For god’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten’.
Last survivng Anzac, Alec Campbell
I have always struggled with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I do want to remember the horror that is war and the sacrifice our soldiers made, but on the other, I can’t shake the feeling that eulogising our fallen soldiers masks that as we turn them into flawless heroes who only ever did what was good and honorable fighting for our freedom, and we come dangerously close to eulogising war itself.
And then I hear the words of returned soldiers like Alec Campbell.
So this Anzac Day I want to remind myself that war is an evil. It may at times be a necessary evil, but that doesn’t make it any less evil. It is unadulterated violence, limbs torn from bodies, lives extinguished, infrastructure essential to living decently destroyed, children terrorized. It is something to be avoided at all costs.
I want to remind myself that soldiers do brave and courageous things, put their lives on the line, and are to be honored for that, but at the end of the day their job is to kill people, and this is not something to celebrate but to grieve.
I want to remind myself that we do terrible things during war. Atrocities are committed by both sides. We have our My Lais and Abu Grahibs. And it shouldn’t surprise us. Send people into a situation of total violence and this sort of thing happens.
I want to remind myself that wars are fought for often very cynical motives. I recently began reading a book by Bill Clinton’s official historian. Clinton met with him regularly and talked through what was happening. On one occasion Clinton shared how he had begged European leaders to allow NATO to do more to halt the violence in Bosnia and had been met with refusal because they didn’t feel Europe was ready for a Muslim state. This was a war allowed to continue for very cynical motives, but it exposes just how “real politic” rules the world.
I want to remind myself that Jesus calls me not to hate my enemy but to love my enemies, and chose the path of non violence. I am still not sure how this translates into every context, but it is the path I will choose to follow as best I can.
It is perhaps ironic that the day most sacred to Christians, Good Friday, is in such close proximity to the day most sacred to Australians, Anzac Day. One declares God conquers evil not with violence but with suffering love. The other declares that brute force still rules the world.
The Times once invited famous authors to answer the question “What’s wrong with the world?” GK Chesterton gave the shortest reply
What’s wrong with the world?
We like to think that the world’s problems are of someone else’s making…hate-filled terrorists, greedy CEOs, cynical politicians – we all have someone to blame.
But I think Chesterton got it right. It’s all of us. We make choices with terrible consequences.
Ethicist Peter Singer begins his first year classes at Princeton by posing this dilemma: you are walking past a fountain when you notice a child drowning in it. You are wearing a brand new and expensive pair of shoes. You don’t have time to take them off and save the child. So what do you do? Invariably every student says they would save the child and sacrifice the shoes. Singer challenges them on this. He points out that every year millions of children die from preventable or treatable diseases such as diarrhea. If we were prepared to donate our money to charities that work in the developing world the lives of almost every one of those children could be saved. But we don’t. We buy the expensive shoes instead.
There are critiques that could be made of Singer’s illustration, but I think the essential point stands. We have the capacity to save lives but we prefer to spend our money on other things.
Or take the environment. We know we are degrading it, making it much more difficult for future generations to utilise its resources. But most of us don’t care enough to do anything about it. We go on consuming as if it doesn’t matter and insist our politicians don’t do anything that will impinge on our lifestyle. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and we do much the same.
Bring it down to the interpersonal and think about the fact that half of all marriages break down. Almost every one of those has seen betrayals big and small; angry, wounding words; and the pain of rejection. These things can occur not only in marriages that break down but marriages that stay together and in a host of other relationships. We wound each other all too often.
Yes there are quite magnificent things that we do. But if we own our magnificence we must also own our wickedness.
According to the Bible we are magnificent – it says we are created in God’s image. We cannot help but reflect the character of God – we love, we act generously, we empathise with those who are wounded. But the Bible also teaches that we are “sinners” – we are not only flawed and broken but we willfully elect to act in ways that harm others and the world.
The Bible also says that God will hold us to account for this, that a time for judgement is coming. My trouble is believing that I deserve to be judged. I want to cry out that I am basically a good person. I want to blame someone else for all those dying children, for the build-up of greenhouse gases and the loss of species at an unprecedented rate. I want to qualify and excuse myself for the words I spoke that wounded another, and for the words of encouragement that were needed but I didn’t speak. I want to, but in those quiet moments when I am brutally honest with myself, I can’t.
What’s wrong with the world?
