By KEN WILSON
Author of Letter to My Congregation
Say to a pastor, “Let’s talk Christian ethics”—and you’re likely to hear a groan.
Most are inclined to outsource nettlesome ethical discernments to their institutions, sub-consciously careful not to jeopardize their jobs by breaking ranks on red-line issues. The institutions themselves, of course, are wracked by the same toxic forces that paralyze our national ethical discourse, such as it isn’t. (Reinhold Niebuhr observed that individuals often display greater moral maturity than collectives do.) In the evangelical, non-denominational sector I used to inhabit, serious ethical reflection was rare, superficial—in a cynical moment, I might say oxymoronic. I get it: In the modern era, lose-lose ethical debates come at us pastors fast and furious and we have churches to run.
Another challenge: The scholarly discipline of Christian ethics has been dominated by men in my demographic who weigh in with their expertise on matters that do not and never will affect them personally—abortion, marriage equality, women’s rights, racial justice to name the obvious ones. Worse, the same scholars barely acknowledge this remarkably pertinent fact. Following the traditions of academia (and human nature), rarer still is the published Christian ethicist willing to publicly acknowledge that their previous writings on a given subject were flat out wrong.
‘Enter a Breath of Fresh Air’
Enter a breath of fresh air—a guide who treats us like adults: David Gushee and his latest, Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today.
David Gushee is known by pastors for co-authoring (with Glen Stassen) Kingdom Ethics—used in many seminaries for years, and revised in 2016. He first gained my attention as an evangelical ethicist willing to take on the climate-skepticism of his tradition, and then, state-sanctioned torture; his contributions on this issue arguably contributed to a reversal of U.S. government policy. But then David Gushee did something that altered the landscape: wrote Changing Our Mind in 2014, a book that cost him his evangelical bona fides for its advocacy of LGBTQ+ inclusion.
I thought: What’s this?! A well-placed Christian ethicist with the courage to actually pay a personal price for his honesty?!
AN EMOTIONALLY AFFECTING INTRODUCTION TO ETHICS
As a new introduction to Christian ethics, his latest book is singularly engaging in its approach. I confess that reading it was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Gushee reveals himself, at times, with candor. As a reader, I responded by letting my own guard down, to notice how much emotion, how much anguish, how much fear attends the task of engaging in serious ethical reasoning within the contemporary religious-political-cultural context. Laypeople, let alone pastors who are engaged in this work, discover that where one lands on key ethical discernments can lead to increased tensions within families, destabilized friendships, and lost church connections.
The personal impact of the book is amplified by some innovative publishing technology that I haven’t seen before. By clicking a phone or tablet on QR codes in the book, the reader can access a recorded version of the text—audio or video—adding Gushee’s literal voice to the written words, a voice that conveys the emotion that corresponds to the author’s convictions. It’s as close to sitting down with an author as one can get for the modest price of the book. Kudos to Front Edge Publishing.
THAT LAYS OUT THE ETHICIST’S CRAFT
The first portion of the book is an engaging introduction to the craft of ethical reflection within the Christian tradition.
How does someone who has devoted their life and vocation to this discipline go about it? We’ve all seen (and some of us have practiced) the ethical party-line posing pastors do in a cheap imitation of ethical reasoning: making sweeping assertions with anecdotal evidence, proof-texting, sloganeering.
Maybe in this pandemic you had to figure out how to cut your own hair; it can be done, but it’s a far cry from going to a skilled hair stylist or barber—and it shows. Lo and behold, there’s a discipline called Christian ethics where skill, effort, and practice matter; so do sources and methods. (Personal gripe: Biblical scholars like N.T. Wright, Robert Gagnon, and many others weigh in with scholarly prestige on contemporary ethical debates, without reminding us they are not trained Christian ethicists.)
Learning from Gushee about what goes into the craft of ethical reflection made me want to ask him, “David Gushee, where were you when I was a leader in a renewal community that formed like a flash mob in the Jesus movement of the late 1960’s—trying to figure out complex issues such as divorce and remarriage in my twenties?” How many pastors today weigh in on complex ethical subjects (or enforce ethical norms in their congregations) involving people’s actual lives without doing their homework or without even understanding what the homework might be?
Gushee lays out what the craft of ethical reflection involves. He tells us, here are some things you need to consider to do justice to these subjects: What’s a basic vocabulary to help you examine and articulate your thoughts? What’s the history of reflection on whatever topic you are considering? What forms of moral logic are available? What big picture Scriptural themes might guide an intentionally Christian approach that moves beyond proof-texting?
Obviously, this is the work of someone who has taught his subject to beginners many times over and he’s come up with ways of presenting the material that are sticky, helpful, clarifying, and accessible. One method I especially appreciated is that, at the beginning of most chapters, he reminds us: Here’s where we’ve been and here’s where we’re going next and why. IT’s like watching a Netflix series drama that begins with key highlights of earlier episode. Throughout, including the early more technical chapters, Gushee introduces Christian ethics as a good storyteller who has honed his storytelling by previous audience reactions.
