Moral Issues and Christian Responses

[1] Moral Issues and Christian Responses is a very comprehensive and practical one-volume introduction to the field of Christian ethics. This version, updated from their 2002 edition, brings together many of the well-known thinkers in the field from a wide variety of perspectives. Likewise it also covers the range of hot ethical topics of general interest to both students and others.

[2] Jung and Jung begin with a very helpful introductory section. “A Primer on Doing Ethics” lays out the topography for ethical considerations and sets a highly useful tone for ethics as a discipline that involves our active engagement, the “doing ethics.” They continue on to the perennial question for ethicists, “What makes ethics Christian?” raised by James Gustafson in his 1975 book Can Ethics Be Christian? Among the central issues addressed are the role of the Bible and the importance of reason in making ethical choices. They continue with a number of reflections on “Taking a Stand,” utilizing marginalized voices from the Mujerista discourse of the Latino community and addressing the issues facing “liberal democracy” and the current “Unholy Trinity of Consumerism.”

[3] The concluding chapter of the first section deals with the morally complex and often paradoxical virtue of “forgiveness.” It is a very useful section that points to the practical challenges of how we forgive as individuals and as communities. Jung and Jung remind the reader that “Martin Luther identified [forgiveness] as a virtue second in importance for Christians only to faith” (p.74). In a culture that uses the concept of “love” somewhat generously and at times trivially, the focus of “forgiveness” focuses much of what is to come in an very helpful way for aspiring ethicists.

[4] Part Two deals with “Sexual Intimacy.” This is an important topic on campuses across North America (and elsewhere I suspect, too.) The introduction to this section lays out the basic framework that has characterized discussions about sexual ethics, namely “that the two words sex and sin have been so closely united in Christian thinking that many of the faithful regard them as synonymous” (p.104). Much of the conversation that has dominated the “culture wars” within churches over the past decade has been decidedly unhelpful to a younger generation thinking about these questions as they pertain to their own lives. The framing of this section around “sexual intimacy” and the range of perspectives provide a helpful entrée into this area, even providing a good place to begin thinking about the harder questions of marriage and divorce. Given that 4 in 10 marriages end in divorce, that “for the first time in Canadian history, there are more unmarried people than legally married age 15 and over in this country” (Vanier Institute on the Family), these are questions that have some impact on people.

[5] The section “Prejudice and Discrimination” starts by offering various views on the issue of heterosexism, and traverses the difficult terrain of issues facing society on how to view gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people and their aspirations for full inclusion and acceptance in society. These are highly explosive issues for many people where heat is often more present that light. Jung and Jung offer a range of perspectives, which reveals the wide diversity of what thoughtful ethicists, both those in favour and those with reservations, are thinking. Though I am never sure that these discussions do not always run the risk of being incendiary, this section provides useful ground for an encounter among Christians who hold very different views.

[6] In Chapter Seven, Jung and Jung address “Racism” as an issue of “Prejudice and Discrimination.” The three articles here lay out an introduction to the current state of the debate about racism as it pertains to the United States. There are some unique realities of racism as it is manifested in the United States. As Elaine A. Robinson refers to James Cone’s observation, “It is America’s original sin…” (p.226). However, I think some aspects of racism are lost when focused uniquely on the experience in the United States. The first is the experience of Aboriginal peoples. George Tinker has been an important voice along with other native elders and writers. Secondly, how has racism played out in U.S. adventures abroad? These two areas would seem to be important and require some attention.

[7] Part Four deals with issues of “National and Global Priority” to the United States. Again the editors have chosen a good range of writers to offer diverse perspectives. Clearly the issue of “Immigration” (Chapter 8) and the ensuing public policy discussions about a more humane and just immigration policy in the United States raises the need for a more serious ethical deliberation. The articles by Savant, Martell-Otero, and Swain are a useful collection for persons coming to any public discussion looking for an ethical grounding. I particularly appreciated Loida Martell-Orteo’s article, “An Iglesia Evangélica Response to Global Homelessness.” According to the United Nations, there are some 214 million international migrants worldwide, which is about 3% of the global population. Additionally there is a missed opportunity here to look at the “refugee crisis” that saw more than 800,000 refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries and countless more internally displaced within their own countries and the impact of military conflicts on creating this issue.

