Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some thoughts on ethics

The stories we tell to one another reveal much about who we are, and what we believe. In my family, the children love to hear stories of how mom and dad met, or the ice storm that was occurring when mom went into labor with Micah. With Emma, we didn’t even own a car, and relied on neighbors to drive us 15 miles to the hospital. Such stories, which are similar to those narratives told by most families, not only keep our children or friends amused. Stories of our lives are integral pieces of identity formation. Not only do they reveal much about us to others, they provide a foundation for who we believe we are as individuals, as members of families, and as participants in community.
Interestingly, the stories we tell one another within the context of family or community often indicate the social and kinship roles that we are expected to maintain as individuals. Not only do the stories we tell about dad tell us what kind of person he is or was, but also indicate the kind of character expected from males in the family. Stories about early American heroes not only serve to bring us together as Americans, but indicate the type of individual character that best serves the interests of the overarching American themes of individualism, exceptionalism, and overachievement.
Such themes are not strictly conservative political or liberal social values in the United States. Stories we tell about the American independence movement or the Underground Railroad, the two World Wars or the Civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, are seminal, not only to how we view ourselves as Americans, and the roles we are expected to master as American citizens, but how we measure ourselves individually against our political and religious opponents. We are a story-formed people, and, perhaps, a story-formed race of created beings. We use stories, not always as a fully fact-checked facsimile of truth, but as indicators, reflections, and re-enforcers of truth. And, like any language game, we use stories to harness the reigns of power, and legitimate our claims that we possess the knowledge of truth and the right to express it.
For much of history, stories that were once oral in nature have been codified into standard texts. Indeed, the first thing that humans do at this point in history is codify truth in the form of constitutions, contracts, rule books, and other projects of human reasoning designed to take the element of the supposed fallibility of oral presentations out of the process of human progress. If the Enlightenment, and its grandchild modernity insist on anything, it is that we must no longer allow stories to encumber us with continuity of identity, or chain us to the misleading ministrations of mythology. Stories, suggest the empiricist, are the bane of human liberation and individual freedom. Reason is the liberator of humanity, goes the argument against maintaining the ethics of the past, whether they be underwritten by religion, ancient philosophy, or even, the particular ethics of ethnic, racial, or economic experience.
You might be raising the question at this point, what does this have to do with Quakerism? I suggest that the tensions that exist between story and reason, and between past and future, and that place in between in which Quakerism should serve to mediate, have been eliminated. Reason marginalizes the stories of our beginnings, the historical nature of our moral authority, and the concept of cultural continuity. Our future is open for consumption, without the burden of the limits of ancient values, texts, or gods. We can choose our identities in America, shopping around for the right fashion, fantasy, political cause or spiritual truth that appeals to us as individuals, and serves to comfort our self-marginalizing tendencies by legitimizing the supremacy of choice.
I contend, however, that ethics should not be a matter of choice. Before you become too upset or puzzled, I will quickly explain what I do not mean. No one should be forced to practice any religion, and there should be no mandate that we become Lutheran, Baptist, Sunni, or Orthodox Jew. I do not mean that we should legislate school prayer, or that the political wishes of a faith community be codified into secular law so that there can be no gay marriage or divorce. I do not seek political legitimization of any faith, nor do I suggest that religious codes trump democratically derived legal codes within the context of our society. I am a firm believer in self-determination, and believe that the participation in any group, religious or otherwise, be voluntary.
However, I contend that faith itself, the foundation of what we come together for on First Days, is not a matter of choice. Faith, and faithfulness, is a matter of experience, discernment, and praxis, or, the practice of living out of a belief. I contend that our experience of the divine crosses the line that demarcates the distance between story and reason. For those who have experienced the risen Christ, this means that we no longer choose our identity, but assume the identity of a chosen people. As Paul says, “we are no longer our own.” As the author of First Peter writes, we are “a peculiar people.” God’s own possession. As such, when it comes to discerning community morals and the ethics that place those values on public display, we are a people of the Book, and not necessarily a people of reason.
