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Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Kingdom Ethics" (David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen) 2nd Edition

TITLE: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context
AUTHOR: David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016, (550 pages).

What does it mean to follow Jesus in our contemporary world? Is the Old Testament law still relevant for today? Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount asserts that the Word of God is not only relevant for the world today, it is a way in which we live out God's kingdom as a people of God. The original purpose of the authors is to emphasize Christian living based on the Rock of the Christian faith, Jesus. When the book was published back in 2003, the authors were amazed at how little resources there were on recovering the way of discipleship according to Jesus. They believe that the way to understand Christian ethics is to ground ourselves on kingdom reign of God. Since the passing of Glen Stassen in April 2014, this book has been updated by a few previous students of Stassen, together with the other co-author. There is more gender-inclusive language and more global perspectives. Every chapter has a set of discussion questions. More background knowledge are supplied to help beginner readers. The glossary of key terms at the end of the book has been greatly expanded. The book remains focused on the ethic of Jesus; thoroughly biblical; fuller understanding of the Hebrew contexts; and more inclusive of wider range of readers. One key idea in the writing of this book is to set out how the kingdom perspective contrasts with the powers and seductions of the world. Instead of the former seven sections, this book is divided into two parts. The first part looks at the methodology that follows more closely the Sermon on the Mount. It anchors the starting point of ethics on kingdom coming in Jesus. In proclaiming the reign of the kingdom of God, the authors list the seven marks of God's reign: deliverance/salvation, justice, peace, healing, restoration/rebuilding of community, joy, and the experience of God’s presence. All of these need to be adhered to because these are the things that are important to Jesus. We learn about how the beatitudes echo Isaiah 61. We learn about the sources of moral authority, including a brief overview moral authority from a few renowned Christian traditions. There is also a philosophical take as well in the four levels of moral norms, from basic convictions to particular judgments. The authors also contrast the situation ethics and legalism, carefully highlighting the merits of each and where they fall short. I appreciate the visual diagrams that Aaron Hedges, former student of Stassen, includes in some chapters. Readers will be impressed with the depth of coverage of the various ethical methodologies.  Central to the thesis of "Kingdom Ethics" is the list of The "Key Method Elements (KMEs) for Christian Ethics." These KMEs are introduced in Part One will be applied widely in Part Two. They are as follows:
  1. Thinking in Concrete Kingdom Terms
  2. Reading Jesus from the Underside of History
  3. Character as a Lens for Ethics
  4. Sources of Authority for Christian Ethics
  5. Four Levels and Three Modes of Moral Norms
  6. Making the Sermon on the Mount Central
  7. Transforming Initiatives
  8. Love as a Cardinal Ethical Norm
  9. Justice as a Cardinal Ethical Norm
  10. Sacredness as a Cardinal Ethical Norm
  11. Four-Box Diagram of Dimensions of Moral Agency (Analytical)
  12. Four-Box Diagram (Prescriptive)

The second part examines the core moral issues of the contemporary times. There are chapters on violence, vengeance, gender relations, marriage/divorce, sexuality, truth-telling, money, possessions, and what it means to be salt and light in a world of darkness and trickery. There are material also on political involvement and given the heated campaigns this year running up to the new US election, the wisdom in this book can be profound. One observation is how partisan politics have swept aside the true meaning of being a godly people of God. We should learn to support the path where the rulers can govern justly, honestly, and graciously, where social justice and public order are maintained, instead of voting for the candidate who parrots our prejudices and desires that are more human-centered than God-focused. Like Martin Luther King Jr's powerful words: "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority." I think the contemporary equivalent is to avoid becoming an irrelevant partisan political club. Interestingly, Gushee and Stassen use the Catholic and Anabaptists as models to learn from. The Catholics use the "encyclicals" to illustrate key points of social teaching while the Anabaptists believe that persuasion rather than coercion should be the key mood to practice Matthew 28:18-20. The latter also believe that the Church should keep a distance from the State so that it can remain salty, engaging the government as light by shining forth the path forward, not blinding the eyes of people. With wisdom and good bible exegesis, the authors apply the KMEs to other issues like:

  • Criminal Justice
  • Patriarchy and Gender Matters, and how Jesus treated women with dignity
  • Adultery, Lust, Singleness, and Sexual Ethics
  • Marriage and Divorce
  • Truth-Telling and Moral Responsibility
  • War and Peacemaking; Just War and Pacifism
  • Prayer and Ethics
  • Economic Ethics
  • Creation Care
  • Bioethics
  • Racism
  • and many more...
So What?

I must say that this latest edition impresses me a lot. It not only expands the original volume with new and contemporary matters, it applies the KMEs in a more in-depth manner. In doing so, readers gradually get it as the authors show how it is all done. It is important to read the first part and understand the methodology. Without this anchor portion of the book, readers will find it hard to apply the other moral and ethical issues listed later in the book. It helps us begin with the Bible in mind in a culture of quick-fix and fast solutions. Through and through, readers are challenged to consider the kingdom of God more in their thinking and their living.

Apart from the information concerned, there are lots of wisdom in the way the issues are dissected, discussed, and diagnosed. For instance, the controversial portion of LGBT couples wanting to have children via medical technology is less of a scientific procedure but more of the "systems, assumptions, and motivations" of the people wanting it. On the topic of using the Bible to justify racism, readers learn how such tactics are gross misinterpretations of Scripture. We are challenged about the cultural assumption of "whiteness as a social construct." On war, we are encouraged to think through and seriously consider the three models: just war; pacificism; and just peacemaking, believing that the more we know about all these models, the better we are at becoming peacemakers ourselves. Chapter 16 is perhaps the most extensive chapter as it was prepared, revised, and expanded as a tribute to the late Glen Stassen, whose single passion was peacemaking.

I highly recommend this book as a textbook for students of theology, ethics, and moral behaviour. Written in a respectful manner and biblically engaging, the more important learning note is not the answers but the process of how we arrive at various moral and ethical choices. This is the single most important take away for anyone reading this book.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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