Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Christian Social Teachings by George Forell

To see my used books for sale, click here. 

It just came to my attention that this book is going to see the light of day again in a newly updated edition by Forell and James Childs. The original version obviously doesn't have the newer material in it which should make for a great reason to buy the new version.

It also happens that this was the first book I had to read for an independent study I did on Christian Ethics. I had to write a 10 page book review on it. So this is going to get a bit long . . . but it might be interesting to SOMEONE (or not). Here it is.

     In this extensive collection of excerpts, Forell attempts to trace the development of Christian ethics from scripture through various primary sources drawn mainly from Christian theologians. With a brief preface by the author and introduction by Franklin H. Littell, this book consists almost entirely of these primary sources with minimal commentary by Forell. The bulk of work went into selecting and organizing these sources. Organization is accomplished by separating excerpts by historical period or common location (with titles such as “The Alexandrian School” or “Monasticism”) as well as by author (Tertullian, Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr for instance all have their own chapters). Considering Forell's intention to produce a reader, his minimal commentary is understandable. There are times, however, when the reader wishes Forell would do more to “connect the dots” or guide the reader through thematic similarities across time frames. Because these excerpts are organized by historical period and author, it can be difficult to recognize similarities or differences in thought between, for example, Augustine and Pope John XXIII. There are several ways Forell attempted to find threads running throughout this book and also some that I suggest may have proven beneficial as well.
            Forell begins by pointing to the relationship Christianity has had to society by establishing three separate paradigms: separation, domination, and integration (ix). The movement from one of these paradigms to the next coincides with the development of Christianity among a hostile population to its acceptance by the ruling power and finally the establishment of liberal democracy. While these three paradigms mirror the development of the relationship between church and state, they continue to appear in authors writing after the historical period of their popularity. Forell believes that the integration paradigm is perhaps the most difficult in which to realize Christian ethics. As he says “[w]hether this integration can be accomplished successfully without abandoning Christianity in the process is the ethical problem of our time” (xi). This focus on how religion interacts with society is also a common theme throughout the selections with different emphases placed on specific relations.
            With these specific forms of interaction in mind, it is helpful in identifying cross-historical similarities and differences by identifying several binary opposites whose ideas continue to appear in these selections. Among these are faith vs. practice, private economics vs. communal economics, and just war vs. pacifism. In viewing the selections with these pairs in mind, certain excerpts that may prove to be dated can become applicable in contemporary ethical discussions. Exhortations against slavery or Luther's condemnation of indulgence sales can easily strike contemporary readers as dull topics in our egalitarian times, but when considering the abolition of slavery as part of the just war vs. pacifism pair or the sale of indulgences as fitting into the faith vs. action dialectic, these topics can continue to inform.
Action vs. Belief
            With this in mind, I offer some highlights from the selections that speak to these sets of opposites, hoping to show that they both were important to the early church as well as continue to be important to the modern church.  The dyad of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy has been an issue within the church long before the Protestant Reformation. Even before Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, the Old Testament addressed the issue of action and its motivation in belief. It is in three chapters of Matthew that Christian scripture first speaks of the importance of action. Jesus's imagery of the light shining for the world and the city on a hill are foundational for Christian ethics (16). This call to action is repeated in various excerpts from epistles, although the absence of any selection from James is interesting—especially considering its influence on later selections. Justin the Martyr continues the emphasis on action by stating that “[t]hose who are found not living as he taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips. . .” (37).
