In a review by Micah Watson of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) earlier this year at The Gospel Coalition, Watson described the book as “akin to a social event with heavy hors d’oevres served throughout the evening.”
There were, however, some offerings in this tapestry of tapas, so to speak, that Watson thought deserved an entree presentation. For instance, Watson wonders about distinguishing principle from prudence, a framework that runs throughout the book and broader Christian social thought. What distinguishes, for instance, the biblical view of marriage, abortion, and poverty and the various ways to respect these teachings in practice?
Thus, argues Watson,
Christians must often determine what the genuinely Christian position is in a given context, taking stands on particular issues and even legislation—as they did during the struggle to end racial segregation in the American civil rights movement or in affirming the Barmen Declaration in 1930s Germany. Exercising such discernment may or may not require identifying who is in and out of the tent, but it surely requires determining what moral stands constitute authentic Christian witness.
He goes on to observe that “a season of uncomfortable but necessary clarification will be necessary” in today’s world.
I’m happy to add a bit here to that season of clarification, or what might better be called a season of suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14), a season of searing away the dross from our life and witness, which is just another name for sanctification.
How might this distinction between principle and prudence work out in particular cases?
I do think in principle there is a more or less biblically-defined position with respect to issues like abortion and marriage, and even concerning more disputed questions like poverty and war. It is a large enough task to faithfully identify and articulate those biblical principles. It is quite another to translate and apply those principles in a particular context.
As Watson rightly points out, there is contention both within and without the church at both levels. Those who self-identify as Christians disagree both on principle and on prudential grounds on all sorts of issues. As James Gustafson wrote perceptively, this is particularly a problem for Protestants, whose social witness was (and is) “only a little short of chaos.” Protestants don’t have a magisterium as such to which we can appeal to adjudicate these matters for us.
This does not leave evangelicals bereft of authorities or resources, but it does make things more complicated and difficult. I’m more sanguine about finding some measure of unanimity around matters of principle, even where we will inevitably disagree about the prudential applications and the relative hierarchy of principles. So, for instance, both Ron Sider and Jim Wallis are pro-life at least at the level of principle. But even if all the evangelical authorities, both institutional and individual, were to agree and adhere to this biblical pro-life principle, what would that mean for matters of prudential political action?
Even on a moral question like abortion, which I suspect Watson and I agree is perspicuous, such agreement in principle would provide little concrete guidance for the Christian legislator on a particular bill or on a particular vote. Must the Christian legislator vote for any bill outlawing any abortion whatsoever, no matter what the context, no matter what else is attached to the bill? Ecclesiastical leaders and ecumenical bodies are hardly qualified to provide such guidance, and the realities of politics rarely if ever allow such “single-issue” considerations.
So even if there is a Christian principle that must be recognized and acknowledged, there still may well be many Christian approaches to implementing and applying that principle in a particular context. As Bethany Jenkins has written so wisely recently, “Our personal convictions can tempt us to use must or should in ways that go beyond the principles of the Bible.” This doesn’t mean that we embrace a libertine moral relativism or that such prudential matters become unimportant. They become, in a way, all the more important for substantive discourse and deliberation.
This is where in the end (and there is much more to say before we get there) nothing is left but to wade into the hurly burly, to get one’s hands dirty, to suffer “as a Christian” (1 Peter 4:16) for one’s convictions. And this is also why the formation of the Christian conscience and identity is so important in this season of suffering.