No Ethical Specifics? The Gospel and the World -- thoughts from Reinhold Niebuhr
I am preparing a sermon for Sunday based on Luke 19:41-44 (the reading from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary). In this passage Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and its impending destruction. In many ways this passage speaks to our contexts -- especially urban-suburban contexts. Destruction will come, Jesus declares because the people didn't "recognize the time of your visitation from God." In my thinking about what to say -- especially a relevant word about our current situation in Metro-Detroit, I thought I would return to Reinhold Niebuhr's journal from his days as a pastor in Detroit -- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Niebuhr saw clearly back in the 1920s that all was not well in the city. Yes, the city was on fire economically, growing quickly, but under the surface injustice was present. And the church, by and large, ignored these realities. In my perusing of my notes, I came across this entry from 1925. It speaks to our inability to speak with any ethical focus, and thus unable to speak with any relevancy to our situation. I invite you to read, to meditate, and consider this word from one of America's greatest theologian/ethicists as he served as a pastor in an urban context. Are we able to recognize our visitation?
When I sit through a church conference I begin to see a little more clearly why religion is on the
whole so impotent ethically, why the achievements of the church are so meager compared to its moral pretensions. Sermon after sermon, speech after speech is based upon the assumption that the people of the church are committed to the ethical ideals of Jesus and that they are the sole or at least chief agents of redemptive energy in society.
It is very difficult to persuade people who are committed to a general ideal to consider the meaning of that ideal in specific situations. It is even more difficult to prompt them to consider specific ends of social and individual conduct and to evaluate them in the light of experience.
The church conference begins and ends by attempting to arouse an emotion of the ideal, usually in terms of personal loyalty to the person of Jesus, but very little is done to attach the emotion to specific tasks and projects. Is the industrial life of our day unethical? Are nations imperialistic? Is the family disintegrating? Are young people losing their sense of values? If so, we are told over and over again that nothing will help but “a new baptism of the spirit,” a “new revival of religion,” a “great awakening of the religious consciousness.”
But why not be specific? Why doesn’t the church offer specific suggestions for the application of a Christian ethic to the difficulties of our day? If that suggestion is made, the answer is that such a policy would breed contention. It certainly would. No moral project can be presented and no adventure made without resistance from the traditionalist and debate among experimentalists. But besides being more effective, such a course would be more interesting than this constant bathing in sentimentalities. If the church could only achieve schisms on ethical issues! They would represent life and reality. Its present schisms are not immoral as such. They are immoral only in the sense that they perpetuate issues which have no relevancy in our day.
Niebuhr,, Reinhold (2013-04-16).Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic. (Kindle Locations 603-618). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.