Christian Ethics

Kenneth Cauthen

This essay is part of Chapter Eight of my Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 151-165. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of America. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce this essay must be sought from UPA, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706.
The highest form of rational ethics according to Reinhold Niebuhr is mutual love -- a giving and receiving in which all parties are considered equal in value. While there is much to commend this ideal, he believes that it is unstable and will tend to degenerate into a calculation of benefits and ultimately disintegrate. Each party will anxiously be concerned about whether as much love is being returned as is being offered. Niebuhr is correct, I think, if one assumes that mutual love is conditional upon an equality of contribution and reward. Conditional mutual love says, "I will love you as much as you love me but only as long as I am getting as much as I give."

Niebuhr argues that mutual love must be constantly replenished by sacrificial love that is rooted in a faith in a transcendent God and thus not bound to this world's goods and standards only. Niebuhr thinks that sacrificial love is the core meaning of agape in the New Testament. Agape so understood stands as a transcendent standard beyond all human achievement, an "impossible possibility" that is yet relevant to every moral situation as judge, guide, and inspiration. This form of love is modeled after the example of Jesus on the cross. It sacrifices self in order to serve the other. It risks all and gives all, heedless of the self's own needs, wants, and interests. This love goes the second mile, resists not one who is evil, gives to every one who would borrow, returns good for evil, and so on (Mt. 5:38-48).

I find this unqualified imperative to be morally inadequate in that it neglects necessary discriminations among persons and circumstances, puts no limits on obligation, and has no place for merit. If taken as an actual norm to be lived out, it indiscriminately and indeterminately requires the weak to sacrifice for the strong, the sick to sacrifice for the healthy, the poor to sacrifice for the rich, the virtuous to sacrifice for scoundrels, and the oppressed to sacrifice for the oppressor. Without some guard against this implication, justice is violated, and the worth, integrity, and dignity of the self are compromised.

This way of putting it may be unfair to Niebuhr in not sufficiently representing his full outlook. First of all, he does include mutuality, reciprocity, and equality as valid considerations. Sometimes reciprocity does obtain, and in this fact is to be found the moral component in history. Sometimes love is not returned, and in this is to be found the tragic dimension of life. He recognizes the need for standards of justice in society and would not fault individuals for claiming what is rightfully theirs. Essentially, he is taking life as it is as a given with all its complexities, faults, contradictions, ambiguities, dilemmas, difficulties, and puzzles and using the self-sacrificial life of Jesus as a transcendent ideal by which we measure our individual and collective lives. Secondly, since we are all sinners who constantly fall short of the ideal of agape, the main value of this "impossible possibility" in Niebuhr's thought is that it (1) judges us and brings us to repentance and (2) indicates the direction a transformation of life should take. He creates a paradox by combining (a) the recognition that since we fail so miserably to serve our neighbor's good, we are utterly dependent on grace and forgiveness (justification) with (b) a positive hope for progress toward a more holy life and the achievement of justice (sanctification). He holds these two dimensions in dialectical tension so that each corrects the other in a dynamic process with no fixed or final resolution. Hence, given his emphasis on the persistence of sin in the life of the redeemed, the extreme consequences of living a wholly sacrificial life seldom arise except in the rare saint. Agape is primarily a judgment on the non-sacrificial life we ordinarily lead not an ideal likely to be wholeheartedly practiced enough that it threatens to demean the personhood of those who live heedless of their own needs and just claims. Saints may understand self-sacrifice as a vocational hazard voluntarily assumed and thus an expression of their authentic selfhood rather than as a violation of it. Moreover, Jesus himself could exemplify the fullness of sacrificial love only by becoming powerless on the cross, lifted above the complexities, ambiguities, and unavoidable compromises of actual life on this earth. This is a powerful moral perspective.

Niebuhr's interpretation captures much that is central to the Sermon on the Mount and is in keeping with many other New Testament passages (John 15:13, Roms. 5:6-11, e. g.). However, self-sacrificial love if consistently practiced is incompatible with civilization, which requires division of labor, assigned roles, duties, rules, accountability, and so on. Only if some sort of stable, organized life is assumed generally can some people be self-sacrificing sometimes. In this sense life could not go on if no one ever insisted that others play their part, share the load, and do their duty. Self-sacrifice cannot serve alone as an ethical guide to any kind of continuing life in a community of people, and Niebuhr never intended it to. Agape is, in his words, the "impossible possibility." By itself self-sacrificing love lacks the element of justice that is essential to any kind of social existence. Justice requires that all persons as persons be regarded as equals and give as well as receive. Sacrificial love requires that only the neighbor matters. The self counts for nothing. Hence, I prefer my interpretation as being closer to what can be rationally defended as a practical basis of ethics in a social setting. I believe that my view is in harmony with much of the spirit and substance of the New Testament, including the teachings and example of Jesus, who did not always insist that everybody all the time sacrifice everything for someone else. In any case, whatever the New Testament meant by agape, we have to have an interpretation of love that is compelling for life in today's world. I make my case on that basis.

