Christian Ethics at the Boundary by Karen Guth

Book Review:

Our culture seems obsessed with pointing out and using difference as a divisive and wall-building mechanism. The effects are felt in the most casual conversations about music and movie preferences, as well as more intense discussions about theological issues which recently affected the polity within one of the largest Protestant denominations to political concerns around the globe. In the academic world of theology and ethics, many scholars take positions within historical ideological camps or interpret them for today’s world. In her book, Christian Ethics at the Boundary, Karen Guth demonstrates that an engagement with multiple voices at the boundaries of where their opinions differ can be used constructively and creatively to find new avenues of ethical interaction between and within the church and the world.

Guth’s methodology for engaging diverse ethical and theological voices is based on the methodology of “community of argument” outlined by Kathryn Tanner in her book, Theories of Culture. Tanner’s process focuses on the participants undertaking an interpretative and investigative stance during the discussion that is not focused on coming to an agreement or any particular outcome (Guth, 23). Constructive use of Tanner’s process, as understood by Guth, hinges on acknowledgement of a “common search for truth,” regard for the integrity and power of the work each person is undertaking and the desire to address the “challenges of our communal moral life (Guth,5).”

Guth’s focus in this book is to engage the boundary of witness, realist and feminist and womanist ethical theological thought primarily focusing on the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. While she understands the benefits of naming and categorizing for self-identification and clarification of one’s own point of view, she recognizes that some perspective and nuance may be lost when a scholar’s writing is categorized with a broad brush (Guth, 26). By listening to the criticisms against and the less acknowledged strands of Niebuhr’s (realist) and Yoder’s (witness) writing alongside feminist and womanist scholars, Guth is interested in identifying new ground for the extension of the work of all three points of view (Guth, 7-8).

Reinhold Neibuhr
Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr began the discussion of the witness versus realist approach as they attempted to guide the theological response of the church to the political changes caused by World Wars I and II. Barth emphasized a “radical difference between the world of God and the world of humans.” Barth was concerned about the emphasis on human experience to understand God and the efforts to align the political and economic world with God’s will.  He felt that Christians should make their focus on internal world of the church (Guth, 35). He felt that Christians should align their personal identity with the church (Guth, 37) which is distinctive from and acts as God’s witness to the world (Guth, 9).

Howard Yoder
Howard Yoder is best known as a pacifist who advocated for not participating in the military and was concerned that the Christian witness remain pure instead of seeking justice in the world. Guth interprets Yoder as identifying the “state” or nation with the “world” (Guth, 121) because of his witness stance for nonresistant love (Guth 113). Yoder was not trying to say that the church was good and the world was bad but that the church has a different purpose than the world, different beliefs about the destiny of mankind and the lordship of God over everything (Guth 121). Yoder believed that the public awareness of that the church doing things in a way that is different than the culture contributes to cultural change (Guth, 129) and that feminist and womanist thought is contributing to that witness (Guth, 29).

Niebuhr disagreed with Barth and believed that the truths of the church provided the guidance for moral action by Christians in their life in the world (Guth, 35). He placed great emphasis on personal experience being as important as revelation and scripture (Guth, 85) and saw sin primarily as the pride of not recognizing our lack of control of human destiny (Guth, 77).  He emphasized that Christian beliefs and practices were invaluable resources for finding ways to resolve political and economic problems (Guth, 10). Robin Lovin continued the work of realism in Christian ethics by outlining three “realisms – political, theological and moral” in Niebuhr’s writing. He pushes Niebhur’s acknowledgement of the “reality of nation-states” to include the influence of “religious movements and trans-national corporations.” Today’s application of Christian theology, in his mind, needed to include these new realities in political thinking (Guth, 45). Lovin included both public and private life as contexts requiring moral responsibility (Guth, 46). He acknowledged that each of these contexts will attempt to protect the integrity of its boundaries when interacting with the other contexts but these multiple contexts will need to communicate and collaborate for the greater good (Guth, 47).