            Soon after these early exhortations to action, however, Forell's selections offer a contrary perspective. Clement argues that it is not the act that is important, but the mind's intent which carries the virtue. In comparing the ascetic Christian life to that of the Pagan world, Clement argues that ascetics whose motivation comes from outside of a Christian life are at times doing more mental harm than good, while the Christian ascetic, along with renouncing worldy possessions, is also renouncing the worldly passions that accompany them. He states that, for the non-Christian ascetic, “after having unburdened himself of his property, [he remains] continually absorbed and occupied in the desire and longing for it” (55). Here, the act is not virtuous unless accompanied by the proper belief. This concept reappears in City of God when Augustine discusses the great leaders of the Roman Empire who performed deeds on behalf of the people and shunned greed in order to expand the coffers of the empire. The motivation for these seemingly selfless acts, however, was the glory and honor of the people. Augustine does not spare words when he says to “those who seem to do good that they may receive glory from men, the Lord also says, 'Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward'” (72). Informed not only by Augustine but also Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas arrived at the conclusion that, while the active life has its merit, “the contemplative life is generically of greater merit than the active life” (143). In the Aristotelianism of the late Middle Ages, the idea that the contemplative life can better inform the active life was widespread. In referring to Aquinas, Meister Eckhart points out that “what we plant in the soil of contemplation we shall reap in the harvest of action” (108). Eckhart is also notable for one of the few uses of feminine imagery throughout Forell’s selections. By using Mary as an analog for the contemplative life (as she sat at Jesus's feet listening) and Martha for that of the active life (as she served the disciples), he comments that the contemplative life is “good,” but the active life is “necessary” (108).
            Within the realm of rationalism there appears some of the strongest arguments yet against orthopraxy. In the long standing tradition in ethics of using extremes for arguments, John Locke invokes the “heathen philosophers” who visited the temples so that their priests could perform the appropriate ritual sacrifices. Locke's conclusion remains true for many religions that still place an emphasis on ritual over belief—the priests were adept at sacrifices, services and observing the proper feasts and solemnities, but they “made it not their business to teach [the laity] virtue” (244). Surprisingly, the excerpts selected from Luther show no focus on sola fide.
            One of the strongest proponents of putting faith into action included in this work is Johnathan Edwards. He counters the argument that doing good deeds will make one lazy from “resting on one's laurels” by pointing out that the reward for doing a good deed is the desire to continue doing good deeds. Throughout his exhortation, Edwards often invokes James—that same author left out of the selection process by Forell. Edwards is also perhaps the best arguer for social action based on Christian faith. Considering Edwards motivation for action, however, one must question if his method could not be improved. Calling upon the fires of hell as a motivator for right action seems incongruous. Could Edwards message have gotten even more traction among the people had he changed his motivation to the love of God as reward? Behavioral psychology tells us that positive reinforcement is a stronger method for modeling behavior than punishment. While many of these primary sources speak for themselves, this book may have been improved by soliciting essays expounding upon tangents such as these to help tie the selections together into the “big picture” as well as establishing ties between selections.
Private Economics vs. Communal Economics
            This dyad of economics also has its roots in the Christian scripture and has remained a contentious issue throughout the centuries. Along with the well-known excerpts from Acts (which Forell did not include), Justin the Martyr is again at the vanguard of early church leaders who spoke out regarding economics issues. For Justin, early Christians lived out a past life without Christ and a new life in Christ. Speaking about these new Chrisitians, Justin says “we who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need” (35). The idea of communal property obviously did not end with Acts. Tertullian makes use of economics in The Apology but with a decidedly free market flair. By emphasizing the good that Christians do for the Roman economy, Tertullian makes no mention of communal property or the evils of private property. His is a pragmatic approach to economics which almost relegates it to a means without a central end for the Christian. While many theologians disagree over economics, Tertullian is one of the few to speak about it without granting it much importance.
            In Gerald Stanley's anti-monarchical treatise, Forell offers a view of communal economics neither tied to the ideal outlined in Acts or Justin's apology nor to the class revolt of the later Marxist thinkers. For Stanley, communism and strict egalitarianism are reactions to the political upheavals of 17th century England. Stanley offers an idealistic view of Christian ethics. His communist egalitarianism is possible because of the faith of its citizens. This idea of making the impossible possible will become a central concept to later ethicists who do not consider pragmatic idealism an oxymoron.
