to acknowledge that the use of violence is sanctioned by accepted ethical systems. Even more, they would be well advised to acknowledge that those who have fallen in the defense of their country may well have gone to their deaths with a sincere and reasonable belief that they were carrying out a moral obligation.
For pacifist Christians to contemplate the probability that the soldier is a faithful son of ethics is to contemplate the possibility that they themselves are ethical transgressors. If there is some truth in this, how can the pacifist Christian be justified? The transgression of the demands of ethics could only be justified on some sort of transcendental level, only by some good or power that transcends the highest human understanding and the highest human good. The Christian would be in the uncomfortable position, vis a vis human reason, of claiming such authority. Given the inability of any human to have absolute certainty, the pacifist Christian must necessarily be working out her salvation with fear and trembling.
Contemporary pacifist Christian ethicists seem to be intent on showing that ethics properly understood requires non-violence. The argument presented here is designed to show that this is an unlikely enterprise. The argument is also intended to suggest that the anguish that Burkholder experiences is in part a consequence of this "Christian ethics" project. To recapitulate the argument:
1. Moral rules and obligations exist. Ethics is the systematic presentation of moral obligation. Christian ethics would be a system of moral obligation that can be understood and justified only from a faith perspective.
2. Moral obligations apply universally to everyone or there are different obligations for different groups/people.
3. If Christian ethics is universal then non-Christians must be obliged to do what they can not understand or justify.
4. This untoward result cannot be overcome by postulating purely rational (non-faith) mediating principles. If there are such purely rational principles they will be adequate by themselves, without any reference to faith, to ground morality, thus obviating the need for faith.
5. If Christian ethics is not universal, the Christian has no grounds for holding that the non-Christian ought to conform to Christian morality. Furthermore the Christian cannot claim that the non-Christian is immoral or unethical if she obeys the morality proper to her.
6. The dilemma of Christian ethics can be overcome by acknowledging that ethics is a human science, i.e., there is no system of ethics that is peculiar to the faith perspective.
7. To give up Christian ethics is not to give up a distinctive Christian life style, it is only to give up the claim that what Christians voluntarily commit themselves to is universally required of everyone. Christian mores and ethos remain.
8. If the Christian is committed to a special set of guidelines for living, the question arises as to whether the guidelines will ever require actions that conflict with what ethics demands.
9. One option would be to say that Christian commitments are always constrained by moral obligation, but must wherever possible go beyond the ethical in the direction of love.
10. A more radical option would be for the Christian to claim the necessity to transgress the ethical in order to actualize the peculiarly Christian.
11. Ethics allows, and may even require, the use of force and violence in order to preserve more primary goods.
12. Given the openness of ethics to violence, the absolute pacifist is in the position of claiming a higher good than ethical good, a higher obligation than moral obligation.
The proposal here is a radical one. It is the proposal that Mennonites repudiate the idea of Christian ethics. Any such action would of course have to be carried out in such a way as to make it quite clear that this has nothing to do with the Anabaptist commitment to a life of obedience, active love, and discipleship.
The idea of Christian ethics may make some sense for magisterial Christianity, where the central idea is that the Christian community encompasses the whole of society. With such a vision, the idea of Christian ethics can claim to be the true universal moral obligation. But it can hardly make sense for an alternative community to claim that their special committed obligation to the kingdom of God is the only true idea of morality.
The proposal is that we Mennonites avoid talking about our special obligations and commitments as a system of ethics. This would make it clear that when we talk about the Jesus life, we are not talking about moral obligation in general. We would certainly continue to talk about Christian life style, Christian commitments, Christian mores, Christian expectations, and Christian obligations. But we would make it clear that any of these that have an essential root in our faith are of a different category from those that flow from general moral obligations.
Giving up the notion that Mennonites can specify what is right and wrong for all society would have a therapeutic effect. It would make it clear that ethics is a concept that belongs with law and the Old Covenant. It would reclaim the Pauline distinction of law and grace. It would make it clear that the ground of peculiar Christian norms is a commitment to Christ rather than a commitment to politics. It would make it possible to value and admire secular idealism when it is grounded in true moral principle. It would make it possible to encourage society to live up to its self-acknowledged high moral obligation. It would help reduce the odor of moral superiority that hangs around our self image and our political activism. It would help us sympathize with and relate to non-believers and move us some distance back to a genuine humility.
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Trans. Howard. V. Hong and Edna. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 55.
2. Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994).
3. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
4. Ted Koontz, "Thinking Theologically about War against Iraq," Mennonite Quarterly Review 77 (Jan. 2003): 93-108.
5. Ted Grimsrud, "Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy," Mennonite Quarterly Review 78 (July 2004): 341-362.
6. Duane Friesen, Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986), p. 106.
8. Ibid., 107.
9. Ibid., 108.
10. Ibid., 111.
11. Ibid., 107.
12. Ibid., 107.
13. Gordon Kaufman, "Nonresistance and Responsibility", Concern: A Pamphlet Series For Questions of Christian Renewal, No. 6 (November 1958), 17.
14. Rodney J. Sawatzky & Scott Holland (eds.), The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder (Waterloo, Ontario: Institute of Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, 1993). These and other "special ethics" references are found throughout the text. Page references for the above phrases are: 1, 2, 2, 2, 6, 7, 10, 10, 12, 18, 19, 28, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 39, 41, 42, 52, 52, 52.
15. Ibid., 34, 34, 38, 40.
16. Ibid., 4.
17. Ibid., 35, 48, 49.
18. See Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.
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