Although American Political Scientist, Jean Bethke Elshtain didn’t consider herself a theologian, there’s a good chance that anyone willing to exhaust an enquiry into her eligibility for the title, would conclude that she, in fact, was.
Theology forms part of the hidden backbone in the majority of her work.
Elshtain’s broad and consistent conversation partners include St. Augustine, Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). This also includes some small contact with theologians Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Elshtain considered herself a layperson when it came to theological matters. Adding theologian to her list of accomplishments may have handicapped her from being the proverbial, voice-in-the-leftist-academic-wilderness, that she was.
It’s likely that Elshtain benefited from not having been assigned the title of a theologian. Resulting in her being more able to navigate dishonest rhetorical tactics, like reckless labelling, selective outrage, guilt by association, negative preempting and agenda driven ridicule. All the things associated with predominantly modern leftist institutions.
Elshtain follows the example of Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Karl Barth, who are credited, among others, as being careful and critical, when it came to allowing themselves to profiled in political terms; and/or placed into rigid theological, philosophical or sociological categories. They weren’t looking for disciples or to create a school of thought.
It’s long, but here’s an excellent example of some of her work. In a critique of the assumption that Christianity is a universal ethic of niceness, Elshtain argues for a better understanding of Just War theory, post-September 11, 2001. In her sights are some Western theologians and philosophers, such as Mark Taylor [i] and Noam Chomsky [ii]:
‘Misunderstandings of Christian teachings are rife. Christianity is not an exalted or mystical form of utilitarianism. Jesus preached no doctrine of universal benevolence. He showed anger and issued condemnations.’
‘These dimensions of Christ’s life and words tend to be overlooked nowadays as Christians concentrate on God’s love rather than God’s justice. That love is sometimes reduced to a diffuse benignity that is then enjoined on believers.’
‘This kind of faith descends into sentimentalism fast. But how do believers translate the message of the Christian Savior into an ethic of worldly engagement if an ethic of universal niceness misses the point? Because Christianity is far and away the dominant faith of Americans, these are exigent matters of concern to all citizens, believer or no[…]’
‘For Christians living in historic time and before the end of time, the pervasiveness of conflict must be faced.’
‘One may aspire to perfection, but living perfectly is not possible. To believe one is without sin is to commit the sin of pride and to become ever more boastful in the conviction that a human being can sustain a perfectionist ethic.’
‘For St. Augustine, for Martin Luther, and for the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the harsh demands of necessity as well as the command of love require that one may have to commit oneself to the use of force under certain limited conditions, and with certain intentions.’ [iii]
(Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, 2008, p.100-101)
For Christians, just resistance is in the same category as falsehood. To answer the question, when is it just to “lie”? We have to compartmentalise the subject. Martin Luther held the view that there were four types of lies. The humorous, the helpful, the harmful, and the blasphemous. The first two are are ‘praiseworthy, since they do no harm. The last two are intolerable because they offend both man and God’ (Table Talk #33).
For example: Telling a ‘necessary lie‘ (Martin Luther [iv]) would always be grounded in God’s definition of what is good. If there is a greater good at stake, than there might be justification for the use of a helpful falsehood, such as to stop another human being legitimately harmed.
In 1 Samuel 18 & 19, Michal misled her father, who was King Saul. She did this in order to save her husband, David, from her father’s jealousy of David and his God-approved ascendancy to the throne. Corrie Ten Boom did the same in order to protect the Jews from Nazis. Being grounded in God’s definition of what is good means that there are core restraints; or clear rules of engagement. In other words, boundaries. As with falsehood, we don’t make an absolute of war. War is only ever an absolute last resort.
Just war is one specific example of many, which shows that Christianity is not, and can never be reduced to an ethic of universal niceness. Just War is not the equivalent of Islamic jihad (as understood as war against the infidel). If the West is to respond to its enemies, and follow its Judeo-Christian heritage, the West must respond in love. This doesn’t mean that the West should surrender to its enemies. It means that the West is free to engage on behalf of the vulnerable, only by way of restrained defence. Not cowering away from having the courage to say a loving “no” to those determined to see the West as an enemy.
Ridiculed, labelled a warmonger, and considered too old to be relevant, Churchill critically questioned the Nazi movement, long before it became a bloody necessity to reject it. Blind acquiescence and what C.S Lewis called ‘the tyranny of good intentions’, resulted in the catastrophic ambivalence, and indifference of the West throughout the 1930’s.
To do the same is to ignore reality, whitewash conflict and allow tyrants to thrive. This is an unloving abdication of responsibility, in favour of appeasement.
History has never forgotten British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s well intentioned declaration, “Peace For Our Time”. A declaration that was brutally shattered by the sound of falling shells, broken lives, screeching stukas and Nazi blitzkriegs.
Reagan was right, when in 1964, he said:
“There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace—and you can have it in the next second—surrender.”
“Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the spectre our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face—that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand—the ultimatum.”
“You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, “There is a price we will not pay.” “There is a point beyond which they must not advance. This is the meaning of peace through strength.” (A Time For Choosing)
Elshtain is right, viewing Christianity as an ethic of universal niceness and attributing it to Jesus Christ, is an aberration of Christianity. It misses the point.
To veil Christ and Christian action behind the fabric of an ethic of universal niceness, is to repeat the past. This unloving abdication of responsibility, in favour of appeasement, leaves the West embracing a false security. One that is further masqueraded by the ignorance of the past, the dangers of positive optimism, and a flawed understanding of Biblical Christian theology.
[i] Mark Taylor, “The Way of the Cross as Theatric of Counter-Terror,” paper presented at a conference on justice and mercy, University of Chicago (Spring 2002), cited by Elshtain in Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed (p.82)
[ii] Chomsky, N. 9-11 cited by Elshtain, (JWAT, p. 226)
[iii] Elshtain, J. 2008, Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed. (p. 100-101).
[iv] Luther, M. Conversations With Luther: Selections From Table Talk, 1915, The Pilgrim Press
(Originally published, 12th January 2015)
©Rod Lampard, 2018
8 thoughts on “Viewing Christianity As An Ethic Of Universal Niceness, Misses The Point”
Great insights yet again!
“To the ramparts!”
Relationship Manager WA
0408 759 586
Thanks mate. It’s a big issue today.
“Rather, this believer engages the world, sustains it, and seeks to transform it—all at the same time. Ordinary vocations are the responsibility of believers. They should not shirk their vocations, including political vocations like soldiering or judging. Such vocations are necessary to sustain a common life. This Christian believer undertakes the tasks of vocation as an act of service and performs them in humility and with a strong commitment to their often tragic, sometimes joyful nature.”
Vocation as service to the common good and the shaping of the culture.
Lot’s to love about Elshtain. :), who was a genuine voice in the wilderness.