The Nasty Side of Christian Ethics

October 26, 2009 | 31 comments
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The language of turning the other cheek and Christian ethics in general can really get quite nasty. Christianity, alas, provides a wealth of rhetorical resources for the passive-aggressive prone persona and the self-dramatizing martyr type. I am talking about the person faced with attacks or disagreements, by saying, “It is very unfortunate that you are so mean, but I think that it is important to turn the other cheek. Indeed, I am worried, genuinely concerned, about you.” Rhetorically, this move does two things. First, it casts one’s interlocutor as an aggressor. Second, it insulates one’s own response from criticism. After all, who could be against Christian charity?

Samuel Adams, who knew a thing or two about the power of rhetoric, insisted that the first rule of politics was to put your enemy in the wrong and keep him there. Explicitly or implicitly self-referential Christian rhetoric is an excellent way of doing this. It can also be a both annoying and, in its own, passive-aggressive way, rather snide and nasty. I am reminded of an exchange between Ross Douthat and Douglas Kmiec in the wake of Obama’s election, in which Douthat (a practicing Catholic) criticized Kmiec (a practicing Catholic) for his enthusiastic support of (extremely pro-choice) Obama. Kmiec’s response was to turn the other cheek in the face of Douthat’s cruelty and express worries for his soul. Tucker Carlson’s response, I think, was instructive:

Hey, Doug. Toughen up. Seriously. I’ve read suicide notes that were less passive-aggressive than this. Let’s review what actually happened: You argued that Obama is not a pro-choice extremist. Ross disagreed. Rather than respond with a counterpoint, you got hysterical, dismissing Ross as a hater, even fretting about the future of his soul.

I understand it must have hurt when Ross accused you of shilling for Obama. On the other hand, he’s right. You did shill for Obama. That’s not Ross’ fault. Don’t blame him.

But if you are going to blame him, do it directly, like a man, without all the encounter-group talk and Pope quotes. People often attack the religious right, sometimes with justification. But as you just reminded us, there is nothing in the world more annoying than the religious left.

I found myself nodding my head vigorously while reading Carlson’s reply. (And not because — or just because — I find the Christian left annoying. I find the Christian right annoying. I am often annoyed.) Yet, at the same time I do, at some level, believe in Christian ethics. One ought to turn the other cheek, love one’s enemies, and pray for them that curse you and despitefully use you. How to reconcile that belief with my distaste for much of the rhetorical use of Christian ethics?

For my, Christianity is hard. Frankly, most of the time I am not particularly Christian. I am not saying this to draw attention to my own humility by acknowledging my sinfulness. I am just saying that I am not a particularly charitable person. I usually find myself indifferent to humanity and frequently annoyed by particular humans. Actual moments of Christian response, in my own life, to wrong doing or injustice are actually quite rare. I cannot believe that I am all that different than most people on this front. Indeed, I’m un-Christian enough to man up and claim that I am probably quite a bit more charitable in my responses than many. This, however, is what is known as damning with faint praise. Accordingly, most protestations of Christian virtue are, from my point of view, simply not credible.

Indeed, even in moments of genuine charity there is something distasteful about calling attention to your behavior. Charity is not puffed up and the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing. Frankly, I have always been a little bit uncomfortable by the numberless stories that President Monson tells about his own acts of Christian service. It is not that I doubt either his sincerity or the reality of his service. It is just that there is something about anyone talking about their own humility that makes me uncomfortable. I do know a few genuinely charitable people, such as the relief society president of my current ward. I think that she would be genuinely surprised to read me write such a thing, precisely because when she acts on behalf of another, she is not casting herself as the Samaritan on the road to Jericho in some Christian drama played out in her mind. Rather, I suspect that in her action she simply drops away as a an object of concern. She isn’t thinking about her own sinfulness or righteousness at all. The question simply doesn’t arise as a matter of concern.

