This I believe:
Christianity often has been, could still be, but is not now a powerful force for morality in Western civilization.
Christianity had a very strong influence on the shaping of the American nation, so much so that Christians came to take for granted that culture was always going to follow Christian morality. As Western societies have moved away from their Christian roots, the churches have tended to complain about this particular issue or that (e.g. abortion, premarital sex, and so on) but have been quite inept in trying to understand the broader picture of moral foundations and in trying to influence society. We have been dismissed from the public forum in part because we simply don’t know how to take a responsible role in that forum.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian, and Hitler-resister in the 1930s, spoke of ethics in ways that made little sense to his compatriots but which are now beginning to make a great deal of sense. We have much to learn from this prescient follower of Jesus Christ.
His largest book is called Ethics. it is in many ways just an expansion of an earlier essay, delivered first as a lecture shortly after his 23rd birthday, entitled “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic.” There is one sentence which makes a good but very unorthodox beginning for us as we try to understand what Bonhoeffer has to say:
“Christianity is basically amoral.”
That’s simple enough to say but a bit of a challenge to understand. Basically, there are two reasons he makes such an odd claim. One reason is historical. As Bonhoeffer rightly observes, “Christian morality” has changed and evolved over the centuries. Can you imagine the scandal that would have been caused had some nice Christian girl a century ago had worn a bikini at the beach? And “Christian morality” is not the same in one place as it is in another. A Christian youth in America may show a level of disrespect toward his or her parents that would be unthinkable among Chinese Christians. Christian morality, in short, is adaptable from time to time and place to place.
(A bit of a digression, if I may: I read not too long ago some comments by a teacher at a Christian college, who noted that what many of her students found most remarkable about Bonhoeffer is that he smoked cigarettes. And, a more serious observation, it took years after the War for the Lutheran churches in Germany to appreciate Bonhoeffer because they thought of him as having been a traitor for opposing the German fuhrer. In both cases, small and large, Bonhoeffer’s ethics did not match up to cultural norms as enforced by the churches.)
Bonhoeffer’s second reason for saying Christianity is basically amoral is a theological consideration of great importance. Read these words carefully:
“. . .Christianity is basically amoral. . . And why? Because Christianity speaks of the exclusive path from God to human beings from within God’s own compassionate love toward the unholy, the sinful, while ethics speaks of the path from human beings to God, about the encounter between the holy God and the holy human being; in other words because the Christian message speaks of grace while ethics speaks of righteousness.”
Morality cannot be of fundamental concern for Christianity because our task is not to try to make ourselves into good people but to receive and be responsive to the will of God as expressed by the Spirit of God moment by moment. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor by being good people. The Gospel is quite the opposite: We are helpless until God helps us; we are guilty until God transforms us by his grace and forgiveness.
“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” said Jesus very clearly and directly. But we in the churches have frequently taught one another the exact opposite. God is so righteous that he cannot bear the sight of sin, so we had better get our sinful nature under control or he will reject us.
Paul, thinking more consciously in terms more familiar to his fellow Jews — but leading them to grand new insights — said that
. . .before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
We could go on, of course, citing many more passages which teach exactly what Bonhoeffer was trying to express but I want us to return now to our starting point: How can Christians be a strong force for morality in a culture which has already dismissed us and God himself as irrelevant?
We can and must demonstrate the love of God. We can and must articulate what we are doing and why. We can and must seek to persuade others in ways that make sense to them, not merely to us. And, in the midst of all else, we can and must renounce the role of being the judges of those with whom we disagree. These points mark only how to begin but even they are far beyond the reach of many Christians today. We’ve got a lot of growing to do!