Christ’s Ethics: Should America Try Them?

Reference Luke 6:17-26

As Christianity enters a period of decline in the U.S., it seems a shame to see it fade without ever having tried it.

If the Christianity embedded in American culture is compared with the teachings of Jesus, some stark contrasts emerge. These are in two main categories which correspond with the Gospel and Epistle appointed for this Sunday. In the Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:12-20), we are given the story of what Jesus achieved, the salvation and resurrection of a planet which was hopelessly lost through the rebellion of our species and consequent immense damage. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus has accomplished the central act of history in saving us, although we have no merit of our own nor ability to save ourselves. It is entirely through his loving act of sacrifice and resurrection that we are restored to harmony with God and his creation, by his grace alone.

The second category is in answering the question as to how we ought to live, having received that gift of salvation. Jesus lays it out in the above passage from Luke. It is clear that it is important information, since he waits until a large crowd from all over has gathered before he shares his ethical mandate, known to us as the Beatitudes.

The contrasts? In the first category, most people do not see themselves as hopelessly and helplessly lost sinners. Rather, they have sort of a Buddhist idea of salvation being achieved by a preponderance of good deeds over bad deeds. To be sure, a significant minority understand the need to be saved, but many often ruin the thought by insisting on seeing a life of near-sinless goodness post-conversion contributing to the salvation effort. Many others don’t see the cross and resurrection as relevant to the process of a nice God who has an open door policy for everyone, except for folks like Hitler or Stalin or other obviously bad dudes, few of them American.

In the second category, the majority of Americans see the Ten Commandments, not the Beatitudes, as the foundational Christian guidepost for ethical behavior. This is enhanced by a history of following Old Testament models rather than Christian ones. A good example is the concept of Manifest Destiny, that the United States is essentially the new Israel, a chosen people appointed to conquer the new promised land of America, driving out the original inhabitants. The concept has morphed into the modern view of the U.S. as the righteous leader of the world, a special God-chosen and God-protected people. “God bless America and God bless our troops,” victory to our forces and death to our enemies. Implicit in this is the godly nature of the capitalist system, the evils of socialism, and the superiority of our “way of life,” usually designated as “Judeo-Christian.”

Jesus has a different view. He sees the Law and Ten Commandments as the implacable witness to our failure to be righteous They are accusers condemning all of us as guilty according to God’s justice. He clarifies with some examples: if we have ever been angry, we have broken the commandment not to kill; “do not resist an evil person,” but turn the other cheek, do not live by the Old Testament idea of “an eye for an eye;”the full story is explained in Matthew, chapter five. Likewise, Jesus has no interest in a particular economic ideology nor a political empire, let alone a conquering and dominating one. He lived in the political environment of the Roman Empire and in a modified capitalist system, and seems unconcerned to either attack or defend either of these. Christians are inherently knit together as a community, but the Beatitudes are addressed to the individual, hopefully to be lived in concert with other Christians until our fulfillment in the only Kingdom that ultimately matters. In that community, the commandments that are truly important are to love God and love your neighbors, the latter defined as being everybody. The Beatitudes clarify what it means to love your neighbor, giving us some crucial examples.

Jesus thereby shows the purpose of the Ten Commandments, on the other hand, is to reveal that none of us can keep God’s absolute Law. It condemns us, it does not save us. We are thus driven to Plan B, to throw ourselves on the mercy of the loving God, and having received his assurance of salvation, to act in response to that as best we are able, through the model of love shown in the Beatitudes. To do so is a radical departure from much of the Christianity which has been presented to Americans over several centuries.

From time to time, we have been sent prophets to illustrate this. One was Martin Luther King, now honored with an official holiday, recently observed. But his message, driven by the ethics of Christ and the Beatitudes, has been mostly ignored. Living as a Christian transcends race and makes it irrelevant as a divider. Being non-violent, including not hating or being angry at others, but rather comforting others, being a peacemaker; these are core Christian values. King’s message was that we should transcend divisions and be united. He identified it as a Christian ethic. Today, the holiday is celebrated primarily by African-Americans and mostly is focused on the practical advances in opportunities consequent to the partial success of the Civil Rights movement. Valuable as these advances are, that celebration badly misses the point. Martin Luther King is not simply an African-American hero, he is beyond that in being both an American and Christian hero, one who illuminated the Christian ethical path for all Americans. The present regression into greater emphasis on race and racial divides is in the exact opposite direction. It returns to the former standard of “separate but equal,” with perhaps a call for it to be really equal. But Christians cannot be separated by human divisions. As Paul says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Christ’s ethics do not achieve this by tolerance or being separate but equal. Rather, the Christian ethic abolishes the divisions and walls, removing the distinctions which humans construct. All Christians should celebrate Martin Luther King as the only official American holiday which orients us directly to Christian ethics. It is not a day that should be observed primarily by only one ethnicity. It is a massive failure of American Christianity to have missed this. I would also appeal to African-Americans, especially the baptized majority, to share the vision of the day with all of us, and not see it just as a remembrance of a great American who happened to be African-American.

This is but one example of how to apply the ethics taught by Jesus to our world. Despite some wonderful exceptions, America has yet to govern its actions by these ethics, nor has the Christian community witnessed to the populace to do so. The thrust of the American Church’s ethical message generally pushes for legislation compelling behavior.But it is noteworthy that Jesus does not say, “Thou shalt” or “thou shalt not,” rather “blessed are you” when you can live by his ethic.

The contrast can be illustrated at much more length, and I would challenge you to review how America and Americans would look if in fact the Beatitudes were the guiding principle of at least the Christians in our nation. So many people are lost to the message of Christ’s grace because they have been presented with a version of Christianity which does not believe in salvation by grace, but does know a Christianity of rules, not of blessing and love, a church full of condemnation, law and self-righteous Phariseeism, not of grace, acceptance and a blessing way.

God bless America. I hope he does. I dream that America will respond by being a blessing to all the world, starting with ourselves, and applying his ethics. And that includes Jesus’ conclusion to the Beatitudes, in sharp contradiction to the Puritans of yesteryear and today: “Rejoice and leap for joy.”