Value of Story-based Ethics

Some years ago, I read book on ethics by Norman Geisler, “Christian Ethics: Options and Issues,” that spoke of 6 broad categories of ethics. The six (Antinomianism, Situationism, Generalism, Unqualified Absolutism, Conflicting Absolutism, and Graded Absolutism) could be divided into two broad categories— Absolute and non-Absolute. Absolute means that ethics is based on a clear ultimate/absolute authority. That authority might be called God. There are non-Absolute ethical systems as well where greater authority is centered on the individual or the community. I found value in the book as I came to the conclusion that ‘Graduated Absolutism’ was the strongest viewpoint in terms of Christian ethics.

But of course there are other ways of dividing ethics. A different one was in David Augsburger’s book, “Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.” He spoke of three broad systems of ethics: Deontological, Teleological, and Contextual. He saw Deontological as rule-based, “right versus wrong,” and “the means justifies the ends.” Teleological is pragmatic, “good versus evil,” and “the end justifies the means.” These seem pretty straightforward, but also inadequate. Horrible things have been done based on the idea that the end is good, so the means must be good. On the other hand, equally horrible things have been done based on “just following the rules” that ignored what the results were. Arguably, Christian ethics is NOT one or the other, but a bit of both. (I know that this goes against what is commonly taught— that Christian ethics is Deontological. However, the New Testament makes it quite clear that we are no longer bound by a written law of dos and donts, but are bound by the Law of the Spirit. The New Testament writers never fully clarify in written word what the “Law of the Spirit” constitutes. This in itself suggests a couple of things. First, it is Absolutist— God is the basis. Second, it is NOT deontological— not based on a written list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

But where does Contextual fit in. Augsburger puts it as “Fit versus Unfit.” In other words, is it culturally appropriate or not. Paul talks along those lines at times talking about how Christian liberty (things that are not in a legal sense “wrong” may still be inappropriate. Philemon really can legally keep Onesimus as a slave if he chooses to… but he should really really consider how inappropriate it is for a Christian to keep his Christian brother in (figurative) shackles. Paul limits his own ethical freedoms to impact more for Christ. It is not legally wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but one should consider the context before deciding to act on this sort of freedom. In these things, there is the legal limitations (deontology), the concern about the results (teleology), but the response must take seriously the specific situation (context). All three are needed.

Let’s give an example of Contextual ethics through a story:

One day, Missionary Tom received a plot of land from the village elders to live on. Tom planted some figs. Figs were not commonly grown in that part of the world, but they actually thrived in the climate. It was only a couple of years when fruits formed in quantity. Tom looked forward to begin harvesting. However, as they neared ripening, they would disappear. Tom at first thought it was some animal going after them, but finally he realized it was people in the village. One day, he saw a couple of pre-teen boys taking figs from his own trees. He went out and grabbed them and took the figs from them. He spoke harshly to them about stealing, and how unhappy God was at them. They were afraid at his strong language, but also confused. Not satisfied by their response, Tom took them to the chief elder, who was sitting down smoking in front of his house.

Tom explained the situation and asked the chief elder to discipline them. The chief elder responded:

‘Pastor Tom, I cannot discipline them because they did nothing wrong. They certainly did not steal anything. We gave you land ot live on, but of course you don’t own the land— no one can own the land— you just use it. The land gave fruit. You don’t own the fruit any more than you own the land. If you had harvested the fruit and they had then taken what you harvested, then YES, they would be thieves. But that is not what happened. They harvested the fruit and you took it from them. So you are the thief. But I won’t discipline you. I don’t think you know any better. Just give the figs back to the boys and I think that is enough.”

This story gives an example of contextual ethics. Missionary Tom knew what the Bible (God) says, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” However, the Bible does not define what stealing is. Stealing varies in terms of context. Each country has a different understanding of what ownership entails. I recall watching an episode of Gold Rush–Parker’s Trail, where Parker Schnabel, a gold mining businessman, goes gold prospecting in Australia. While there, they had a claim set up to do some surface mining. However, a couple of his comrades found poachers— people illegally harvesting gold from their land. They went after the poachers aggressively and might have even injured them if they hand not driven off quickly. Soon, however, they found out from local authorities that the poachers were not poachers at all. Until the claim reaches its formal initial start, it is freely available for people to come along and prospect for gold. The people were not stealing and if Parker’s friends had injured them, they would have been in deep trouble. Stealing is always wrong, but ownership is based on context.

It is in stories where ethic becomes really tested and there is opportunity for real understanding. Jesus would heal on the Sabbath Day, and seemed as if He made a point of doing this just to irk the religious authorities. One time he asked them after their complaint, “Is it wrong to do good on the Sabbath Day?” This is a great question, but it lacks the visceral impact of a story, Consider His question put into a story fragment in Luke 14:5,

“Then he asked them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will not immediately pull it out?”

You might not say it is a story, but it has the elements of a story. It has an implied status quo— a relaxing and holy Sabbath day. It had a initiating conflict— child (or ox) falls into a well. There is the moral conflict— what is the righteous action: leave the child in the well until the next day (if the child is still alive then), or take the child out of the whole. There is an implied resolution to the conflict— the person decides that it is more righteous to do good on the Sabbath day, than to allow evil to perpetuate on that day.

The story does more than a propositional statement— Honor the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy. The story provides the real world circumstances to challenge the sparse and inadequate proposition. What makes the Sabbath more honored. Is it honored by folding one’s hands while great evil runs wild? Or is the Sabbath more honored and holy when good is done (even if such benevolence requires some human effort)?

Previously, I challenged an interpretation of II Corinthians 12:14-15.

Look! I am ready to come to you this third time. I will not burden you, for I am not seeking what is yours, but you. For children are not obligated to save up for them parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for you

Some have argued that this means that children have no obligation to take care of their parents in their old age. This bumps up against the cultural ethics in many places (including in the Philippines where I live) where many parents anticipate being cared for by their children.

I believe the depending on a propositional statement loses the understanding of the passage in a way that would not be confused if put into a story form. Comparing parents to children and Paul to the (young) church of Corinth would lead to a story where the children would be young and the parents in the prime of life. Reading the story with the parents old and feeble and the children in prime of life would fall apart immediately since Paul clearly is describing himself as capable to take care of himself and not needing the support of this immature church.

So stories can make ethics more visceral, can challenge presumption and limits on propositional statements, and aid in interpretation. Additionally, stories are open-ended. They lead to discussions that help to understand other situations better. Rather than give an example here, I will ask you to look at another post I wrote. It is based on an ethical system used by the Kankana-ey people of the Northern Philippines. They use stories to give ethical direction. If you look at the story, there is a lot said, and a lot not said. This gives a great place for people to discuss and explore the “Why”s and the “What Next”s. This can lead to a much more ethically nuanced understanding.

The article is found by clicking here: Watwat is What?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s