On Fridays we often post material from our readers, and this is the last on my recent submissions. So, if you have something you think would fit on this blog, send it in … This one is from Matt Edwards.
From Matt Edwards: During his Sex God tour, Rob Bell reportedly said that people
have no moral authority to speak on the issue of homosexuality unless
they have homosexual friends and understand their struggle.
How significant is personal knowledge for making moral decisions? Does Bell’s rule work for other ethical issues?
Bonhoeffer had similar ideas. He criticized people for being enslaved
to hypothetical ethical “duties,” while ignoring the real plights of
their real neighbors.
In Ethics, he wrote:
[Christ] was not, like a philosopher,
interested in the ‘universally valid,’ but rather in that which is of
help to the real and concrete human being. What worried Him was not,
like Kant, whether ‘the maxim of an action can become a principle of
general legislation,’ but whether my action is at this moment helping
my neighbor to become a man before God.
What can and must be said is not what is good once for all, but the way
in which Christ takes form among us here and now. The attempt to define
that which is good once for all has, in the nature of the case, always
ended up in failure.
Both Bell and Bonhoeffer note the significance of real implications for real people in ethical dialogue.
You could argue that Christ showed the same concern. He healed people on the Sabbath, showing disregard for ethical norms in favor of helping his neighbor. He violated the purity in laws in eating with tax collectors and “sinners.” Even the parable of the Good Samaritan could be interpreted as advocating Bonhoeffer’s ethic. While the lawyer asked a question about hypothetical duties, Christ responded with a story involving real people with real needs.
We can’t forget that ethical discussions always involve real people. There is no such thing as a hypothetical discussion. Often, when we speak in the hypothetical, we do more harm than good.
On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to ethical discussions stemming directly out of our own experience, we muzzle ourselves in public ethical dialogue.
Can we say, “No one has the moral authority to speak against human trafficking unless they have a friend whose livelihood depends upon the industry”? What about, “No one has the right to condemn usury unless they know a loan shark”?
There seems to be some truth to the warnings of Rob Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We need to be careful about hypothetical ethical pronouncements. And yet, the alternative to making such pronouncements doesn’t seem workable either. What do we do?