The Common Good
September-October 1999

What Does Jesus Want?

by Don McCrabb | September-October 1999

The multi-faceted nature of ethics.

A lot of young people today wear the letters WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) on bracelets, bumper stickers, and buttons. This is a good question for young people to wrestle with as they develop their conscience. But is it enough for adult Christians? Russell B. Connors and Patrick T. McCormick, authors of Character, Choices and Community: The Three Faces of Christian Ethics, say no. There is more to Christian ethics than making the "right" choice; there is also the tug of character and the impact of community.

So often we confuse ethics with questions of "right and wrong choices" and overlook the question of character and community. Generally, we know it is "right" to tell the truth and "wrong" to lie. As adults, however, we often have "gray" areas where it is not clear what is right and what is wrong. How to care for elderly parents, where to send our children to school, and many medical decisions are such experiences. Yet as Christians we feel a keen sense of duty in the face of these decisions. We know, in the very core of our being, that the decision we make also "makes" us as a person. Our actions define our character.

Connors, a professor of religious studies at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, and McCormick, a theology professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, help us understand both the subjective and objective aspects of ethical decisions. Most moral theologians today recognize an "objective moral truth," though there is considerable conversation on its nature and degree. For example, genocide is clearly an objective evil—we cannot imagine any time or situation that could justify the elimination of an entire race. The authors view the objective dimension of an act by looking at its nature—is it a personal act, an interpersonal act, or a social act? The subjective dimension is also one of degree—an individual deed, a habit, or a fundamental option. The "rightness or wrongness" of an act can be judged by intent, means, circumstances, consequences, and alternatives. As a community, we can judge acts as "evil." We cannot judge whether or not a person is evil, though we can help the person reflect on the moral substance of their actions.

Community is one face of Christian ethics that is most frequently overlooked. People form groups. Groups exist. Groups form people. We are social creatures. Working through and with a community is often the only way we can express our moral outrage, whether it is through Mothers Against Drunk Driving or protesting the bombing in Kosovo by organizing a local Bridges of Light campaign. Something deep inside us tells us that if we entertain our children with violence then our children will entertain violence. Connors and McCormick continue their introduction of this often overlooked and complicated aspect of Christian ethics by reviewing the Greek and biblical ideas of justice and how they both underscore an adult duty to create moral communities.

The genius of the book—that there are three faces to Christian ethics—is played out through the use of story as well as by demonstrating the power of story to form character, inform choice, and transform community. Conscience is described as ability, process, and judgment, and the authors spend considerable time on conscience formation, or what they call "deepening the appetite for the good." The book ends with chapters on moral reasoning and reflections on sin and conversion.

This is a user-friendly book. The content of the book is well organized, and the style is clear and crisp. Written as an introduction to Christian ethics for college students, the book generously uses case studies and reflection questions. There are also examples from literature and popular culture that bring the ideas to life. And although the authors are writing out of the Catholic tradition, they easily cite other Christian authors and incorporate the breadth of Christian thinking in morality and ethics.

Asking ourselves what Jesus would do may be a self-defeating question for adult Christians. Would Jesus put his mother into a nursing home? Would Jesus buy a Sports Utility Vehicle? Would Jesus use Styrofoam cups? The freedom and the demand of the gospel may be seen best if we ponder the heart of Jesus through story, reflection, and experience. Connors and McCormick have done a remarkable job of equipping us with the basic tools we need as adult Christians to live lives of fidelity and integrity.

DON McCRABB is director of development at Sojourners.

Character, Choices and Community: The Three Faces of Christian Ethics. Russell B. Connors and Patrick T. McCormick. Paulist Press, 1998.

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