There is a challenge of unlimited scope that becomes evident when one assumes the ethic of a religious narrative that claims to be an alternative to the supremacy of reason. Primarily, at least in the western world, we are forced to make a choice that exists in that tension I mentioned before. In order to be taken seriously as a community, and in order to have our faith legitimated, we feel we must compete in the marketplace of pragmatics in order to fully participate in our democracy. Yet there is another aspect of the challenges of reason that compete with faithfulness. That is the challenge of economic and political power. In the pursuit of both, the people of God have often chose to manipulate the ethics of the Yahwist story and marginalize the life of Jesus as the primary informants of our identity. We instead choose to pursue power in a political manner that ignores the reality of the cross, and according to an economic ethic that ignores the manner of life which Jesus lived. I believe that, in America, we have become a people whose faith and practice is legitimized by the nation state, and who view the nation state and liberal democracy as the primary means of continuing the work of God.
However, the only legitimization necessary to a community of faith is the evidence of a corporate life that reflects their faith, and prioritizes the truth of Jesus of Nazareth over the power of nation states as a means of garnering justice. The key component to living such a life of faith is the characteristic of patience. Just as Jesus’ faithfulness was vindicated by the resurrection, so shall the faithful community be vindicated by God. Faithfulness exhibits the trust that God will act in the future, and that those actions will justify those believers who chose to live without the advantage of identity surfing. One example of such faithfulness exists in the midst of the Holocaust. It is the story of a Huguenot community in occupied France.
During the occupation, very few French nationals served the organized resistance. The realities of World War I and the failure of the impenetrable Maginot Line had demoralized many of the citizens. Many French simply complied with Nazi rule, including participation in the destruction of the Jewish and other marginalized populations. However, in a town called Le Chambron, more than 6000 Jews were saved from Nazi imprisonment and worse, because there were people who considered themselves citizens of the Kingdom of God, and thus not bound to serve military or elected authority simply because of potential consequences. Academic Philip Haillie wrote in 1981 that many French citizens not only collaborated with the German occupiers, but tried to outdo them in anti-Semitism in order to maintain good relationships with their conquerors. Hallie, an American Jew, wrote that the French Protestant village, surrounded by a nation of nominal Catholics and humanitsts, were different. They were different he wrote, because he perceived that they had no choice in the matter of helping Jews escape certain death. The read the Bible, and they took it seriously. In fact, Hallie wrote, “They believed it… they were literal fundamentalists.”
Now there is a catchphrase. Fundamentalists. However, fundamentalism in the context of Christianity, does not regard literalism as any more than an aspect of certain fundamentals of faith. Literalism itself, or belief in the story, can be separated from fundamentalism, which is more of an American political movement and fairly uncomfortably developed relationship between western reason and biblical faith. For instance, many fundamentalists will concern themselves with biblical values that reinforce common social themes of patriarchy, homophobia, and heaven as the primary expression of social justice. Yet, fundamentalism does not do justice to the biblical story, or the story of Jesus, or the ability of a community to believe that the Holy Spirit can guide a community to interpret the authoritative texts in a faithful manner that bears fruit in a manner that is different from another community. Fundamentalism does not have the patience to wait for divine vindication, and has thus chosen political power to establish a semblance of God’s perceived will in dominance over the rest of an unbelieving society.
Yet, the story of God, the biblical account of Jesus’ life, the reality of the cross, and the resurrection, point to a different ethic, and this ethic flies the face of reason when given the same weight on the cosmic scales of community praxis. The story of God’s chosen people is a narrative in which God has offered salvation to humanity through the developing of relationship between Creator and creation. The life lived by Jesus welcomed the world into a covenant that was established with Abraham and Sarah, with Hannah, Ruth, and David, and with all Israel. This covenant trusts that God will act faithfully, and enjoys a faithful response to the divine expression of love. Faithfulness means an expression of love toward the Creator, and toward one another whether neighbor or enemy. And if we believe in the supremacy of Jesus’ ethic of love as the expression of God’s truth, we have no choice when it come to protecting the oppressed, inviting the marginalized into our homes, and pursuing justice.
Wwe also have no choice in the question of violence. This, my Friends, is giving literal meaning to the whole of a text, and not only shoe-horned proof-texts that underwrite homophobia and other aberrations of God’s desire. Indeed, as Quakers, we should have no choice in the question of political power. If we are faithful to the story of Jesus, we sacrifice ourselves voluntarily so that we, as a people, can reflect the desire of God for the faithfulness of humanity. A desire that is shown fully in the life and voluntary sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah.
Jesus’ life showed very little regard for empirically developed and fully reasoned ethics. Jesus simply displayed an ethic of love and faithfulness. It was an ethic of justice, and egalitarian community - of welcoming in those who repented and maintaining faithfulness in the face of persecution. Jesus was a literalist, not in the sense of Torah as a means of controlling communities as maintaining hierarchies, but as a man who believed that God existed in a literal sense, and could be trusted to be faithful to those communities who identified themselves as a possession of God, and not persons free to choose amongst ethics of other nations that would make them relevant to the politics at hand. The life Jesus is an invitation to participate in the people of God, not a coercive historical act that mandates God’s will be executed by human institutions through forced baptisms, crusades, state churches or ballot boxes.