I like to think of Australians as a generous people, the sort of people who help out those in need. When bushfires hit we seem eager to give to those who have lost their homes. Every summer the Sydney cricket test turns pink on Jane McGrath day as money is raised for cancer nurses. When schoolkids accost us with boxes of fundraising chocolates we always buy some.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re generous, because we’re very well off. After allowing for inflation the average Australian in 2010 was consuming three times as much as the average Australian of fifty years earlier. We have rapidly become the second most developed nation in the world according to the UN Human Development Index. As Aussies we have the heart for generosity and the means.
The only problem is it’s not true. The reality is we’re extraordinarily stingy with our money. A 2009-10 survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the average amount given to charities was a meagre $4.26 per household per week. At the same time we average $150 per household per week on recreation and holidaying. The truth is that we’ve grown fabulously rich yet we donate a lousy $4.26 per household per week to helping those in need.
The statistic is so awful I don’t want to believe it. But it’s true.
How can this be? Perhaps a large part of the explanation is found in a 2002 newspoll that showed 62% of us don’t think we can afford everything we need. We have ceased defining need in terms of what is sufficient to live decently and have started defining it in terms of satisfying our aspirations. We define the good life as gaining more, of having what everyone else has, and see that to live the good life on these terms we ‘need’ more than we have.
We used to have a word for this: greed. In a world of desperate need we’re a bunch of greedy bastards.
When I was in Cambodia recently I heard about a place called Diamond Island. Filled with luxury apartments and houses, it is a world away from the poverty that marks the country. My first inclination is to ask “how can the residents of Diamond Island live like that when there are so many poor in their country?” But on reflection I realise that I should also ask the question of myself.
Why are the residents of Diamond Island any more responsible for the poor of their country than I am? I could point to the emotional bond that shared nationality provides, or the fact that the residents of Diamond Island have grown rich on assets that belong to all the people of Cambodia. But shouldn’t our shared humanity be the most basic and important bond of all? And if that’s the case the Cambodian poor are my brothers and sisters. And isn’t there an argument that the assets of earth belong to all humankind? If that’s the case, I too, have grown rich off the wealth of the Cambodian poor.
Borders define the limits of governmental authority but why should they define the limits of ethical responsibility? It seems to me that when I think that the residents of Diamond Island have a greater responsibility to Cambodia’s poor than I do, I have idolised the State. I have allowed my allegiance to the nation to override my allegiance to humanity.
And it’s not just the poor. Ethics without borders should apply to global humanitarian crises such as finding safe places for refugees and asylum seekers and to global environmental crises like climate change.
To those who say charity begins at home I say yes it does. The earth is our home and every human being our brother or sister. To myself I say, “Scott put it into action”
Ethics can be confusing. Christians debate gender roles, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and much more, and despite having the same Scriptures before us, still manage to disagree. What’s more, the bible we open contains some weird and wonderful teaching. Try these on for size:
- If my brother dies without having produced a son, I am to marry his wife and we are to have a child who takes my brother’s name;
- I am not to eat prawns or wear cotton-polyester clothing;
- If my right hand causes me to sin, I should chop it off;
- If I am a woman I am to remain silent in church, except when praying or prophesying, during which time I am to wear a covering on my head.
Sometimes the teaching seems contradictory. Do I answer a fool according to his folly or not? Should younger widows marry as encouraged in 1 Timothy 5 or stay single as urged in 1 Corinthians 7?
I share these things not to mock the Bible, but to raise the question of how we interpret it. Why do we reject the ethical prescriptions in the instances I cited, but accept them in others? For years I have been frustrated with the inconsistencies that seem to mark our engagement with the text. More often than not, it seems we accept some teachings because tradition tells us to, and ignore others because our traditions tell us to.
And we change our ethics as our culture changes. When I was growing up remarriage after divorce was seen as adultery, but as more and more of our friends and relatives divorced we revised this ethic. Did we have it right when we prohibited remarriage, or did the shift in culture force us to look at the text afresh and see that we were captive to the culture of an earlier period? This is not an isolated case. There are many examples of our ethical stance changing with culture.
If this doesn’t call into question the notion of moral absolutes, it certainly questions whether we have the ability to know them.
So maybe the problem is the notion of “moral absolutes”. What if the center of ethical living lies not with observing ethical rules but developing ethical character? For those who study ethical theory, what I am asking is whether biblical ethics has more to do with virtue than duty?
Is it reasonable to argue that the majority of Scripture is story, and that rather than giving me rules to live by, it focuses my attention on the character of God and calls me to imitate that character in my own? If it is, then I think a biblical ethic could be articulated as follows.
I begin with the recognition that the Biblical text consists primarily of two things: 1) the story of God’s involvement with the world, beginning with creation, continuing with the people of Israel, then Christ, the church and the new creation; and 2) the application of the story to the lives of the people the text originally addressed.
