Friday, May 11, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On the Apolitical, Nonnormative Jesus of Wolfgang Schrage

In his substantial book The Ethics of the New Testament (trans. David E. Green; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982, 1988), Wolfgang Schrage proposes to take up the ethical practices of the earliest Christian communities and to analyze and appropriate them for the sake of Christians’ contemporary moral questions and challenges (1). Though his knowledge and scholarship are unquestionable, his conclusions and method leave much to be desired. In the following I will take up a number of issues and questions stemming from his engagement of New Testament texts and ethical topics and, through critical interaction, explore his successes and failures while offering my own judgments on some particular matters.

To begin, though one must search without a topical index, the question of violence and war—in relation to the individual, the church, and the state alike—appears randomly throughout. However, in its unannounced appearances the question is only rendered more problematic by Schrage’s treatment, rather than clarified or at least explicitly addressed. For example, in the introduction, Schrage says that “the superior status of the law of love means that there can be no directives to be followed for their own sake, for example, no universally valid law of nonviolence” (11). There is no citation or argument offered, though this might lead one simply to expect a fuller treatment in the course of the book; by the end, however, one will be disappointed by its relative absence. Furthermore, Schrage seems to contradict himself later, in discussion of Paul: “love does no wrong to a neighbor. I cannot love my neighbor and at the same time deceive him in the person of his spouse, rob him of his possessions or his reputation, or seek to take his life” (217). So which is it: no categorical “law of nonviolence,” or a concrete “law of love” that refuses to seek to take the life of the neighbor?

This blatantly overlooked contradiction (in evidence elsewhere in the book) already indicates numerous problems with Schrage’s approach and, therefore, with his ethical conclusions. Just how slippery is the “law of love”? What does “concrete” or “material” mean if anything at any time is up for grabs in moral deliberation? Is there anything that cannot be made to fit in or finally squeezed out of this law, given the right situation? Even in seeking to claim the commandments’ validity in the light of the law of love (216-17), how can they retain authority if they can be qualified per any individual discernment of contextual appropriateness?

In fact, according to Schrage’s methodologically enacted example, there simply cannot be absolutes or unqualified directives for Christian ethics (though even here “the New Testament must still be taken as an absolute standard” for “Christian conduct” [2]; what can this mean?). Schrage or an ally might rejoin that Christian ethics is precisely the irreducible task of discerning what love calls for at any moment, a task no one claims to be easy or simple or admitting of answers in advance of situations. Fair enough; but would such an interlocutor then be willing to defend, given some fitting context, the use of nuclear weapons? the practice of adultery? murder? rape? Indeed there are and must be starkly drawn moral absolutes in order to see the breadth of gray in between. To impute to the “law of love” priority over any and all commandments—which, as such, must always be obeyed in obedience to the will of the God revealed in Jesus Christ—is a strangely vacuous conception of a love so abstract one wonders if indeed it has any content at all.

This absence of content relates directly to Schrage’s clear discomfort with the notion of imitation, or of Jesus setting any kind of “earthly example” to follow. This leads to the truly odd interpretation of passages like the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 and Paul’s encouragement of the Jerusalem collection in 2 Corinthians 8 to have only to do with “the preexistent Christ” (208). To be sure, the Hymn likely envisages such a preexistent situation, and perhaps the latter passage as well, but they cannot thereby be reduced to such a state. What of the second half of the Hymn—Christ “being found in human form” (v. 7) and being “obedient to death—even death on the cross” (v. 8)? Is this still a preexistent being? About what, on such a reading, are the Philippians to have “the same mind” as Christ—one executed not pre-incarnate but as incarnate human being! Or similarly in 2 Corinthians 8:9 (“became poor for our sake”): Is Christ’s poverty merely the fact of his humanity? If not, to what else could it refer except the concrete life conditions—unavoidably moral in content and thus imitable by definition—of Jesus of Nazareth, the man?