[8] This next section on “Caring for the Whole Earth Community” is a highly instructive introduction to ecological ethics. These are important questions for students and a younger generation because they will have to address many of the consequences. While many are aware of the issues, the five chapters introduce the reader to some of the important cleavages that distinguish advocates of environmental responsibility. Taken together these authours lay out some of the norms and principles that should govern an assessment of various options.

[9] In Part Five, the authours deal with issues of economic justice: “Consumerism,” “Capitalism and Christian Values,” and finally “Economic Justice in a Globalized World.” The section on “Consumerism” deals with the “ethics of character and ethics of moral decision-making” (p.286). Fair trade and ecologically responsible lifestyles are significant issues. Wrestling with one of the governing imperatives of affluent societies – “consumerism” – is important in determining what is sustainable. Robert Frank’s review of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is a fascinating exploration of the intersection of a particular perspective on “Christian” values and North America’s largest retailer.

[10] Turning to a macro-economic view, in Chapter 11, the focus is more on how Christians reconcile themselves to the disparities that ensue from capitalistic markets. The assumption here is that we understand “capitalism” as mostly similar across the various global contexts. I am not sure this is the case. Capitalism varies in respective geographical expression. European capitalism is different from the more free wheeling style of North American capitalism for example. Nevertheless, as in earlier sections, the four articles broadly introduce the reader to the spectrum of debate concerning “economic justice” within capitalism. Ellen Charry believes in the humanizing of the capitalism system, Bishop Howard Hubbard offers a Catholic social justice perspective. Kent A. Van Til argues for the need of a fuller approach to distributive justice to address poverty that markets cannot provide. Lastly, Dan Finn argues that there is a “hole in official Catholic social teaching on the economy” that requires more precise and complete analysis to allow “a systematic ethical analysis of the moral dynamics of daily economic life.” While these articles offer a good starting point and a great refresher for those more conversant on issues of economy, they also assume somewhat more nuanced understandings of the concept of justice. For example, Kent A. Van Til argues for a more distributive form of justice while Bishop Hubbard stands in a social justice tradition. Such differences can be an intentional “teachable moment” for those first encountering such varied approaches to “justice.”

[11] In Chapter 12, the conversation moves onto the discussion of some of the issues surrounding economic globalization. This is an important section especially for church members in the Global South. I remember a conversation with a Principal of a church school in Argentina about the use of “debt equity swaps” by the International Monetary Fund to change her Grade Eight curriculum. This was not a conversation one would have with North American educators. The editors have brought these important voices into the discussion. Gnana Robinson from India proposes “two principles of authentic development … Self-reliance (swadeshi) and welfare to all (sarvodaya)” (p.335). Charles North and Bob Smietana discuss the dilemmas of “Shopping for Justice.” John Rowell argues for a more generous sharing of the resources of the affluent with the less affluent while Sandra F. Joireman’s review lays out Dambisa Moyo’s argument that “foreign assistance to Africa should be cut off completely” because “Aid is harmful to Africa” (p.345). These articles do lay out some of the consequences of the “Washington Consensus” on economic globalization. However, one does have to be aware that the policies of economic globalization are not a passive consequence but are in fact the result of economic actors in more powerful nations making choices. This is a perspective from the South that is only too recently being understood in the United States in the wake of the wreckage of the 2008 recession. These broader questions of whether globalization is a new variant to capitalism would have benefitted from some further discussion here.

[12] Part Six quite rightly frames a number of questions around the theme of “Issues of Life and Death.” Too often in these debates issues related to respecting life at the beginning of the life cycle (i.e. abortion), during the life (i.e. capital punishment, war and terrorism) and those at the end of life (i.e. euthanasia) seem disconnected from one another. Whether one agrees with the position of Roman Catholic social teaching in its entirety on these questions, there is a consistency of interpretation in its application.