The upshot of this, I think, is that we are almost by definition unaware of when we take a truly Christlike action. To be aware of one’s self as actor in the moment of action is, in some sense to have failed to have taken a Christlike action. A completely Christlike statement will therefore be silent about the self. The comfort I take form this is the possibility (although it is a possibility, and not more) that I may have actually engaged in acts of humble charity in the past unaware. I certainly hope so.

If I am right about this, then the preaching of Christian ethics is always a dicey matter. I believe in preaching, in the importance of telling stories and instilling doctrine in a way that motivates as opposed to merely persuading. Indeed, at some level I think that motivation without persuasion is to be preferred to persuasion without motivation. Therefore, we ought to exhort one another to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. But there is a toxic side to such language, a toxicity that is best avoided, I think, by taking a less morally grandiose vision of one’s own actions. Express opinions, given reasons, defend yourself if you must, but do so honestly, without the poison of Christian rhetoric.

31 Responses to The Nasty Side of Christian Ethics

  1. Hunter on October 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for this, Nate. I guess I haven’t thought of turning the other cheek as *necessarily* passive-aggressive. To refuse to return violence for violence doesn’t, to me, imply abandoning one’s particular position. However, having considered your piece, I can definitely see how turning the other cheek can easily go there. So, thanks for that.

    Oh, and this line, “I find the Christian left annoying. I find the Christian right annoying. I am often annoyed.” was laugh out loud funny.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 26, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Thank you for stating a simple truth with so much–humble– panache. Whenever I hear or read someone talking about how forebearing they are personally in the face of provocation, especially of a verbal kind, I perceive that in actuality they have just figuratively whupped their adversary upside the head with the Good Book.

    The same goes for missionaries who think they are entitled to call down judgment from heaven on the heads of someone who didn’t respond to their door approach. It could not, after all, have been their own inadequacy that prevented the homeowner from recognizing them as a “messenger of glory”.

    The most Christian, charitable and loving response to someone who has expressed their views to you is to communicate to them that you listened to them, and understood them, even though you may disagree. Turning the other cheek is not an instrument for giving an opponent an extra week in Spirit Prison. It should be an expression of love for even the hateful, recognizing that Christ loved even them enough to accept the suffering for their sins on the chance that they would, at some point, repent.

  3. brigham on October 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    This reminds me of the part of “To Kill a Mockingbird” where some in the town look down on Miss Maudie even though she clearly leads a Christ-like life full of love, respect, and compassion. In explaining to the children why people look down on her she says something along the lines of “sometimes the bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another.” While I am not sure that I would push it as far has you do here Nate, I agree it is all too easy to mask ugly behavior in the cloak of Christianity.

    Regardless, I found this post very thoughtful. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Chris on October 26, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Great, thought-provoking post! I agree that broadcasting one’s good deeds seems to defeat the purpose of Christlike compassion, ie. letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing or visa versa.

    I view turning the other cheek not as a form of passive-aggressive behavior, although it could easily be that for some, for as a form of heroic courage, ie. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Joseph Smith and, of course, Jesus. Some of the most spiritually powerful people I know are slwo to anger, quick to forgive, and willing to love those who are difficult to love.

  5. mmiles on October 26, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Excellent post.

  6. TMD on October 26, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I agree with most of the argument but disagree with some of the conclusions. In most cases, to call attention to one’s following of a commandment is to dminish it–so, to note that one is turning the other cheek is actually a failure to do so, etc. I think there can be an exception, however, in the context of preaching. Via the Holy Ghost and the gospel writers, after all, Christ can be said to have drawn attention to his own acts: but it was done not to glorify Him but to give us something to emulate. When witnessing of Him and his commandments, I think the same can be true.

    However, I disagree that “To be aware of one’s self as actor in the moment of action is, in some sense to have failed to have taken a Christlike action. A completely Christlike statement will therefore be silent about the self.” Christ, after all, was aware of the costs he would bear when he made His choice. And ultimately, the point of agency is to choose, to make choices that affect us, in ways that are intentional. Surely we are called to be more than accidental Christians, or to aspire to be more than Christians by mere habit. What you are getting at, perhaps, is the degree to which we choose to value our selves in those choices–and there I can agree with you. But in all of this is self-awareness, and the greatest thing, I think, is to be self aware and then choose charity (etc.) in full humility (that is, both outwardly (not presenting it as an act of charity) and inwardly (in not using the choice to bolster one’s self concept)).