The people of God experience God’s love, and believe the attending ethic is revealed through Jesus, then voluntarily join a community that reflects God’s love because they do not consider alternatives to love as a viable option. There is not always reason in a nonviolent ethic. There is not always reason voluntary sacrifice, whether it be on a cross, or refusing to sacrifice to Caesar, or refusing to baptize infants. There is not always reason when followers of Jesus involuntarily sacrificed in the manner of the Underground Railroad, or refusing to defend personal property in the manner of Mennonites and many Quakers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars when they refused to take sides. There is little reason in marrying same sex couples within the context of your faith community when it marginalizes your congregation from the mainstream church. Yet, faithfulness is not always reasonable. In the ethic of Jesus, there are many things worth dying for, but none worth killing for, and this does not always make sense.
In the ongoing ethic of American freedom and justice, and the tension between liberal democracy and the rest of the world, a vast number of our neighbors and enemies believe that certain expressions of strength can be considered. These considerations are the use of militarism, including the bombing of civilians targets, and most recently even torture, as a potential means of saving innocent lives and ensuring the progress of the experiment of democratic power structures or the maintenance of academically and scientifically reasoned Marxist regimes. In each case of such use of power, whether it be the election of the socialists in Germany, or the bombing of Britain, the fire-bombing of Dresden or the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether Stalinism or Maoism, the tenets of empiricism and reason have expressed an ethic of power as an appropriate response to evil or injustice. Though democracy progresses forward, and the Cold War has been won, “evil” still exists and another enemy rises to fight. It may indeed be necessary for the empire to maintain order and for modernism to pursue justice. Yet, such is not the example of God, or the narrative of God’s People.
The narrative of God, which informs our identity as a chosen people, reveals truth through the servanthood of the church as informed by the life of Jesus. The people of Le Chambron new that God’s ethic was revealed in the life of Jesus, and that such a life lived is salvific, not only for a future kingdom, but for communities who participate in such an ethic in the present. We are saved from the machinations of militarism that carry out a perceived will of God without really believing that God can literally bring about salvation. Western empires perceive the cross as salvific without expecting that they must carry their own in a sacrificial manner. Reason sacrifices others, whereas followers of Christ sacrifice themselves voluntarily, in order to defend the marginalized and oppressed.
As such, I hope Friends will consider a new ethic when election time comes, and when the time comes to argue for social justice in a manner that obligates a Quaker ethic upon others. First, an ethic of Jesus can only be an ethic that is voluntarily accepted by those persons engaging in a community of faith. Non-violence just might include the abstaining from obligating others who do not believe in serving the poor or serving the marginalized. To democratically force such an ethic upon others is tantamount to accepting that a majority ethic of militarism, torture, or policies that maintain institutionalized racism is properly binding to our own community of faith.
Secondly, I suggest that, as Friends, we have no business voting to obligate others to contribute to expressions of our faith, such as the peace testimony or love of enemy, when we ourselves have been unwilling, in some circumstances, to sacrifice privilege on behalf of what we perceive to be justice. If we are going to pursue justice, we must do so as a community, and make the economic and social choices that prioritize our communities as examples of what peace or salvation look like, over the tendency of many persons of faith to vote for something that resembles peace and justice. Problematically, this is most often an expression of peace an justice underwritten by empire, continued economic privilege and consumer choice, and military or legal coercion.
Finally, what are Friends to do about injustices such as racism, sexism, and homophobia if we do not participate in a system that offers opportunities to resolve such realities. I believe that we as Americans, whether Quaker or not, fully believe that justice can only be achieved through the manipulation of power. There is much more than a grain of truth to such a belief. But if a Friend is Christ-centered, as I believe our Society historically is, we believe that we do not need to wield power or manipulate power in order to witness to justice. We may indeed sacrifice ourselves in acts of civil disobedience, or act in the manner of Tom Fox, or John Woolman, or the many women who preached publically despite severe consequences. We might speak prophetically to Truth. Yet, unless we as a community provide an example of what the future looks like, we are limiting ourselves to one view of justice, and perhaps, it is not the Creator’s view.

1 comment:

Dave Trowbridge said...

Wonderful! Much to think about as always.

But would you consider changing two things about your blog to make it easier for those of us with older eyes to read? White on black is very distressing (I end up having to read you in my RSS reader, because a long post like this makes my eyes too tired to focus), and the lack of space between paragraphs makes it difficult to keep one's place.