Should Christian ethics focus on convergence and correlation or on distinctively Christian features?

May 22, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

There has been a great deal of interest in the development of common ethical approaches that transcend distinctive philosophical and theological boundaries. Karen Armstrong has argued about the importance of the Golden Rule as it is something that crosses many boundaries, and is found in many religious traditions from Confucius onwards. There is the work of the Charter of Compassionate uniting different believers around that concept. Some look to universal human rights as providing a common framework, with concepts of dignity and equality at their heart. The Earth Charter presents another of these movements.

But religious traditions do offer distinctive ethical perspectives that can define the religious outlook. In Christianity the love of neighbor is also the love of enemy. What is more it is a sacrificial love, the love that Jesus showed humanity. ‘Lover one another – as I have loved you’ . The concept of self sacrificial love is distinctive and binds the ethical conduct of Christians to the revelation of Christ and the crucifixion. Being Christian in ethical terms entails living a Christ- like life. The ethic of reciprocity is superseded by an ethic of self sacrifice. This does not mean that reciprocity is not there, but that a greater ethical pricniple is also pointed to.

For many Christians, this has inspired them to take particular and sometimes unpopular and uncompromising ethical positions – pacifism for some. It means a willingness to face martyrdom. Self sacrifice is an ultimate ethical act, demonstrated by the primary school teacher in Dunblane, when she stood in front of her young pupils as the gunman began to fire. The actions of some on the Titanic who made sure the women and children had priority seating on the few lifeboats meant they themselves would not survive.

Of course many people, of many different religious backgrounds have given their lives for others. The difficult question is whether, in searching for a common ethic, some of the most important and distinctive elements of religious ethical traditions may be lost. What is the balance that a Christian should strike between seeking to engage the ethical discourse of the common community, and seeking to give a distinctive justification for moral action.