  7. Nate Oman on October 26, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    TMD: I appreciate your comments. I don’t think that it is simply a matter of how we manage our self-regard for our own actions. The scriptures speak in terms of ignorance — i.e. don’t let your left hand know etc., lose your life, etc. I don’t think that it is quite right to say, “I know I am being humble, but I am deciding not to get a big head about it.” I think that one simply IS humble. I also think that you give short shrift to habit. In some sense, I think that our habitual actions are as good an indicator of the state of our souls as our intentional actions. Indeed, I tend to worry more about my habits than I do about my intentional actions. When called upon to squarely face a choice as presenting an act of moral agency, I think we do alright. Far more important, in some sense, are all of the things we do without thinking. When we act habitually were are still ourselves, and I suspect that most of our actions are habitual.

  8. Jeremiah J. on October 26, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    I think I agree with Nate’s critique of Kmiec (and Douthat’s initial response to Kmiec), and yet Nate seems to be engaging in an argument that takes the same form: “Your rhetoric is unChristian.” But what else can one say about it? I might say, “Well, that’s a conversation stopper.” But the conversation still goes on. Or: “You’re just saying that as an underhanded way to save a losing argument.” But perhaps Kmiec is sincere. The problem is similar to the challenge of making a critique of moralizing, and doing so from a moral perspective.

    At any rate, I’m not sure that Kmiec’s response is any worse than any other lame one. Carlson’s was certainly more “nasty” and personal, and contributed as little to the discussion. Is it easier to say to someone, “thy sins are forgiven”, or “be a man; toughen up!”? If anything, Kmiec didn’t insulate himself from criticism, he opened himself up to more of it. There are a variety of ways to throw sand in the eyes of someone you’re having a debate with. “Would Jesus approve of what you just said?” might merely be a particularly “annoying” way in the ears of someone who takes reasoned debate and appeals to Christian charity quite seriously.

    In a Mormon context, this post reminds me of Louis Midgley’s review of Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Capitalist. Midgley had an easy, risible target, but he felt the need to pile on by calling Skousen to repentance and accusing him of tearing the church apart. In his reply to Skousen’s reply, Midgley mainly expressed disappointment that Skousen had hardened his heart and failed to repent.

  9. patricia k. on October 26, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    I don’t think it necessarily follows from enjoinders to lose life in order to find life and to avoid one hand’s interfering with the other that we must be unaware of the good we (might) do in the course of doing it. These statements could be taken as describing a kind of faith, a letting go of control of outcome, for instance.

    However, that doesn’t really diminish your argument. Thank you for swinging the lamp around on the “It is very unfortunate that you are so mean, but I think that it is important to turn the other cheek. Indeed, I am worried, genuinely concerned, about you” rhetorical sleight-of-hand. This form of the ad hominem trick has become increasingly common. Dismantling it like this can help others remain unmoved when it’s lifted against them. (Unless, of course, they really are being mean. Then they should listen up.)

  10. TMD on October 26, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Nate, I see what you’re saying but the social psychologist in me says that habits and their application are very situational–we respond to particular patterns of cues or stimuli with patterned behavior. This means that we have many different habits across many kinds of situations–so, in some situations, we deploy one kind of habit but in others, other habits are evident. So it seems that our habits will often be a bit of a mess–some better than others–except so far as we are careful in establishing and monitoring those habits.