            About a century after Stanley, England saw a new theologian with an economical message that would resonate until the present. John Wesley's three-part personal finance plan of “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can” is still at the heart of the Euro-American ethos. While many in modernity subscribe to the first tenet while gradually ignoring the remainder, Wesley was clear that the first two steps were means to the end of giving. The gain all you can mantra was advice tied to a warning from Wesley. He explicitly states that “to gain money, we must not lose our souls” (277). Wesley also warns that “we are . . . to gain all we can, without hurting our neighbor” (277). But is this even possible? Is it possible to create wealth from nothing? Can wealth be created without inducing suffering at some point? If the world is sinful and wealth is of this world, is it possible to gain all you can without magnifying sin at the same time? These are questions that Wesley does not address but are central to the legacy of his economic teaching. In a later excerpt, Wesley admits that economic inequality can lead to social inequality. Yet he never proposes that his own teaching to “gain all you can” might be contributing to this unequal distribution. Wesley's legacy finds an ally in American minister William Lawrence whose mantra was “Godliness is in league with riches” (331). Lawrence's rationale often comes straight from the playbook that Marx would later attack. Lawrence plays down the extremely rich as being anything to worry about. These multi-millionaires “are simply  trustees of a fraction of the national property” (332).  His assertion that “it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes” was surely well received by his affluent Massachusetts congregation, but may be a little less than accurate. Contemporary feminist theologians and environmental ethicists would also have a field day dissecting Lawrence's quasi-sexual imagery when referring to Nature's being “conquered “ by the strength of mankind which will also “open up her resources, and harness them to his service” (330). The fact that such arguments and imagery persist to the present attests to the power of the legacy of Wesley and Lawrence.
            The unfortunate either this or that argument was eventually reconciled with the middle road doctrine of the encyclicals of Pope John XXXIII. These writings were able to benefit not only from the centuries of Christian economical ethics that came before it, but also advances in economic theory that occurred in the early and mid-20th century. As an example of this practical reconciliation of diverse economic theories, the Pope realized that, because of its necessity, the product of agriculture must be priced at a level that all citizens can afford. An unwelcome result of this is that farmers tend to become perpetually poor due to low prices. Because the free market would not be able to support both low prices and reasonable wages for farmers, Pope John XXXIII points out that society must step in and play a role in the economy (458). The distrust in the Invisible Hand to solve all economic problems is tacit. Because of the shift in paradigms from domination to integration, the church is no longer the central power in society. The Pope's message implies that Catholics must be willing to accept their orders from their government as well as from the church, having trust that the government’s law are for the greater good.
Just War vs. Pacifism
            The debate over a Christian’s involvement in violence has been an issue for Christian ethics for centuries every bit as much as action/belief and economics have. From the “eye for an eye” of the Old Testament to the “resist not the evil doer” of the new, Christian thought has continually swayed from one side to the other. In Origen’s Against Celsus we see an argument for pacifism that presages the Reformation’s priesthood of all believers. Citing the military disinvolvement of the priests of pagan temples, Origen states “[d]o not those who are priests at certain shrines . . . keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods” (57). He furthers his argument by pointing out that the priests time is better spent praying for the state than physically fighting for it (58). These are both timeless arguments for the Christian rejection of violence. They are soon, however, met with Augustine’s rejection of pacifism. Drawing upon the feast parable in Luke, Augustine views the “compel them to come in” verse as justification for the forced confession of heretics and non-believers (83). The hope was that, after compulsion, the wayward Christian would freely eat of the feast laid out for them. For those who refused coercion, however, the result was a bit more ultimate. Augustine’s greatest protégé Thomas Aquinas built upon the compulsion doctrine to determine that “if a man be dangerous or infectious to the community . . . it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good” (131). For Aquinas, Paul’s verse “a little leaven corrupts the whole lump” is taken to its extreme and Jesus’s command to “resist not the evil doer” is ignored. This bias towards punishment over rehabilitation is seen in Luther’s letter concerning his book on the peasant’s revolt. In it, Luther restates that those peasants who are hardened and refuse to submit should be punished through violent acts such as hewing, stabbing, slaying, and laying about them as though among mad dogs (165).
