Responsibility and Christian Ethics

Ethics is consumed with the question “what is good”  and “how can I do good”, questions that Bonhoeffer demands we throw out in the very first sentence of his volume on Ethics.  The question of the good, he says, is impossible to answer – and jugding by the fact that no ethical norms can be agreed upon in our society, I’d say he’s right.  The question is not what is good, or how can I do good – the question is, what is Christ doing in the world?

Someone once called Jesus “good teacher.”  Jesus responded with “Why do you call me good?  You know that there is only one who is good.”  Jesus, of course, is here referring to God, the one who is good – and a little tongue in cheek, too, since he goes on to claim divinity, identifying himself with God completely.  Jesus is the One who is Good, and so quite naturally the question of “what is good” is answered by the question “what is Jesus doing?”  The question of “how can I do good” then can only be answered by participating in what Jesus is doing.

Does this mean that Bonhoeffer is a good Christian who wears his WWJD bracelet at all times?  Not really.  Bonhoeffer would, quite likely, be a bit purturbed by such an ethical system, as the question “what would Jesus do” misses the fact that Jesus is in fact still doing! Christian ethics cannot be reduced to the principle of always doing what Jesus would do in the same given situation, or to any principle at all.  Principles are not universally applicable, and they’re founded in an ideal rather than reality.  Jesus did not choose to act based on an ideal; rather, Jesus (the ideal and reality in one) came into the world, messy as it is, and became a part of it.  Jesus, though he is the ideal, is also concrete, he is real, and he acts in the real world with real decisions that affect real people.  He’s not merely some moral exemplar, though I think it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we deny that he is a prime example of right living; rather, he is the foundation of reality: all things hinge upon Jesus Christ.  The existence of the world depends on he who created and reconciled it to himself, and it cannot be understood without reference to him who is its origin, its centre, and its end.  Thus, to act in accordance with Christ and what Christ is doing is to act in accord with reality.

Bonhoeffer makes the controversial claim that only Christians see reality as it truly is, and embrace it as it truly is, and that an ethical action is to act in accordance with that reality.  But how are we to act in accordance with reality?  It’s a pretty vague instruction.  What constitutes an ethical situation or issue?  For Bonhoeffer, this comes down to responsibility.

No man is an island, not even Garfunkel.  We all live in relationship, and it is precisely in relationship that we are faced with ethical decisions, because in relationship we have a responsibility to another and for another.  Bonhoeffer uses the example of a father: due to his relationship to his children, he is responsible for those children: to act in accordance with that concrete responsibility is to act ethically.  To ignore that responsibility and that relationship does not relieve him of being a father; he is simply a bad father.  When he acts out of responsibility for his children, he acts in accordance with concrete reality, acknowledging the reality of his relationship and thus his responsibility, and thus he has acted ethically and is a good father.  We don’t make up these responsibilities, and they cannot be avoided; they are inherent to human relationship.

Another aspect of responsibililty in ethics is that human beings act in complete freedom when they act ethically.  We think, act, and face the consequences of those actions without depending on anyone else, or on any principle or ideology.  When we act ethically, we do so without a safety net.  We cannot attempt to apply some ideal or principle universally and be justified by that ideal.  For example, when someone’s ethics depend on a principle, so long as they keep to the principle their actions are “justified”, regardless of the actual motivations or consequences of that principled action.  Someone can declare themself fully justified in their actions because they have conformed to a principle based on an ideal.  Real life isn’t like that: the concrete situations we find ourselves in do not allow us to enter a vacuum in which there is a choice between an obvious good and an obvious evil.  We don’t have that to fall back on.  Instead, we must make a decision based on the reality of Jesus Christ, based on our responsibility to our neighbour (who is given to us, not chosen by us) and based on the love of Christ, and take responsibility for the consequences of our action.  This is both daunting and liberating: daunting because we can never really know if we’re in the right or not; liberating because we can never really know if we’re in the right or not.  We need not conform to some abstract principle, and be damned if we do so incorrectly; rather, we can act in accordance with concrete reality, acting out of responsibility for others and taking responsibility for our actions, relying entirely on the grace of God for our justification.  Our actions are not justified by some abstract ethic, but justified by the action of Jesus Christ, who alone is doing good.  The good of our action is determined by how it aligns with what Christ is doing, with how Christ uses us and our actions.  The amazing thing is that Christ uses all actions for the good, even actions intended for evil (cf. Joseph, Judas).  Hallelujah!