  11. Geoff B on October 26, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Nate, CS Lewis said (I paraphrase) that the moment we are feeling good about ourselves is the moment we need to become more humble and do more in terms of Christian charity. I have always found this problematic. We are supposed to try hard to better ourselves, but if it’s never enough, doesn’t that encourage incredible guilt complexes and people feeling unhappy about themselves? Isn’t it better to say to yourself, “well, at least I did my home teaching and gave that homeless guy a dollar this week. I’m not such a bad guy after all.” Sometimes, such statements could seem self-promoting — other times they could be an attempt at auto-calibration, and attempt to keep yourself on the strait and narrow, so to speak.

  12. Geoff B on October 26, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    I also agree with Patricia’s number 9.

  13. Nate Oman on October 26, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Jeremiah: I want to avoid saying that the rhetoric is Unchristlike in a way that tries to set me up as a Christlike soul. My preferred mode of discussion is a kind of straight-forward appeal to arguments spiked with a touch of irony and the odd bit of polemic just for fun. I don’t think that this is a particularly Christlike thing to do. On the other hand, I think that being Christlike is hard and generally I fail in my attempts. In most situations my moral ambitions are rather more modest. If I can achieve fair-minded and witty, I’m happy. Carlson’s response certainly had an edge to it, but to the extent that it forestalled a tendentious discussion of soteriology and Douthat’s soul, I think it added to the conversation.

    The Midgley exchange with Skousen is a nice example from Mormondom, although I have to say that I think the passive-aggressive use of Christian rhetoric in the bloggernacle is endemic at times. This is very definitely a game that we all play to a greater or a lesser extent. It’s just too tempting not to.

  14. Nate Oman on October 26, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Geoff & Patricia: Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that performing a genuine act of service and then giving yourself a little pat on the back about it is pernicious. Indeed, it strikes me as virtuous. It is not, however, Christ-like. Perhaps the problem here stems from the too easy use of the term “Christ-like” in Mormondom to refer to behavior that is generally nice or kind or virtuous. I think, however, that if we are serious about being like Christ, then the demands placed upon us the concept of being “Christ-like” are considerably greater. Indeed, I think that they are so great as to be, on the whole, unachievable as a basis for ordinary social interaction. I am not saying that virtuous but ultimately less than Christ-like behavior is bad. Only that it isn’t Christ-like.

  15. Nate Oman on October 26, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    “So it seems that our habits will often be a bit of a mess–some better than others–except so far as we are careful in establishing and monitoring those habits.”

    I don’t disagree with this, and I don’t think that I’ve said anything that contradicts it. My point is that notwithstanding the truth of statements like the above, much (most?) of our behavior is habitual and we ought to take moral responsibility for it.

  16. Nate Oman on October 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Let me see if I can articulate my half-baked ideas about forgetfulness better:

    1. I think that if we truly commit a Christ-like act we are not longer concerned with our own moral standing but only with our love for someone else. We lose our lives in that moment and in that moment the left hand does not know what the right hand does.

    2. This doesn’t mean that we forget the act that we undertook. I don’t think that committing a Christ-like act causes amnesia or something like that.

    3. When we reflect back upon our actions, however, to evaluate them for whether they are truly Christ-like, we necessarily are placing at the center of our inquiry our moral status in the moment of the act. Our memory of this moment, it seems to me, is likely to be inaccurate. We will have an almost infinite ability to deceive ourselves into believing that we are more Christ-like than we in fact were.

    4. In a sense this means that we risk feelings of guilt for not being Christ-like. I think that such feelings are better than deceiving ourselves into believing that we are Christ-like when we in fact are not, or at the very least we cannot be sure. It does not follow from this, however, that we are incapable of identifying meritorious actions in our past. Again, I am not using the term “Christ-like” to mean something like “good” or “kind” or “virtuous.” Rather, I am using the term literally, to mean that one acts as Christ acts. I just don’t think that we do this all that often, and I think that we are prone to deceiving ourselves into thinking that we do.

  17. Tatiana on October 26, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    It’s my opinion that for every level of increase of Christian charity, hope, faith, and obedience there opens up a vaster plane for error and sin. The sort of discourse described in the original post is one such pitfall. Another might be claiming to speak for God, and actually speaking evil in God’s name. That has the power to turn people away from God and destroy their faith.

