Sometimes people’s fears baffle me. One week at a relatively conservative Independent Christian Church, the pastor preached about the dangers of “Situation Ethics,” relating with a sense of urgency that some people out there believed that a person could even kill another person if the “situation” allowed it.
The next week he mentioned in his sermon the goodness of the boys in the church who were heading to Iraq with the Marine Corps.
Once again I say fear not. Fear neither “situation” itself nor that I’m going to write another installment in the tired and tiring “should Christians fight in Iraq” discussion. Instead, the illustration leads me to the philosophical concept and practice of situation, placing human action within narrative and community frameworks. My argument will be that every ethics is a situational ethics, though I will note my own objections to what people have come to call (with capital letters) Situation Ethics.
Homer, Plato, Isaiah, Abraham
When a historian of ethics (or at least Alasdair MacIntyre, whose history is the one whose history informs this section) undertakes an account of the history of ethics, Homer is a natural starting point both because of his antiquity and because of his influence on the classical Athenian tragedies and philosophers. In Homer’s epics, the narrator evaluates the fighting kings and their soldiers as kings and soldiers. If a king leads well and a soldier wields sword and spear well, then they are good. If they do not, they are not. What makes a good king has nothing to do with what makes a good servant, and there is no hint in Homer’s poetry that there is enough in common between the two to say what makes a good human in general. On the other hand, the kings Priam of Troy and Nestor of Greece are similar enough that Homer can narrate their pain at losing sons in battle in truly resonant terms. The situation of a king on the throne is ultimately the determining factor in his goodness or badness.
By Plato’s time things had changed dramatically; a republic in Rome and a democracy in Athens had established in the very shape of government a formal equality among men; although aristocrats still had little to do, day to day, with plebians, and although one had to own property and to be a man to be a part of the Athenian ekklesia, yet the moral philosophers from both cities could and did evaluate humans in general. That said, Plato, certainly one of the great minds to emerge from classical Athens, still held that a Greek was of a different order from a barbarian. A man of the latter class was outside both of the expectations of Greek culture and estranged from its benefits; though he might have all the same biological hardware, he was of a different order. One situated among Hellenic cities was not similar enough to one situated outside to compare meaningfully their moral lives.
By contrast, the biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived roughly when Homer might or might not have existed, delivered oracles that bridged both of the axes of commonality: his oracles go out against Egyptians (ch. 19) and Assyrians (10:5 ff.)as well as Israelites, and they go out against both kings (10:1-3) and commoners (2:17-22). With regards to the God of the Hebrews, all of creation is subject to the Creator, and the oracles of the prophets can and must go out to all humans in all nations, in all classes and all walks of life.
All that said, within that grand creation, subject in every part and at every time to one sovereign creator, Israel, starting with Abraham, receives a special calling. God situates them within that creation as a blessing to the other nations (Genesis 12), as a priestly people (Exodus 19), as a city of wisdom (Isaiah 2). Whatever God calls Israel to do, their situation as that chosen people determines to a great extent how they are to live in the larger creation and among the other, created, peoples of the world.
Thus the ethics of Israel, although they happen in a world claimed in whole by God, bind mainly those who are situated as God’s people, the priests to the nations, the blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Leviticus does have a section of more general ethical precepts for those who are living as aliens in Israel, and the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 holds Gentile Christians to those standards, but the bulk of the Torah is for Israel, those situated as God’s delivered people.
Life in a New Creation
Paul likewise sees the Church as the situated and delivered people of God, the new Israel. After spending eleven chapters giving a rather involved theology of the Church’s situation relative to Israel and to the Mosaic Law and to the nations, Paul launches into the book’s twelfth chapter with a mighty “Therefore”:
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (Romans 12, NRSV)
As with the last essay, I do not venture to exegete the entire passage, only to note that all of these ethical exhortations (to humility, to harmony, to service) follow the “therefore,” the “therefore” receiving its force not from any universal humanity or least common denominator but from the particular theological situation within the community saved by grace through faith for service to Christ. (I realize I probably stretched the last bit of that triad, but I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments section.) The ethics of Romans does not and cannot begin until, after eleven dense chapters, the Church is situated as the branch grafted on to Israel.
The Bible thus does not fear situation as a category; the movement of God through history in fact always seems to go forth from God, through a situated holy people, to the nations at large. Certainly even a mildly cautious theologian would say that God could have done that differently, but a careful look at the texts indicates that in fact God did not.
Why Situation Ethics is not Situational Enough
As I promised at the outset, I will address the movement called Situation Ethics. The movement’s intentions, like those of most movements, are the best. The general idea seems to be that agapic love should be the measure of all human action, that the goodness or badness of an action should be measured not by adherence to any dry rule but by how much agape the action creates or destroys. So those who consider themselves Situation Ethicists might hold that an act of killing, a verbal renouncing of Christ, or some other action, which seems wrong on its face, actually promotes a greater love and thus must be considered good rather than bad.
The problem with Situation Ethics is that it considers temporal situations (i.e. discrete events) as unconnected to a way of life and ignores entirely ethical situation (i.e. one’s status as one grafted to Israel or one not yet grafted to Israel). The system seems to assume that every human being exists in a flat moral space, each differentiated from the other only by virtue of differing levels of influence among the nations. A Christian has the same obligations as a Marxist, who in turn has the same obligations as a Buddhist.
One strange consequence of Situation Ethics is that such a practice of ethical reflection actually presumes that the way the world divides up identity is the way Christians also should. After all, a powerful man has different kinds of decisions to make and different sorts of agapic influence than does a janitor. Likewise, since one’s “situation” is always in one’s moment, in one’s immediate location, it radically individualizes ethics based on one’s surroundings. So like Homer, Situation Ethics would hold that a president of a military superpower is bound by different agapic duties than is the street sweeper, and like Plato, but inadvertently, it puts the American in different spheres of influence from the Iraqi.
For Christians, formed as we are by the Eucharist and by Baptism, Situation Ethics gets the situations all wrong. The divisions between degrees of influence and power are in fact important but not nearly as much as are divisions between those following Christ and those not yet following Christ, taking up the cross and not yet taking up the cross. For now I will resist the temptation to assert that all those taking up crosses should eschew killing people altogether (I do believe that), but at the least I think we can start by saying that certain courses of action, acceptable by the world, simply do not make sense for those situated as followers of Christ.
Such is not to say that certain ways of life are “evil” for Christians and “good” for not-yet-Christians. Rather some ways of life fit into a Christian situation, and some do not. We evangelicals (even bad ones like me) call ourselves that for a reason, namely that we have a proclamation, a word of euangelion (gospel) to proclaim. The aim of proclamation, on some level, is not to deny that we are situated within God’s story of redemption and others are not yet but to call others into the same situation, to renounce whatever powers and principalities currently situate their lives and to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
Postscript: I have struggled mightily with this little essay and probably should have revised it once or twice more, preferably after I graded my latest batch of freshman papers, before publishing it. That said, I expect that all of my posts here are discussion starters, not discussion enders, so I welcome chances to refine and to revise my positions in the comments section.