A STORY-TELLING APPROACH TO INTRODUCING ETHICS
In an early and determinative chapter, “Jesus from Below,” Gushee tells the story of Howard Thurman, whose work shaped Gushee’s own life. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman emphasizes that Scripture is written by the marginalized, for the marginalized—and to the extent it carries divine inspiration conveys the concerns of the God who sides always with the oppressed and against their oppressors. Those of us who are not oppressed, get on God’s side by siding with them enough to get a small taste of what they experience. Not your usual white bread Christianity. But Gushee doesn’t just lay out Thurman’s thesis, he tells the gripping story of how Howard Thurman became the theological forerunner of the Civil Rights movement and the impact Thurman had in Gushee’s life, as a corrective for his coming to faith and rising to professional influence within Southern Baptist evangelicalism. Clearly, Howard Thurman changed Gushee’s life and work.
In a later chapter, “Repenting White Supremacy” Gushee tells the story of a year spent reading nothing but the novels of black writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and others. For several pages, he confronts us with what these writers tell us about white people under the shadow of white supremacy—knowing that their voices matter more than his in this incisive and humble chapter. Yes, Gushee speaks of his own experience, but I also appreciate how often he tells the stories of others who speak from the margins.
How to say it? He’s not just another white guy citing other white guys in the white guy echo chamber that so much Christian scholarship has been for so long. He’s searching out other voices, learning from them, seeing, feeling, thinking, doing new things. If you share Gushee’s social location and know it’s time to expand your horizons, I can’t think of a better place to start than to read this book to get the motivation and early leads you need. If possible—and it is, even if you aren’t podcast savvy!—listen to Gushee’s actual voice reading “Jesus from Below.” Soon thereafter Gushee (under Thurman’s influence) centers Christian ethics in the Kingdom of God and the Sermon on the Mount.
THAT PULLS NO PUNCHES
Then Gushee takes us on an introductory tour of five components of a Christian moral core with chapters on truthfulness, sacredness, justice, love, and forgiveness. Sounds a little ho-hum? Not so much. His chapter on truthfulness lays out the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition on this subject, the various ways people understand truthfulness, key terms in biblical Hebrew and Greek that pertain to truthfulness, along with the stunning abandonment of truth-telling norms in recent years.
Then he addresses the elephant in the room, Donald Trump lying:
“The most interesting people to watch during this awful time were not the Democrats, whose party affiliation and ideology made it easy for them to perceive Donald Trump clearly. Instead, it was the population of Republicans who had to decide whether they would submit to a regime of lies when they knew what it was. The most impressive in this group are those who suffered real costs for choosing bedrock truth over Trumpism power. But there were not enough of them. The U.S. body politic remains fractured because of Donald Trump’s lies, the most dangerous of which proved to be the claim that the election was stolen from him” (101).
At this point in the book, we’re half-way along what Gushee calls “driving down the ethics highway.” Our next stops? A chapter-by-chapter introduction to all the hot topics: Caring for creation, ending the rule of men over women, repenting White Christian Supremacism, economic ethics, contraception, abortion, sexual ethics, marriage, church and state, criminal justice, peace and war-waging, and end-of-life ethics, with two final chapters on ministerial ethics and why our moral vision is so easily corrupted by, well, ourselves.
AND TREATS US LIKE ADULTS
Throughout, there’s no argumentative bullying, no condescension, no displays of expertise for manipulative effect. In every case, Gushee is transparent about the pros and cons of differing perspectives, his sources and methods, and, crucially, the factors and concerns that weigh most heavily in his conclusions. That’s the treating-us-like-adults part of his book that I so appreciate. Don’t just tell us your thinking, show us your thinking so we can discern its validity for ourselves and use it as a springboard for our own reflection. Often, I was right there with him. In a few places, I wanted to interject, “But you haven’t considered this or that…” In other words, he did what really good teachers do: Gushee equipped and engaged me as I suspect he will equip and engage many readers who consider these matters with him.
There are plenty of gems to underline or mark with exclamation points.
I’ll close with a favorite in a portion with the sub-head, “The Erroneous Split Between Jesus and Justice.” With the personal insight of a former insider to evangelicalism, Gushee traces several factors that led white, conservative Christianity (that is, dominant American Christianity) to drive a wedge between Jesus and Justice(!)—something that has baffled me for years. This portion reads like a crime novel: the incipient anti-Judaism of early Christianity coming to full bloom in the Protestant Reformation, framing justice as an inferior Old Testament concern (contrasted with grace, mis-identified as uniquely Christian) followed by translation decisions for key Hebrew and Greek words that effectively erased justice from many English Bibles, combined with hitching much national and global missions work to the colonizing horrors of empire in need of a religious cover-up story. It’s enough to make your skin crawl and renew your conviction that some mysterious power that Scripture calls the devil really does roam the earth.
Reading Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today was a surprisingly emotional experience!
I hope many pastors and lay people distressed by our religiously charged and fear-driven debates will spend some time with Dr. David Gushee—whose guiding wisdom will make possible fruitful ethical reflection and deeds of their own.
Care to Learn More?
ABOUT THIS BOOK: Five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation claimed the Bible as the authoritative guide for Christian living (“Sola Scriptura!” Only Scripture!). In this groundbreaking work, Emily Swan and Ken Wilson claim the authority of the church is shifting back to where it should be: in Jesus (Solus Jesus!). As co-founders of Blue Ocean Faith, Swan and Wilson are pioneering what it means to be post-evangelical—post-Protestant, even—in a time when such re-imagining is desperately needed.
You also may want to read Ken’s original book, which continues to help families and congregations around the world: Letter to my Congregation—An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender into the company of Jesus