    Another huge one is self-righteousness, looking down our noses at sinners, considering them unclean, etc. It’s something you can’t do until you’re at least somewhat clean yourself, but it harms people and causes them to lose their way.

    You can do more harm to your family as a parent than you’re able to as a child, for instance.

    So for each level of power to which we attain, we have vaster depths of sin available to us. That’s why the publicans and sinners go into the kingdom of God before us religious people. To me that’s the general principle of which the sort of rhetoric you describe by the Christian Left as well as that sometimes used by the Christian Right are examples.

  18. TMJ on October 26, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for this, Nate. This is interesting cuz it touches on something that happened in Phood yesterday. Toward the end of the lesson, the instructor brought up Pres. Monson’s recounting of the Heber J. Grant episode where an old man tells Grant that only a fool would take offense where none is intended. The class went off of that quite enthusiastically, chuckling about how foolish it is to get offended. Someone went as far as to recount what someone else had said, that if it was a fool who took offense where it was not intended, then the greater fool was one who took offense where offense was intended.

    I wanted to ask, so if there’s no benefit to taking offense, what’s the benefit of intentionally offending? After all, the original quote was itself quite malicious (IMO) and aimed at marginalization and verbally insulting anyone who didn’t fit within that old man’s vision of right living. How was that quote of any benefit to anyone, except so that those that feel that they are more righteous can pat themselves on the back?

    I left class with a new appreciation of how vicious the rhetoric of righteousness can be and quite chagrined that the story had been shared at all, especially in General Conference (add that to the Thomas B. Marsh episode).

  19. Jacob J on October 27, 2009 at 1:31 am

    That Tucker Carlson quote is a gem.

  20. Wm Jas on October 27, 2009 at 2:08 am

    “A few theologians say that the divine emperor Antonine was not virtuous; that he was a stubborn Stoic who, not content with commanding men, wished further to be esteemed by them; that he attributed to himself the good he did to the human race; that all his life he was just, laborious, beneficent through vanity, and that he only deceived men through his virtues. ‘My God!’ I exclaim. ‘Give us often rogues like him!'” (Voltaire)

  21. Eric Boysen on October 27, 2009 at 9:07 am

    There is nothing wrong with choosing to turn the other cheek in imitation of Christ rather than letting a baser motive lead you into striking back. Not striking back, however, just to be seen of men is an act of pride and an attempt to use religion as a weapon. That makes not striking back into a form of striking back, and is a greater sin than lashing out in pain.

  22. Geoff B on October 27, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I think these discussions sometimes miss the whole side involving people trying to be better but falling short of actually being better. For example, regarding #21, I try to be better by not striking back. But in reality there may be some “holier than thou” pride involved. I really am trying, but others perceive it the wrong way, and when I analyze it there is some pride involved in my response. Is that really a greater sin? At least I’m trying to be a better person. Wouldn’t it be an even greater sin not to try?

    I try to do a Christ-like act out of love for another person, because I am trying to love them like Christ does, but when I analyze it, the truth is I am prideful and want to seem a bit holier than thou. Would it be better not to do the kind act at all because I know I have pride, which I am incapable of overcoming at this point in my life?

    It seems to me that it all comes back to doing charitable and kind things, acting in charitable and kind ways, even if you are not doing it for motives that are 100 percent pure.

  23. The Only True and Living Nathan on October 27, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Those who call attention to how graciously they turn the other cheek are in the same camp as whose who call attention to their alms or their fasting. It’s pride masquerading perversely as humility. Verily, they have their reward.

  24. Crick on October 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    You have said that you believe President Monson’s acts are sincere. I know they are and have noticed that he also shares stories of when others did the good deeds and when he was the beneficiary.

    As a leader, he recognizes that, in the words of President Hinckley, “[his] role is to stand as an example before the people”.

