“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed.”
Francis Bacon (d. 1626).
Reviewed by Jeph Holloway, Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics
East Texas Baptist University, Marshall, TX
Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus In Contemporary Context
Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee,
Downers Grove, IVP, 2003, $30.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee are concerned that Christian Ethics as an academic discipline is often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith. They believe specifically that the teachings of Jesus concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching of the Church and in Christian scholarship in ethics. The result of such evasion and distortion is “seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs, and moral witness” (xi).
To give central place to Jesus’ teachings will mean to give priority to the kingdom or reign of God (chapter 1). Stassen and Gushee understand the reign of God as God’s performative act enabling our participation in a way of life characterized by a reversal of worldly values and by a new lifestyle of service, servanthood, and humility. More specifically, Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom reflects reliance on themes from the Book of Isaiah such as those of salvation, God’s presence, justice, peace, and joy. While this kingdom will one day come in dramatic fullness, Stassen and Gushee argue that God’s reign has been inaugurated in some way in the first coming of Christ. The present reality of the kingdom makes possible a way of life among those who respond in faith to its presence in Jesus Christ, a way of life most explicitly taught in the Sermon on the Mount, what Stassen and Gushee call a “primer for kingdom ethics” (30).
The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount give our writers the opportunity to explore and dialogue with the contemporary concern for virtue in recent Christian ethics and moral philosophy (chapters 2 and 3). In fact, focusing on the Beatitudes can give specific content to what is often an overly general appreciation for virtue without adequate consideration as to which virtues Christians should nurture. The Beatitudes, though, do not need to be understood as noble ideals that Jesus urges us to live up to so as to merit entry into God’s kingdom, but rather as expressions of God’s “participative grace” that gives “Christomorphic” shape to lives that have known God’s gift of deliverance through faith in Jesus Christ.
Because the Beatitudes reflect God’s gracious gift of deliverance they will each testify in some way to the character of God and to the “already”/“not yet” character of God’s deliverance. The poor in spirit, for example, are blessed because it is in God’s character to care for those who know their desperate condition. This care will find its perfect expression in the coming kingdom, but even now, “because God is actively delivering the humble and the poor, Jesus’ followers can rejoice—because as a community we participate in this deliverance” (39). The Beatitudes highlight virtues that are deeply rooted in the entire biblical witness and not only picture what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but picture the virtues of Jesus himself whose life and teaching provide these virtues with concrete embodiment.
Stassen and Gushee emphasize, however, that a focus on virtue is no escape from the necessity of concrete obedience to the teachings of Jesus. To focus “on being rather than doing” is a “fundamental error” (73). Kingdom Ethics argues for a holistic approach to Christian ethics: “No aspect of moral existence is left out—decisions, practices, convictions, principles, goals and virtues are all included in the effort to ‘live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel’” (122).
Stassen and Gushee will argue, though, that there is a significant relationship between virtue and concrete obedience to the teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount in terms of what they call Jesus’ “transforming initiatives.” Stassen and Gushee argue that interpreters have generally missed a vital aspect of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and in so doing have either rendered Jesus a dualist (Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” ethic) or an idealist, both strategies licensing evasion of Jesus’ teaching. Stassen and Gushee detect a three-fold structure in the teachings of the Sermon (rather than the familiar two-fold “antitheses”) that first cites a traditional teaching on righteousness (“you shall not kill”) that is then followed by a diagnosis of those vicious cycles that lead to unjust outcomes (“being angry, or saying, ‘you fool!’”). The third feature of Jesus’ teachings is, however, where the emphasis must be given, on “transforming initiatives that give real, practical, grace-based guidance for Christian ethics” (“Go, be reconciled”). Rather than unrealizable ideals or a merely privatized ethic, Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount transforming initiatives that enable participation in “the way of God’s grace that God took in Jesus” (135). Such transforming initiatives (for a summary see the chart on 142) are neither high ideals “to be admired from a distance” nor “mere attitudes, vague intentions, or moral convictions only, but regular practices to be engaged in” (136). Most importantly, they are ways of “participation in God’s active presence and God’s grace” (140).
The bulk of Kingdom Ethics is a journey through the Sermon on the Mount in an attempt to explore how Jesus’ “transforming initiatives” make possible “the practices of deliverance in the midst of a world of sinful bondage to vicious cycles of despair and destruction” (144). Stassen and Gushee address a wide variety of concerns in an effort to provide specific and concrete expressions of Christian discipleship. The range of issues runs from matters related to the value of life (peacemaking, the death penalty, bioethical issues), to matters of human relationships and sexuality (marriage and divorce, homosexuality, gender roles), to matters of love and justice (truth telling, race, economics, care for creation).
No review can do justice to the involved and careful discussion Stassen and Gushee provide on these matters. They often give detailed treatment of significant interpretive issues of the biblical text and are mindful of the history of interpretation and of significant schools of thought in Christian ethics. They demonstrate the value of solid social scientific research in their use of statistics to track societal trends and to explore and expose flagrant breaches of justice. They illustrate the current relevance of Jesus’ teachings with appeal to life stories of their own and of others who have sought to embody faithfulness to the Kingdom of God. The book can be recommended for any pastor’s library as a resource, not just for the Sermon on the Mount, but also for the many areas of ethical challenge that confront congregational ministry today. The book will also serve well as a text for upper-level courses in Christian ethics. Students will engage not simply with extensive treatment of biblical materials on key ethical concerns, but also with a wide range of voices and perspectives in the discipline of Christian ethics.
I do have one reservation about the book, a reservation that reflects a key concern in the field of Christian ethics today. On the one hand, Stassen and Gushee emphasize that the way of life depicted in the Sermon on the Mount is indeed kingdom ethics, and that the virtues and practices Jesus calls for presuppose “participative grace,” God’s gracious deliverance through Christ and our participation in it. Such participation necessarily entails immersion in the social context of the church that as salt and light serves as both an alternative, counter-cultural community and as a community expressing God’s care for the entire human family (473-483). For Stassen and Gushee the latter task includes expressions of “political activism.” Such activism, while situated within the broader context of the church’s public witness and social ministry, would include, for example, calls for state regulation of abortion (235-236), handgun availability (189-191), and perhaps even automobile fuel economy standards (445-456).
The basic question is how the church can both serve as an alternative, counter-cultural community whose moral life is formed by the participative grace of God and “shepherd” the moral life of a wider society not so formed? Is the Christian moral life that set of virtues and practices that demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God made present in Jesus Christ or can it be reduced to a set of positions on this or that issue that can be made into policies defensible in “a respectful public language that communicates its values in a way that a wide variety of people can understand and embrace” (481)? This contrast is a little overstated and the great thrust of Kingdom Ethics is toward the formation of the moral witness of the Christian community, but Stassen and Gushee themselves raise the issue when they seek to pair language of the kingdom with “respectful public language” as tools of moral discourse. What that “public language” sounds like is hard to say. Many who have sought to learn it now admit that it sounds much like the confusion at Babel.