Therefore, I contend against Niebuhr that agape not be regarded as fundamentally sacrificial in which the self is totally heedless of its own needs and interests as it seeks to serve the neighbor. Love may become sacrificial contextually, but it need not be regarded so in essence. Rather, I propose that agape be thought of as mutual love that regards the self and the neighbor as equals in a community of equals, with equal rights, opportunities, responsibilities, and privileges. One who practices agape will sacrifice for the neighbor when the neighbor's need exceeds one's own or when the larger good of the community requires it but likewise will resist appropriately any trespass against the legitimate needs, claims, and interests of the self. Later, I will refine this analysis by distinguishing between the ethical and the ecstatic dimensions of love.

To meet Niebuhr's objection, I propose that agape be defined as unconditional mutual love. It does not depend on the response of the neighbor (Mt. 5: 43-48). It continues to seek equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, even when the other reacts with hostility or indifference or in a self-seeking way. Unconditional mutual love says, "I will love you on and on no matter what you do, regarding your needs equal to mine and my needs equal to yours." Unconditional mutual love, however, includes an element of justice for the self as well as for others and insists that all count for one and no more than one when goods are to be distributed. The moral ideal is that each person shall have the best life possible within the constraints posed by mutual self-realization. The just and good society will seek to maximize the freedom, well-being, and equality of all citizens consistent with the appropriate limits each imposes on the others. Agape seeks a community in which all persons are regarded as equal in worth and deserving of equal consideration. An ideal community would be made up of citizens devoted to a balance between individual self-fulfillment and the advancement of the common good. It seeks a union of persons in a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship among free and equal members. However, inequalities of reward and responsibility may arise contextually, since people differ in ability, merit, and need. Excepting only those based on merit and natural ability, inequalities of power, wealth, and authority are legitimate only as pragmatic adjustments necessary to serve the larger and overriding ideal of a community of free and equal persons ruled by the quest of the best life possible for all. Some inequalities, then, are unavoidable, some are necessary, and some are justifiable. It is hard to improve on the principle that requires from each according to ability and gives to each according to need, while not ignoring merit. Justice and love are apposites that mutually require, limit, and complete each other.

The procedure is not to begin with abstract principles and then to apply them but to start with a given situation as it has developed historically and ask in the light of the ideals of a just and good society what steps would improve society. Working out the requirements of justice in the context of the complexities, tragedies, contradictions, contingencies, and ambiguities of real life will tax the best of minds and make for much conflict among even people of good will, exacerbated by the abounding tendencies toward egocentrism and selfishness, not to mention ignorance, foolishness, and shortsightedness. For society as a whole the best that can be hoped for is a temporary, workable rough approximation of the norm with many imperfections. I agree with Niebuhr, however, that history presents indeterminate possibilities of good and that no prior limits should be placed on the extent to which justice and the good life may be achieved. The ideal is, as he says, both transcendent to every actual state of affairs and relevant to every situation as judge, guide, and inspiration. As Alfred North Whitehead said, the ethical absolutes of the early Christians were impractical for governing the Roman Empire, but for that very reason these unattainable ideals served as a gauge of the defects of society and thus "spread the infection of an uneasy spirit."


Is is helpful to distinguish between an ethical dimension of love and an ecstatic dimension. Love as an ethical ideal seeks a community based on mutuality and reciprocity in which there is an equality of giving and receiving. Mutual love has a justice element in which every person has an equal claim to fulfillment and an equal duty to be responsible. Ethical love is unconditional and will reach out to others even when they lack merit. But it will resist encroachment upon its own equal claim to fulfillment and will repel if possible any denial of ones own right to be fully human in every respect. Against the pacifist, ethical love would justify killing in self-defense and killing enemies in a just war when non-lethal alternatives are unavailable. They are necessary and tragic emergency means here and now to stop present and ongoing violence. Capital punishment is opposed since the crime has already been committed, and isolation can protect society against future violence.