Guth notes that feminists and womanists have been ignored by and avoid engagement with realist and witness thought for very good reasons. Guth states that feminists and womanists see no difference between internal (witness) and external (realist) political action but direct their emphasis on determining where the power lies and its effect (Guth, 58). She points out the feminist and womanist concern for the impact of truth claims on those who are marginalized (Guth, 78). Feminists and womanists emphasize the effect of theological language, doctrine and practices as a force that shapes cultural norms and determines moral action by individuals and groups. Feminists and womanists also question the universality of Niebuhr’s definition of sin as pride or a self that is too individualized and autonomous and highlight its inaccuracy for women who more often relational and lack self-esteem (Guth, 78). 

Martin Luther King Jr.
Guth also looks critically at the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr, who she feels has been largely ignored as a conversation partner by realists, witness and feminist and womanist theologians. His theology stands across and between realism and witness points of view. He joins realists in publicly engaging with the “triple evils” of the world, racism, materialism and militarism. His emphasis on the formation work of the church within individua lives aligns him with witness theologians (Guth, 17).

King’s understanding of nonviolent resistance and “willingness to accept violence, if necessary” is seen by Guth as drawing on historically Christian martyrdom to express how he thinks about political action (Guth, 154). While King appealed to African-Americans to recognize their personhood in God and possessing the power to choose sacrifice, feminists and womanists assert that his definition of agape love as willingness to sacrifice self was counter-productive for women (Guth, 169-170). Feminists and Womanists characterize the cross as voluntary suffering for a just cause not as sacrificial suffering which can disempower women to take action against their suffering (Guth, 162).

Guth notes that love was a central theme in King’s theology around Christian non-violence (Guth, 154) and that this can be related to the feminist and womanist view of agape love that is mutual, each taking and giving love (Guth, 171). He also utilized the metaphor of family and friendship to describe the relational and mutually dependent relationship between individuals as motivation for political action (Guth, 173). For feminists and womanists, this resonates with the understanding of community as centrally important to the “deepening and extension of communal life (Guth, 174).

In addition to theological differences, feminists and womanists find it difficult to engage with theologians that have expressed through their personal actions or writing their sexism. It is suspected that Niebuhr’s wife Ursula was his unacknowledged coauthor and did not acknowledge the work of black women’s theological work in Harlem that was going on during his time. Even though Yoder characterizes Jesus as a feminist and promotes “gender egalitarianism” he has been called out for sexual violence against women (Guth, 21). King, ignoring the realities of sexism against black women in his writing, was known to disregard the equality of black women within his organization and in his personal life (Guth 22).

So what?
What good comes from challenging various viewpoints to listen for nuance and find threads of agreement that can be developed? To Guth, what comes from these discussions at the boundaries of differing thought are “gifts and resources” that can be used to broaden and deepen the body of work to “address complex moral problems (Guth, 5).” She wants to use the discussion of these particular theologians as an example of how Tanner’s “culture of argument” can be used productively to engage in work on larger issues (Guth, 6). We can follow King’s example and refuse to land in any one theological stance but work with other “creatively maladjusted ethicists (Guth 185-186)” to redefine the political role of the church in a way that uses agape love to create and sustain communities that are a “synthesis of love and justice (Guth, 183).”  By seeing love as creative capacity we can participate with God in “creative activity (Guth, 175)” to address the calling of the church as witness to God’s love and care as well as take action to create change towards “the beloved community.”

For each of us studying theology and ethics and living in our many and varied contexts, we are called to listen to those who have perspectives and beliefs that may differ from our own. When we utilize the approach of Kathyrn Tanner’s culture of disagreement, we increase the odds of finding points of agreement, as well as disagreement, that may enlarge our understanding of the issue and provide creative new directions of discovery. We can commit to becoming the “beloved community” even as we engage our differences “without succumbing to divisiveness that betrays the integrity and power of our work (Guth, 5).”