Friday, July 5, 2019

Crisis Ethics

There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.
Peter Wehner “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity
There are a number of religions that are going to run into this sort of "crisis" again and again. And, as I understand things, it's due to a simple, but often ignored, reality. Ethics, whether they are those attributed to Jesus or those laid out by Nietzsche, are means rather than ends; ethics are goal-oriented, they are not goals in and of themselves. This is especially true in a religious context organized in the way that Christianity is. People may speak of certain activities as "doing God's work," but an omnipotent deity would presumably have no pressing need for everyday people, with their limited faculties, to do anything important. The work is about showing oneself to be aligned with one's faith.

The anonymous "pro-Trump figure" that Mr. Wehner corresponded with touches on this when he notes that “And to a person, it was all about ‘the fight’.” And if the fight is all about preserving a specific vision of America, American culture and American Christianity so that they may be deployed to do their god's work, then whatever ethics helps to win the fight are the right ones. This isn't about an understanding that “might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective,” or even whether those points are objectively true or false. It's about an understanding that a genuine loss, a genuine victory for whatever conceptualization of "evil" they believe in, is a real and present possibility.

I was listening to a radio story today about the Democratic contenders for their party's nomination, and how many of them were making the point that in order to save American democracy, people had to shift their focus away from playing the game better, as it were, and change the rules of the game. And this, I think points to something that a lot of people may not fully appreciate. It's one thing to contest something with someone else to find out which is better. It's quite another to engage in a "fight" or to play a "game" with the understanding that there's a correct outcome and an incorrect outcome.

In other words: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

And this is always the danger of bringing moral/ethical considerations into politics. When the rules of a game, or the ethics of the fight are threatening to lead to the wrong outcome, then it is they that are incorrect. An attachment to a strategy, treating “the ethic of Jesus” as the most important thing come from only a limited number of places. One is that the proper ethic is an end in itself that transcends all other ends; that as long as the proper strategy is employed, whether other conflicts are won or lost is immaterial. Another is that the proper means will eventually guarantee the proper ends; that if there genuinely is some sort of “existential struggle” under way, then properly prosecuting the conflict will guarantee victory. There may be others, but without at least one them in play, then it stands to reason that the “Conservatives & Christians” that Jerry Fallwell Jr. was speaking to would seek a “street fighter” over a “great Christian leader” who turns out to be too much of a “nice guy” and a “wimp” to ensure the correct outcome.

Perhaps the crisis is really one of significance. While an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity should have no real need of assistance in shaping the universe to its whims, this does kind of make people unimportant in the grand scheme of things. And not all religions do well with the idea that people are unimportant. And so perhaps the need to have, and to win, “the fight” is more about a need to be instrumental in the final outcome, and thus, to matter. And when do things matter more than in a crisis?

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