[13] Chapter 13 lays out the arguments concerning the issue of abortion. Particularly in this section, the introduction offers a helpful overview of some of the basic elements of this debate including a history of the discussion in the United States. The chapter lays out the two sides very clearly in articles by Beverley Wildung Harrison and Shirley Cloyes on the “pro-choice” side and Sidney Callahan on the “pro-life” side. But the editors have also included an article by Thomas Shannon on scientific and medical developments and Glen Stassen on how alternatives to abortion have “worked” to reduce abortions in the U.S. I found the latter two articles helpful for the tone they set to the debate, even if I did not support their positions on the question. This is no small consideration given the explosive reactions this issue evokes.

[14] The issue of capital punishment is addressed in Chapter15. Again the editors endeavor to address the wide range of thoughtful perspectives on these questions. The articles by Cathleen Kaveny, Avery Dulles, and Tobias Winright are useful and cover much of the historic ground. However, reading this section it seemed there were two questions that needed prior attention with respect to the United States. Why does the United States incarcerate people at four times the global average, the highest rate in the world? And similarly, while according to Amnesty International executions in the United States have declined from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 in 2011, why does the U.S. have such a large number of people on “death row?” I think it might have something to do with what observers have described as the “prison-industrial complex” in the United States that has seen the expansion of the prison population as the prison system “privatized” and the “warehousing” of segments of the population who are unable to participate in the formal economy. More attention to these questions would have been helpful.

[15] The final chapter addresses the issues of “Terrorism and War.” This section provides a good overview of the three different approaches – pacifism, “just war”, and crusade – to how Christians have responded to the question of armed conflict and the use of force. Miraslov Wolf, Mark Allman and Tobias Winright, and Ron Sider do justice to representing these three historic perspectives. Jean Bethke Elshtain, under the rubric of “Christian realism,” offers the possibility of moving the discussion in a bit of a new direction. Glen Stassen has also provided an alternative in his “Just Peacemaking Initiative.” These are worthy examples of moving away from the utopianism Elshtain identifies that can discredit Christians in discussions about war and conflict.

[16] If there are some overall critiques of the book, they are minor. One would be that the cases are not full-fledged cases but more like discussion starters. The use of case studies is a good method for ethical formation. These cases do identify particular moments but really are meant to solicit the perspective or initial views of the reader to focus the reading. Cases that I have used in discussions have often been more open-ended in terms of their orientation and are chosen to invite those engaging them to probe and identify the emerging questions.

[17] A second and a bit more substantial caution about the volume is its U.S.-centric perspective. This is not necessarily a problem because ethics is contextual and analysis of the context is important. The audience for this volume will be largely in the United States. However, ethics is also transcontextual, reaching beyond one’s own context to understand the “other’s” context. In reading various sections, I often wondered, “What is happening in other places and for other people on these questions?” I alluded to some of my own experiences of these other contexts in my previous remarks on the chapter on “capitalism.” I think the treatment of many of these issues would have benefitted from, and possibly in a globalizing world demands today, a more transcontextual ethical approach. There is always a danger of being bound to our own “cultural captivity.” In using this volume in a course or discussion group, I think the authours themselves would encourage bringing in the voices and perspectives from other places and other people.

[18] On the whole this is a very commendable book. It brings together some of the important thinkers in the field of Christian ethics and makes them accessible to an average reader. The book is highly practical and deals with very comprehensive lists of the issues that are on the minds of serious and civically minded people. What is particularly helpful, especially for aspiring students, is the modeling of how serious moral deliberation can occur especially among people who have legitimately divergent and thoughtful views on important questions. In a time when people are looking for simplistic solutions to very complex questions, helping people to deal with complexity and the paradoxical quality required of those “doing ethics” is a welcome contribution and a

David Pfrimmer

David Pfrimmer is Professor of Public Ethics and Co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario and an International Fellow at the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta.