Christians often find themselves in conflict with the cultural and societal values and with the policies of their leaders. Even in democratic societies there will be conflicts between the individual's Christian ethic and the ethics of the society or the government.
In our Pledge of Allegiance we say, " . . . With liberty and justice for all." The primary ethic of a democratic society is "justice," whereas the Christian ethic is an ethic of "love." The state can legislate justice and equality of opportunity, but it cannot legislate Love.
Two historical periods will illustrate this conflict that occurs between moral man and immoral society. Eighteenth century England was a period of moral decay and injustice. "At the time John Wesley began his public career (circa. 1830), the moral and spiritual state of England was at a low ebb. England's plight came primarily from one major source, the persecution of those in authority and the most gifted and vigorous leaders." Because of the Act of Uniformity (1662) under the morally irresponsible Kind Charles II, one fifth of the English clergy were left without parishes to serve. Over two thousand rectors and vicars lost their pastorates. The result of this Act carried over into Wesley's century. It was a period that had been robbed of its prophetic leadership. [Cf. Stokes, OUR METHODIST HERITAGE, p. 68]
After Wesley's disappointing venture to the Georgia colonies, he returned to England as a disillusioned minister. But, after his "heartwarming" experience in Aldersgate Street mission, he because a religious powerhouse who helped to bring England out of its morally corrupt period. He preached to the poor, visited the prisons, preached to the miners, and brought about the conversion of many. His impact was felt during a 50 year ministry and beyond, not only in Great Britain, but in the post-Revolutionary Period in America. He preached "personal holiness" and "social holiness."
The second period that illustrates this conflict would be Germany in the 1930's and 40's, under the rising of Hitler. During the 30's he was establishing himself as a substitute for "God." He often used metaphors taken from the Christian faith, as well as symbols of the faith in an effort to equate the State as "the church." He was known to have quoted the passage from Romans 13 to justify his demand for complete allegiance from the people. Unfortunately, most Germans, even Christian leaders, seemed to fall into his trap. But, there were groups of resistors, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and some of his close relatives and friends.
Because of his resistance to Hitler's dictatorship, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, and in April, 1944, just before the end of World War II in Europe, he and his brother and two brothers-in-law were executed. They had plotted to kill Hitler and had failed in a couple of attempts. Bonhoeffer had to wrestle mightily with justifying "killing Hitler." He states, ". . . What is rightful in any situation, what course is truly pleasing to God, for after all, there have to be concrete life and action. (In other words, ethics has no particular value as "theory" but only in concrete actions). Intelligence, discernment, attentive observation of the given facts, all these now come into lively operation, all will be embraced and pervaded by prayer . . . Possibilities and consequences must be carefully assessed. In other words, the whole apparatus of human powers must be set in motion when it is a matter of proving what is the will of God." [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ETHICS, p. 40]
Like the baseball umpire who says, "It ain't nothing 'til I call it," ethics counts only in concrete actions and situations. As "theory," it is about as useful as piety!
Bonhoeffer was willing to give his life for his ethic of love. Our ethical choices and actions may not lead to such drastic consequences, but they sometimes demand a price to be paid when we are called to "stand in the gap" between personal faith and "immoral society."
On the morality of nations, Niebuhr says, "The very sensitive 'honor' of nations can always be appeased by the blood of its citizens and no national ambition seems too base or petty to claim and to receive support of a majority of its patriots. The man in the street, with his lust for power and prestige thwarted by his own limitations and the necessities of social action, projects his EGO upon his nation and indulges his anarchic lusts vicariously." [Niebuhr, MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY, p. 33]
"The idealists, whose patriotism has been qualified by more universal loyalties, must always remain a minority group. In the past they have not been strong enough to affect the actions of nations and have had to content themselves with a policy of disassociation from the nation in time of crisis, where national ambitions were in sharpest conflict with their moral ideals."
(Instructor's note: Does this sound strangely familiar? This writer has always tended to be counter-cultural. How many of you thought the Viet Nam War was a terrible mistake and national disaster? How many of you think this present war in Iraq, the first major Preemptive War in our history, was justified and support it?)
The next session will deal with a methodology for "doing biblical, theological and ethical reflection." How do we determine what is the good, right, appropiate, Christian response to any great social issue?