    I believe the traits of being unconsciously Christian include not only avoiding “tooting your own horn” but also to not suspect others’ good deeds or their retelling of them to be horn tooting either. Of course, sometimes it’s egregious and some people seem programmed to brag, but I have never felt uncomfortable about President Monson’s stories, which I feel are an important part of his ministry and an example of what we ought to be doing.

  25. jimbob on October 28, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    To the extent I understand the post, I’ll state that I’ve long felt this way about apologies. I’ve known too many people who use apologies as a weapon, as in: “You’ve really offended me with the horrible things you do, but I want you to know that I forgive you.” I’ve even known people who have said that when the “offender” didn’t know he had offended the “victim” prior to the apology. In any event, I’ve decided that any apology which is meant as a offensive tactical device–i.e., to purposefully make the offender feel bad–is not an apology at all.

  26. jimbob on October 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Sorry: apology is probably the wrong word. “Forgiveness” is probably better.

  27. Hunter on October 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    That’s OK, jimbob, we accept your apology and forgive you. [wink]

  28. bjohnson on October 28, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    “any apology which is meant as a offensive tactical device–i.e., to purposefully make the offender feel bad–is not an apology at all.”

    “Sorry: apology is probably the wrong word. “Forgiveness” is probably better.”

    Yes. It ranks right up there with “Well, if you thought what I did was offensive, then I apologize.”

    On the “forgiveness” front . . .

    My wife and I both spent quite a few years in singles wards before we married. About four months after our wedding we dropped into our former ward to attend sacrament meeting. While I was speaking with a friend a few feet away, a man who had made numerous unsuccessful plays for my wife walked up to her and, without preamble, solemnly proclaimed “I’ve forgiven you.” Stunned, my wife stammered, “Er, thanks. I forgive you as well.” The fellow then walked away without further comment.

    Awesome! It’s the kind of natural passive-aggressiveness no amount of training could ever hope to match.

  29. Adam Greenwood on October 28, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Maybe the Christian ethic works best the way Christ taught it: to people who already have an honor or a justice ethic that feeds their self-esteem and their status needs, so they take to Christianity because they’re convicted of it. Of course, that probably doesn’t work to well in an already Christian society . . . but maybe we see the genius here behind the Church’s emphasis on sexual morality, hard work, and staying off the booze.

  30. Adam Greenwood on October 28, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Second only to the “martyr” in annoyingness is the one who frets all the time about whether he or she is forgiving and so forth for the right reasons for for pride. Look, introspection isn’t one of the 10 Commandments.

  31. April on November 2, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    It’s true that some people seem to thrive on broadcasting their own “wonderfulness.” We just have to remember that those who advertise their good works have their reward.

    That said, I think we often have to work at being kind to others. Sure, many people don’t deserve it, but we have to remind ourselves of how we would like to be treated. The Holy Spirit has often clobbered me with the need to help someone. I certainly didn’t think of it myself.

    I don’t, however, have any problem with President Monson’s use of personal examples from his life to teach others the nature of service. When you are a trying to teach a principle, you often resort to your own experiences.

    As for turning the other cheek, many Christians have the wrong idea. Jesus didn’t mince words and he didn’t just let people best him. He called Herod an “old fox” and he trapped those who laid snares for him, such as in the case of the adulteress “cast the first stone” and in the case of taxes — “render unto Caesar.”

    Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean giving a mild response. It means giving the right response. Should we speak out for what’s right? Yes. Should we go with what the Lord said instead of spout the sophistries of men? Absolutely. Should we offer a fake apology to get the upper hand? No. The Lord never did any such thing.

    It all boils down to this: throw out the psychology and just look at how the Lord actually handles things. This requires reading the entire Bible, at a minimum, and reading it for yourself, not just going by hearsay. I can’t tell you how many things that are attributed to Christ which are exactly contrary to what he really did and what he really wants.

    So the Lord is forgiving? Yes, if people repent. That’s a key ingredient. Running around vocally forgiving people is just plain annoying. If you’re prone to it, cut it out. The Lord is in charge of forgiving. Just give it over to him and let him tell you how to handle it.