I’ve been thinking about why we prefer ethical systems based on principles and maxims, and look down so much on “situational ethics”.  I think we dislike “situational ethics” because they are subjective, and do not offer us a chance of being objectively right or wrong.  In response, I think that concrete reality doesn’t offer us many chances of being objectively right or wrong either, and a retreat to principles based on ideals is a bit of a vain hope of justifying our actions.  The thing is, Christ has justified us already, Justified with a captial “J”, so we don’t need to justify ourselves or our actions.  The other thing is, Christ has Justified us at least in part because we are incapable of justifying ourselves or our actions.  So, we can’t justify ourselves, and we don’t need to anyways…so why do it?  Is this another symptom of human pride, that we need to find new ways for us to be right, and to be able to tell who is right and who is wrong?  Who is good and who is evil?  “Why do you call me good?  You know that there is only One who is good!”

Of course, for the purpose of laws in human society we need to, to some degree, label some actions as objectively good and objectively bad.  Don’t we?  After all, even God has 10 Commandments, right?  In OT Theology we’ve been talking about the 10 Commandments a bit recently, and the interesting thing is that they’re not called “The 10 Commandments” in the Bible, or even in Jewish tradition: they are the 10 Words.  In class, my prof pointed out that commandments, rules, and laws are quite specific in their application and usually involve some penalty for transgression.  The 10 Words, on the other hand, are confessions of the Covenant, and confessions of covenant values, universal in their application.  There is no “punishment” in the 10 Words for those who do not follow them, except perhaps exclusion from the Covenant, of which the 10 Words are merely a confession and affirmation – i.e. if you don’t confess the 10 Words, if you don’t share the covenant values and commit to the covenant, you’re not really a part of it are you?

If the 10 Words are rules and laws, then Jesus would have been as guilty as the Pharisees claimed he was; because they are values, the Pharisees were as guilty as Jesus claimed they were because they reduced those values to specific rules that completely devalued the original values.  Likewise when we reduce our ethics to a mere principle or code, we reduce our justification to that which can be offered by such a principle, or that which can be offered by those who agree with us, rather than basing our actions and our justification on Jesus Christ, who alone is Good and does Good.

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4 thoughts on “Responsibility and Christian Ethics

  1. I’m too much of a natural theology sympathizer to totally agree with the argument that we can’t understand anything good at all from the world and apart from knowing Jesus. I know Bon and Barth (with his famous “Nein!”) would disagree. But they are busy dismantling the Kantian “maybe we can understand the good by using reason alone.”

    Even Pagans had a concept of Virtue which was heavily based on situational ethics.

    • I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer is saying that we can’t understand good, but only that we are incapable of good, as he defines good as being only what Christ is doing. I would think that he says that we can’t know for sure if our actions are good or not based on not being able to predict or know exactly what Christ will use to further his ends – after all, sometimes he uses evil things rather than good to accomplish Good.

      I think that Bonhoeffer is probably referring to a higher good, a “true good” if you will, when referring to ethics. Human definitions of good vary so widely and are so subjective that it’s not really possible to create an ethical code based on any good other than what Christ is doing, and even then it is not possible to make a code so much as to participate in what He’s doing whenever possible. It’s easy for us to appeal to basic human virtues as good, but as Bonhoeffer points out, many awful things are done in the name of “good” and many awful things result from “good” things coming from good intentions. If we can’t come up with a universally applicable code, we should at least find an objective definition of “good” – and when the definition of good is what Christ is doing, then if we “do good” by participating in it, we cannot justify ourselves by that “good” we have done because we’ve merely tagged along with what Christ is doing.

      …or something like that…

      • Yeah, this starts to get into the whole “there is no ‘ethical,’ only Jesus-actions.” Does B only make this distinction because he feels it is a good one to make to combat the ‘Natural Theologians’ who were perhaps more Classical-Stoics-with-a-bible and less Christian?

        As for universally applicable codes, I would argue that there IS one: the totality of the Law–an ethical code so big that we both can’t look at the whole thing at once, nor hope to uphold it. But it’s existence is necessary and visible in the world.

        B makes me nervous because he starts to kinda sound like he is saying “hey, don’t worry about ethical actions or the good. Just worry about following Jesus.” I think it is an unnecessary distinction and confuses the matter.

        I’m sorry, I have such a soft spot for CSL and natural theology that I just can’t totally buy what Bonhfr is selling. Well, that’s not entirely true as Bonhfr is selling Jesus and nothing but Jesus…I just don’t find his methodology necessary I guess.

  2. Hmmm…but is it a distinction at all? I see it as a lack of distinction: Bonhoeffer is saying that what Jesus is doing IS the good, the very definition of good, just as God’s creation was good. We can know what is ethical to the extent that we can know what Jesus is doing, though we can never be justified by our actions because of some inherent goodness in the actions themselves – we are only justified in relation to Jesus.

    You’re right, it does get kind of complicated, heh.

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