Love in the ecstatic dimension becomes superethical. In ecstasy one is delirious with impetuous joy in the presence of the other and totally devoted to that person's happiness and well-being. In ecstasy we do not count the cost to ourselves but are totally self-giving, heedless of our own needs. In this mood sacrifice for the other is not an ethical act of self-denial but the superethical expression of what we most want to do. Ecstasy involves the unpremeditated overflow of boundless affection and the impulsive joy of exhilarating union with the loved one. The ecstatic lover dances with delight in the presence of the beloved. Sensible calculations balancing rights and duties have no place. Rational ethics has been transcended by spiritual ecstasy. Ecstatic love is not an ethical norm. It is a description of how we will act spontaneously in a certain frame of spirit. Love expressed in ecstasy gives all without regard to whether the recipient has any claim on the gift. It is pure grace.

Consider the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on the head of Jesus (Mk. 14: 3-9). She was displaying love in the ecstatic dimension. Some present were thinking ethically. They complained that this perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. On ethical grounds they were right. What the woman did was indefensible as a moral act. It was irrational and superethical. This deed flowed spontaneously from ecstatic love.

Ecstatic love, however, flows at one point into the rational ethical realm. Here it becomes a felt obligation to be self-sacrificial when the larger good of the community requires it or when the neighbor's need is greater than one's own. As I wrote in my Process Ethics, 163:

The example of Jesus on the cross can be seen as the overflowing of love so great, so rich, so full, so pure that it willingly sacrifices all, even life, itself, for the sake of the beloved. Or it can be seen as a vocational necessity required of Jesus because no lesser means than the sacrifice of life could have been the instrument of salvation for the community. The nature of agape is expressed in either interpretation.
Love has both an ethical and an ecstatic or superethical dimension, and we should not confuse the two. It is quite clear, however, that neither ecstatic nor self-sacrificial ethical agape can be the norm of large, impersonal societies. A corporation cannot exist on the basis of forgiving seventy times seven an incompetent employee whose repeated ineptness is costing thousands of dollars. A bank cannot lend money without regard to the ability of the borrower to repay. Ecstasy is not even the mode in which we can live all the time in the most exemplary family life with spouses and children. Ecstatic love is an occasional, fabulous, wonderful overflowing of spectacular affection that adds immeasurably to the joy of life, but it cannot be the day to day standard for ordinary life even in the family or the church.

Can Christian love in the ethical sense be an appropriate norm for a large, secular, pluralistic, civil society? Can unconditional love for the other that regards the welfare of the neighbor equal with ones own be the ideal expected of the citizens of New York or the United States? Can Americans be expected to sacrifice their own self-interests for their more needy neighbors? Surely, to agree with Reinhold Niebuhr, that would be to hope for an "impossible possibility." Ethical love is a description of ideal life in one-to-one encounters, the family, the church, and other small communities in which unconditional regard for each other can be lived out in face-to-face relationships. Even in these settings, we will often fail, but we can hold it up as the criterion by which we are judged and to which we aspire even in our shortcoming. In this sense, ethical love is the supreme norm that serves as both goal and judge of all achievement in every sphere of life and at every level of society. Realistically, however, we can hope only for some rough approximation with decreasing levels of attainment as we move away from intimate communities toward larger collectives. Nation states are not likely, even occasionally, to become ecstatic or self-sacrificing in their devotion to each other! Mutual, not even to mention sacrificial, love is hardly the guiding rule of relations between General Motors and Toyota, nor does either have aspirations in that direction. We should not expect them to. Ethical love expressed as social policy for large, impersonal societies takes the form of justice. What that norm involves for New York or the United States as secular, pluralistic societies cannot be spelled out here. Pragmatically and politically, of course, Christians have to work within the framework of justice as defined by the secular society in which they have their citizenship and seek to transform it in the light of their own ideals.

Kenneth Cauthen

For a more detailed exposition of this version of Christian ethics, see my Process Ethics, 125-315. See also my The Passion for Equality

I invite responses. Contact me at:
My E-Mail Address

This is one in a series of essays on theological and ethical topics. The best place to start is:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
For something on the light side:
Mother Goose Goes Electronic

Created: Thursday, August 01, 1996, 1:38:52 PM

Last Updated: Thursday, November 18, 1999, 10:05 AM