The meaning of the story is created by the unfolding plot and the action of the characters. This story reveals who God is, what God is like, God’s purposes, and consequently who we are, our place in the universe what we are to be like, and what our purposes should be. In terms of the ethical implications we discover that we are creatures made by a good, wise, powerful, just and generous God, created in his image and called to fill the earth and rule over it and the animals. As we do so, both individually and collectively we are to reflect the character of God. Our lives, communities and engagement with the earth then are to be good, generous, wise, loving, compassionate and just.
Having turned away from God our lives, communities and engagement with the earth are instead tainted with greed, selfishness, violence, and injustice. God calls us to turn back to him and to right living. In the Old Testament era the Law of Israel served as a guide to what right living looked like. With the coming of Jesus however, the law is superseded (I think this is the argument of Galatians). In Jesus we have the fullest revelation of who God is and who we are meant to be, and he grants us the gift of the Spirit to shape us into his image. Ethical living then, focuses on developing personal character and communities that reflect the character of Christ.
While the character of God/Christ is unchanging, the circumstances in which we live are not. When we ask what it means to reflect the character and purposes of Christ we always ask from within a concrete historical setting. This means that when the Bible addresses ethical behaviour the text is rarely concerned with how everyone, everywhere, should live, but focuses instead on how particular groups of people, living in particular historical settings, should order their lives. The laws of Moses, for example, ask what it means for ancient Israel – a society of small scale farmers located in the social world of the ancient Mediterranean – to reflect the character and purposes of God. The New Testament Book of First Corinthians asks how a group of believers located in mid first century Corinth should express the character and purposes of Christ in mid first century Corinth.
This means two things for ethics. First, the proper focus of ethics is not replicating the behaviour of ancient Israelites or first century Corinthians. The focus is replicating the character of God/Christ in our own historical setting. Our calling is not to imitate Moses or Paul, nor Israel or the Corinthians, but to imitate Christ. The ethical instruction to the Israelites and the Corinthians should be seen as case studies that teach us the pattern of ethical living rather than the content. The texts show us how the character of God/Christ was to be embodied by small scale farmers in the ancient Mediterranean and urban dwellers in mid first century Corinth. Given the very different historical setting in which we find ourselves the ways we embody the character of God/Christ will also be very different.
Second, while we can make sense of the Biblical story without any substantial knowledge of the historical setting (it’s meaning comes from the development of plot and character), to make sense of the ethical commands of the Bible we are very dependent on our understanding of the historical setting. Given our historical knowledge is incomplete, changing and subject to differing interpretation, we should expect to find diverse understandings of what the text meant to the original addressees. If we believe our calling is to replicate the particular ethical commands of the text, this will prove disturbing. If the scholars don’t agree, how are we to know what God calls us to? If however, we already know the character of God from the telling of the Biblical story, then we can hear the voice of God without having any consensus on the meaning of any particular ethical text.
If the argument I have made is correct, a biblical ethic is not one in which we slavishly reproduce the behaviour encouraged in any given passage, but one where we live inside the biblical story, allowing it to inform us about God and the contours of reality, and then living our lives in imitation of God, becoming the people and communities we were created to be.
What do you think?
Australia currently ranks as the second most developed country in the world according to the United Nations Human Development Index. Cambodia, from where I write this, ranks 139th. With its high levels of poverty, underdeveloped infrastructure, and corrupt government, Cambodia is often described as a “developing” country. Australia by contrast is described as “developed”.
This language is unhelpful, for it implies Australia has become whatever it is supposed to be, while Cambodia hasn’t. The reality is altogether different. Neither country has arrived. Both are still developing.
If we define development from a biblical perspective I believe it would be something like this: development is to move towards right relationship with God, with creation, within community, within households and within self, as diagrammed below
By this measure every country is still developing. For example, Australians have largely turned away from faith. This is a huge area for us to develop in. Similarly, our consumption levels are contributing to an unprecedented degradation of the world environment, while many of our corporations source products and trade in ways that exploit the world’s poor. By measures such as these it is impossible to claim we have reached maturity.
I find this perspective sobering. It reminds me that the goal for countries like Cambodia is not to become “like us”, but to find their own path to right relationships. It reminds me that there will be areas Cambodia has made more progress in its development than Australia, and vice versa, and that we can learn from each other. And it reminds me that the journey to development is never complete, that at the same time I ask how I might help a country like Cambodia develop, I need to ask, how can I help my own country develop? And included in that must be the question of how I am developing.