TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 28: The Practicability of Christian Morality

Appendix: Christian morality and social responsibility

Some argue that even if it is possible to fulfill specifically Christian moral norms, doing so would be socially destructive. Hence, while Christian morality might be a realistic guide for private life, it is unrealistic as a guide for those who must bear the weight of social responsibility. For example, what would happen to a nation which refused to carry on war in its modern forms?

Three things should be borne in mind in thinking about this question. First, it is largely hypothetical. People with real Christian convictions seldom gain and stay in positions of great worldly power. Second, Christian norms do not altogether rule out carefully restricted uses of defensive force. The exclusion of violence is a nonabsolute norm, but Christians also are required to fulfill their responsibilities by defending the weak, and this can justify the use of deadly force and cooperation in such activity. Third, the Machiavellianism of nonbelieving politics also leads to human disasters of great scope. If deterrent strategies eventually lead to a large-scale thermonuclear war, as seems likely, it will be clear that the world might have been better off if some participants in current power struggles had formed policies more in accord with Christian standards.

Throughout history, those who seriously tried to live in accord with Christian moral norms have been accused of social irresponsibility. In ancient times, refusal of service to the pagan gods by the Christians was blamed for the decline of the fortunes of the Roman empire in its confrontations with barbarians. Today, advocates of violent revolution condemn as squeamish Christians who resist their approach. The argument is that one should be more concerned about human misery and less about moral purity. Those who refuse to dirty their hands in the cause of revolution are said to lack compassion.

This line of argument might be telling against a Stoic, who so exalts the importance of moral rightness as to make a veritable idol of this human value: “Let right be done, though the heavens fall!” A person who takes this view and who makes no clear connection between moral uprightness and perfect human fulfillment is in an embarrassing position. Even a sound rational morality, which cannot show that integral human fulfillment is more than an ideal, asks a great deal when it demands that palpable human misery be endured for the sake of an ideal possibility.

However, Christian faith proposes that fulfillment in Jesus is the real future of humankind. Morally upright action in this life is not demanded for its own sake, as if morality were the ultimate value. Rather, moral goodness is necessary for the sake of human fulfillment, of which it is an essential element. The upright acts of men and women will contribute to fulfillment in Jesus; these acts are destined to last forever.

Christians also resist doing what they believe evil because they realize that the seemingly rational methods of violence really will not prove effective in dealing with human misery. Revolutionary violence leads immediately to tremendous misery; Marxism, for instance, has inspired acts, including abortions, which already have caused hundreds of millions of deaths and much suffering. At the same time, such methods do nothing to overcome evil, for evil is not an obstacle to be demolished or a problem to be solved, but a privation to be healed by redeeming love.

Those who conform to the mind and heart of Jesus by refusing to do evil in an effort to overcome evil are not afraid of dirty hands so much as they are reluctant to cut off the hands of the unjust to prevent their unjust deeds. Deprived of hands, the unjust can find hooks to use in creating misery even more efficiently. The Christian way is to allow one’s own hands to be pierced, and then with pierced palm to shake the hand of the evildoer. In washing from himself the blood of one who will not do violence, the evildoer is offered a new opportunity to look at his own hands, and to allow them to be cleansed of evil.