Schrage codifies his claims thus: “Certainly any attempt to copy or imitate the life of Jesus that views Jesus as a model is not Pauline” (208). It is not difficult to translate the meaning of “not Pauline”: to be un-Pauline is to be improperly Christian. That would be acceptable if there were some basis—stated or not!—on which to presume that what is “Pauline” is more to be trusted or appropriated as Christian over against the deutero-Pauline and catholic epistles; unfortunately, there is no such basis. Thus we are left with “examples . . . nevertheless significant” which “establish . . . a formal purpose and intention,” “define . . . a fundamental orientation of Christian living,” and “impl[y . . .] ethical conformity” (208-9)—but once again, these words sound hollow precisely as supposed “material criteria.” What are we finally to understand as “material” about ethical “examples” that are not to be “copied or imitated” but nonetheless call for “conformity”?

Related to (and typical of) Schrage’s squeamishness with Jesus’ earthly life as humanly paradigmatic—either as cause or as consequence—is his reading of the Lukan Jesus as apolitical. This is all the more disappointing given that his book was published a full decade after John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which, put simplistically, is a straightforward (but against the grain) reading of the text of Luke’s Gospel as explicitly political. For Schrage the evidence lies in both Luke and Acts, and he begins literally at the end, with the last word of Acts (“unhindered”; 28:31) signifying the way in which “Luke is quite concerned to prove that the Christian religion does not represent any danger to the state” (157). As should be evident by now, it matters significantly how one reads and interprets the text; and here Schrage takes what supports his thesis as authentic, of the plain sense, and explains away or qualifies what does not.

An example of this procedure is his deeply anachronistic and naive account of John the Baptist and Roman soldiers, commenting that this scene indicates “there is no conflict in principle between faith and military service, and indeed implies a fundamental loyalty” (157). Immediately thereafter, however, the statement in Luke 4:5-6 that “Satan has power over all the kingdoms of the world” is explicitly reinterpreted so as “not to be misunderstood as suggesting that the state is satanic.” But what if Rome does not have such an able expositor in its ranks? Caesar just might (however strangely) find himself threatened by trans-regional followers of an executed rebel called Kyrios, who proclaimed a basileia theou over against all other basileiai—the latter of which, incidentally, this rebel claimed to be ruled by a demonic spiritual power!

Why, one is compelled to ask, is Schrage so committed to an apolitical Jesus? It is possible that this is merely a consequence of his a priori conviction that the earthly Jesus is not normative for Christian ethics, and therefore there are no other available options. However, it could also be the inverse: that insofar as Jesus remains apolitical, just so he must not and cannot be normative for Christian imitation. But what if this false image of a docetic Jesus is shattered? What if the man Jesus, hailing from Nazareth, was flesh and blood, constituted socially and politically by his community, commitments, convictions, practices, family, and impinging structures of civil and religious power? What if the incarnate Word of God lived a sociopolitical life indistinguishable from our own after him except by (humanly common) particularities of time, place, and ethnic makeup? The answer seems clear, though it is not Schrage’s: this Word made flesh would be—and to this day would remain—normative for human life seeking to be faithful to his way in the world.

We can best conclude explication of Schrage’s unfortunately conceived apolitical Jesus—and the consequences for Christian ethics—by returning to the issue of violence. In this case, however, it is not the general subject in question, but the possibility of Jesus’ having been tempted to employ it for his own ends. Legitimately concerned not to make of Jesus a violent revolutionary, Schrage calls the notion “dubious” and “doubtful” that Jesus may have been tempted by revolutionary violence or that “a specifically messianic temptation” arises in his ministry (109). To be sure, it is “beyond doubt that Jesus rejected Zealot extremism” (110)—but is this the same as to say he was not tempted by it? Moreover, Schrage’s most unreserved affirmations of Jesus’ rejection of the sword—in Matthew 26:52 and 5:39, respectively—he swiftly writes out of the historical record (and therefore out of the authoritative canon) by claiming they “can hardly go back to Jesus” (110) and “probably derive from Matthew” (111). And so we end where we began: while Jesus’ words “refuse to let anyone answer . . . violence with violence,” nonetheless “they do not imply . . . fundamental nonviolence” (111). From a nonnormative, apolitical, reconstructed historical Jesus, could we expect anything less?

Wolfgang Schrage’s book is not bad; it is merely a hostage to self-sabotage before the first chapter begins. A clarified methodology, a more robust treatment of the normativity of Jesus as incarnate Word and crucified Messiah, and a less simplistic treatment of violence vis-à-vis the “law of love” would have greatly enhanced its impact as an ethical reading of the New Testament.

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