There is a long-standing tendency to reduce the Christian faith to ethics. In Christology this shows up when we see Jesus primarily as teacher. As a teacher – in fact The Great Teacher – Jesus gives us the information we need (through his words) and the model we need (through his actions) to do what is good and right. The fact that he died (was crucified as a criminal, a rebel against the instituted order) is illustrative of how the world has unethical tendencies and doesn’t want to hear how to live rightly.
This is not the version of the Christian faith that I teach and preach. As an ethical teacher, there is little or nothing about Jesus that stands out. His teaching on the good life – no the expectations God has for humans – is in line with what we read in the Old Testament. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in this regard (recognizing, of course, that then as now, there are multiple ways of being Jewish).
Instead of seeing Jesus primarily as teacher (that word primarily is important, since Jesus is undeniably – and importantly! – a teacher), the Christian tradition proclaims Jesus as God become human, one of us. As one of us he entered our life fully, took on our sin and brokenness, defeating both in his crucifixion and resurrection. In his resurrection Jesus is declared to be LORD. Jesus, not abstract moral principles (or categorical imperatives) are the highest authority in our lives.
But I want to address a peripheral issue here.
In the run up to the late 20th century Christians in the west have had success after success. We’ve not only pushed for expansions of education, health care, and human rights (to name some of the big areas), we’ve convinced the government to see these as goods – and as the job of government to bring about. We’ve succeeded!
Or have we? Surely it is a success when we have convinced the government, with its power of coercion, monopoly on the legitimate us of violence, and the ability to create money out of thin air, to do what we think is good. Where the church was weak, through being limited to convincing people & institutions to do The Right Thing, the State has the power to make these things happen.
Because we’ve had this great victory, the church in the west is stronger than ever, right?
Well, not so much. In our push to center on ethics, we’ve tended to reduce the faith to ethics, to doing The Right Thing, to Transforming the World. We’ve let the so-called religious aspects of the faith fall by the wayside as divisive or inconsequential. All we have is ethics, doing The Right Thing and Transforming the World. But the omnicompetent state has taken over those jobs. Sure, we can cheer the State on, maybe nudge them a bit from time to time (if anyone is listening), but in our reduction of the faith to ethics, AND our success in passing the big social ethical duties on to the State, the church is left with nothing to do, nothing to define it. Who needs church – with its archaic texts, ancient bigoted and repressive moral remnants, and its demand that we forsake sleep and fun to go to boring “worship services?” This so-called success is the story of the church abetting in its own marginalization through secularization.
At some point, we need to get back to Jesus – not just the ethical teaching we (selectively) love, but the Jesus who inaugurated the kingdom of God and lives and reigns as Lord. This doesn’t mean forsaking ethics, or turning from doing The Right Thing. It means putting those good things in their place, under Jesus’ feet.