Christian ethics: it's about being neighbor

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456, 7, 910, 11, 12131415.

In a chapter on ethics grounded in Trinitarian, Christ-centered practical theology (Christopraxis), Anderson offers this summary statement:
The criterion by which we measure... the "ethical event" between humans is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ by which humanity is liberated from the inhumanity of sin and restored and morally empowered through grace. Christopraxis is a form of moral empowerment rather than merely moral judgment. (p160)
The Good Samaritan (Modern) by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)
Following the teaching of Karl Barth, Anderson asserts that Christian ethics is not about impersonal rules and ideals, but about true humanity found in Jesus. As our representative and on our behalf, the Son of God united all people to himself by assuming our fallen humanity, and then through his life, death, resurrection and ascension judging and recreating it. Now, via his continuing incarnation, Jesus, through the Spirit, shares with us that true humanity, which as Anderson notes is fundamentally co-humanity, represented by the biblical ethical concept of neighbor:
[Christian ethics] has to do with real humanity, not pseudohumanity, or even ideal humanity. There can only be one real form of humanity... and Jesus Christ has revealed that... as it was originally and finally determined to be.... If we have discerned the true form of humanity... then we will have discovered the criterion for theological ethics. This is so because the form of humanity... called into being originally by the determination of the Lord God... through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, establishes the ethical response of hearing and obedience. God becomes the neighbor to humans as creature and summons persons to become the neighbor to God and to fellow humanity. (pp134-5, emphasis added).

The concept of neighbor at the core of Christian ethics

Anderson places the biblical concept of neighbor at the heart and core of Christian ethics. This move is not merely conceptual, for Christ is not a concept---he is alive and active; he has thoughts and takes action in the world, bidding his followers join him in a way of being in the world governed not by abstract principles, or a static list of do's and don'ts, but by life lived in solidarity with him, and through him with other humans. Key to this approach to ethics is knowing that God's decision concerning humanity in creation, incarnation and redemption is "the common factor of the divine upholding of humanity in the form of fellow humanity" (p137). Anderson's incarnational Trinitarian approach to ethics is thus fundamentally relational---seeing humans as "fellow-humans" (neighbors), not isolated, independent beings. Humanity, in Christ, is fundamentally people-in-relation with other people and with God.

Of course, within this fellow humanity are points of structural differentiation (eg: race, gender, ethnicity), but none of these overshadow the greater reality that we humans share together the one, perfect humanity of Jesus who, alone, as "true human" is "true neighbor." Anderson comments:
In Jesus Christ, God himself has become the "neighbor" of Adam through his own humanity. The incarnation is the embodiment of God as the true form of humanity, not the embodiment of an ethical ideal. Real humanity, then, is humanity as a determination of human being by God himself; it is humanity in the form of a being of one with the other, and it is humanity as the covenant partner with God and the other. 
The incarnation does not produce another form of humanity but can be understood as the "humanization" of humanity. The ethical content of love as a criterion for theological ethics is not just "Christian love," as distinct from non-Christian love, but it is "human love," as distinct from inhuman love.... It is, after all, says Barth, "not ethics, but an ethical event that takes place between two persons."
The love that constitutes the ethical event in cohumanity is common to all forms of humanity. When divine love becomes the content of the event of cohumanity created through incarnation, what results is the "humanization" of humanity.... The true form of humanity made manifest through the humanity of Jesus serves to ground moral responsibility not in moral reason alone as an abstraction but in cohumanity as determined by God and as experienced in the concrete, historical existence of persons... In the humanity of Jesus Christ the actual humanity of every person has been taken up, judged, put to death and justified. Jesus Christ is not only the Son of the Father, he is at the same time the brother of every brother and sister (pp138-9, emphasis added). 
The inescapable and unavoidable conclusion of this reality is that we, as Jesus' followers, have the "ethical responsibility of living freely for and with" those who God decrees to be our neighbor, namely all humanity (p139). This decree "unites love of God and love of neighbor in a single ethical movement." That being the case, the great question of Christian ethics is this: "How do I... stand each moment of my life in relation to my neighbor?" (p143).