            The Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation is the first school represented in Forell’s selections that witnesses a rebirth of the pacifist ideal. In the Schleitheim Confession of Faith the Swiss Brethren express the interest to shun evil and command sinners to “sin no more,”
 but to withhold bodily punishment, for Christians should reject “devilish weapons of force . . . by virtue of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil” (185).  When addressing the question of using violence to protect the innocent, the Confession states “such an attitude [against the use of violence] we ought to take completely” (186). The Anabaptists were not universal, however, in their rejection of violence. In his Sermon Before the Princes, Thomas Munzer calls on the civil leaders to “get [evil doers] out of the way and eliminate them, unless you want to be ministers of the devil rather than of God” (189).
            The use of force on behalf of justice finds a clearly codified theory of just war in the Jesuit tradition. Suarez’s Disputation XIII: On Charity lists the three principles of just war as: 1) the need for the war to be prosecuted by a legitimate power, 2) the cause for war must be just, and 3) the method of prosecuting the war must be just (213). Here Suarez provides a use of violence for the sake of justice that must meet conditions that stands in contrast to the 16th century calls for unconditional force. This concept is repeated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum where “it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury” (342). While this encyclical speaks largely of social order as opposed to war, the delegating to the government of the duty of punishing injustice is in keeping with Suarez’s ideas.
            Conditional war contributed largely to the development of just war theory in the 20th century. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich are both represented as supporters of just war. Niebuhr espouses the benefits of the development of the hydrogen bomb, while stating that the military should not rely solely on the threat of its use (404) while Tillich believes pacifism has “theological shortcomings” and that armed revolt is the surest way to social change (416). Both Niebuhr and Tillich seem to fall into the fallacy of “pacifism equals passivism.” They believe that non-violence must also mean inaction. Given the publication date of 1966, it is questionable why Forell did not include any selections from pacifist movements that were successful in promoting social change. While Gandhi’s movement may not have been Christian, the influence on it of Leo Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism is well documented. Yet no excerpts from The Kingdom of God is Within You or What I Believe appear in this work. The rise of non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights movement is not represented either, even though its culmination in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” precedes Forell’s publication by two years.
            The extent to which the Second World War influenced Christian theology and ethics also raises the question “did WWII influence Christian thought too much?” If WWII could be imagined as an exercise in statistics, would the data gathered from it be so deviant that it overly influenced the average upon which we base our ethics? If WWII is viewed as an event that deviates from the “historical norm” too greatly, is it worth considering it as an exception that should not dictate a new rule? Much of post-WWII just war theory assumes the inevitability of the rise of Nazism and points to the horrors of the Holocaust and the huge number of lives lost across the globe. These assumptions do much to justify a theory of violence for the sake of justice, but if they are incorrect assumptions (was the rise of Nazism truly inevitable without the use of force?) then such strong support for just war over pacifism is damaged. If we accept the rule to be every war other than WWII and WWII to be the exception, how much would this change Christian theology and ethics from the end of WWII to the present?
            While Christian Social Teachings provides a concise yet broad overview of primary sources in Christian ethics, it could be vastly improved with a second edition. The inclusion of more excerpts from mid-20th century thinkers (perhaps while cutting back or eliminating the number of excerpts from the Monasticism and Romanticism chapters), as well as the soliciting of scholarly essays to help tie together the excerpts thematically could greatly improve this already excellent work. The bulk of Forell’s time undoubtedly went into selecting and organizing excerpts. The time spent on a second edition could take up where the first edition left off and complement the “reader” concept without adding too much to the number of pages. 

No comments:

Post a Comment