The First Step Of Christian Ethics Is Out Of Your Shoes

My politics and ethics tend to side with the poor, the outcast, the convict, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed because I believe God has sided with me, an outcast.  Such an understanding is at the heart of Christian ethics.

Christian ethics must begin with seeing through the eyes of the marginalized for two major reasons; doing so negates the “self-preservation” mechanism inherent within the ethics of the privileged and, far more fundamentally, identifies with the nature of God.

Every understanding of ethics is invariably connected with its environment and no viewpoint is entirely objective. The difficulty with doing ethics from the “center” of dominant culture, as opposed to the margins, is its tendency to perpetuate the very supports holding unjust cultural norms in a position of superiority. The ethical systems constructed from such a background establish and legitimize the status quo.

The blind spots of the powerful tend to become quite refined.

Even in the rare event that the privileged recognize the injustices promoted by dominant culture, viewing these injustices through a lens forged in that culture result in cosmetic solutions; instead of dismantling the very causes of injustice, they seek to address the affects of injustice. Only by making observations through the eyes of those on the outside of the system and personally identifying with them can the ethicist build an ethical structure not beholden to the self preservation of the majority. The gaze of the powerless removes the mask preventing the empowered from seeing their oppressive systems for what they truly are.

Identifying with the marginalized puts us squarely adjacent the character of God, the foundational authority for all Christians. God’s nature is most clearly seen in his reign over the world, and God clearly identifies with the lowly. An ethical response grounded in the nature of God must begin with seeing through the eyes of the people on the outside of oppressive systems, for to look through their eyes is to look through the eyes of Jesus himself. This process is key to both understanding the reign of God rightly and participating in it.

Even though I long for the marginalized, my home is surely at the center of dominant Christian culture.  One of the professors in my undergraduate program often ranted about the sad state of theology, citing the existence of “situational” theologies (i.e. liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology) as evidence; as if we at the college were somehow doing theology from some sort of objective hermeneutical mountain. We were taught to view the disenfranchised, and their attempts at theology, as reactionary and less than acceptable. I truly identify with Miguel De La Torre when he says those who benefit from the injustice promoted by a system are in need of liberation from oppression as much as the oppressed.

Now gimme your shoes.

  1. De La Torre, Miguel A. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
  2. Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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