On being true neighbor

For Anderson, the concrete reality of neighbor (fellow-person, both near and far) thus becomes a key criterion of ethical conduct---conduct that necessarily involves our active engagement, including our repentance, for "repentance toward God includes seeking reconciliation with my neighbor, costly though that may be" (p144). To love our neighbor demands more of us than merely ceasing to do them wrong---we are called to join Jesus in the healing of relationships. Doing that requires that we go to our neighbor in a repentant spirit of humility that seeks to do good to our neighbor.

This is why the church, as the body of Christ in the world, must have an approach to ethics that is not merely about retreating from the world to avoid its sin. Rather the church is called to be a "missionary community" that is open to the world, seeking opportunity to facilitate reconciliation that is both neighbor-to-neighbor and neighbor-to-God. In that way the church shares in Jesus' ongoing "ethical event." As Barth wrote, "If I refuse to meet [my] neighbor, even though he may appear to be ungodly to me... I may deny the Christ living in me" (p146). Along those lines, Anderson makes these observations:
Theological ethics are derived out of the concreteness of human life, and especially the concreteness of the neighbor, as a form of the command of God. (p150)
The incarnation can be viewed as the single ethical event that destroyed the "dividing wall of hostility" between persons (Eph 2:14). Moral goodness, as the material content of a life in union with Jesus Christ, demands that one is accountable not only for what is honorable in the sight of Christ but "also in the sight of others" (2 Cor 8:21; cf. Rom 12:17; 14:18). (p150)
No longer can there be both sacred and secular spheres that permit Christians to claim ethical exemption from the moral good of the neighbor. Rather, as Bonhoeffer put it, "Christ, reality and the good" comprise a single sphere of moral and spiritual unity. (pp150-1)

For the apostle to say that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29) does not mean that God's commands are arbitrary and totally subjective but that God's purposes for humankind already revealed through Jesus Christ take precedence over religious commitments and religious authority.... When the injured person lies beside the road on which the religious person travels, the question as to what constitutes the ethical action of a "neighbor" takes precedence over the more abstract fine points of theological difference (p153).
Authentic concern for neighbor carries with it an assessment of what might be better, when the best cannot be done without destroying the structure of fellow humanity itself. (p155)

A word of caution and clarification

Warning against taking the concept of neighbor as the key ethical criterion in a direction inconsistent with the mind of Christ, Anderson adds these words of caution and clarification:
It is Jesus Christ who commands the Christian conscience in its moral reflection and action, not merely the neighbor. This is because we cannot view the neighbor independently of Christ, nor Christ independently of neighbor. Ultimately, Christ is the true neighbor.... We are not suggesting that fellow humanity as expressed in the concept of neighbor becomes the single criterion of theological ethics.... But it is also fair to say that the concept of neighbor is a criterion of a theological ethic based on the theological foundation of God's election of persons to be covenant partners... (p155).
A natural theology [where conscience is a primary basis of ethics] that does not have at the center a cross sunk deep into human flesh will not find transforming love at the center of human moral action. It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the transformation of moral authority takes place.... The incarnation was not for the purpose of putting the humanity of God on the cross but for the purpose of sinking the cross deeply into human life....The Christian is called to exercise a role of responsible witness to the new and true humanity that has been obtained through Jesus Christ" (pp156-7, emphasis added).

The bottom line

With these thoughts about an incarnational Trinitarian perspective on ethics, let's close with two quotes. First from Holy Scripture:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these." 
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)
And now from Anderson's meditation on Scripture:
Moral actions grounded in repentance, which seek the true reconciliation of neighbor with neighbor, can and must be a transformation of moral authority into a gospel of liberation from inhumanity and for humanity. This, finally, is the contribution that the gospel of Jesus Christ can make to human goodness as a source of ethical concern. (p160).
For an earlier Surprising God series on Christian ethics, click here.