We ought to imitate Jesus. What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”? Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.
So what do I mean? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself. Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself. The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.
White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are. The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it. The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1 Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is. Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do. It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do. I call this ethical montage.
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole. It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition. By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.
A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue. In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull. Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world. Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed. The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity. This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices. So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.
The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter. This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces. The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day. It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity. The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2
The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues. Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning. Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull. Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.
It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners. While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement. By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded. It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement. Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together. Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull. A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.” One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico. To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful. By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place. So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality. The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another. It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3
When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage. To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person. One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address. The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization. Words are not their etymologies, they are their use. Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic. This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. To separate them is to falsify them.
The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy. We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.
It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context. You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing. Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event. It’s used figuratively here and technically there. We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that. But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words. A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it. We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning. It has no meaning apart from the sentence.
In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning. That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness. He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action. That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.
To illustrate, consider women who dress differently. One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex. I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.” Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.” Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too. Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.” The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it. One cannot know unless one knows the person. Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things. One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.” Another means, “I feel confident.” Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind. I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.” The same action means different things depending upon who performs it. While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all. We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context. We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context. We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so. But are we sure that meaning is universal? Likely not. Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.
The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears. That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context. Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors. Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition. The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.
“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language. In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin. Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’ But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life. The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches. In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’. The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4
So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad. The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.” Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.
But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor? The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason. “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent. Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5
Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals. “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic. Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6 That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing. He needs only to be rational.
This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.
Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it. In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?” If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth. If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.
It will, of course, be easy to raise objections. The reason is that most people are not well established liars. They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue. As such we live on a continuum between the two. For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.
Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison. During a riot the alarm goes. It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm. She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates. He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity. The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute. She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?). She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.” She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire. The power goes out and the alarm continues. The man says, “See? I told you. Blue.” She then turns to the fellow and berates him.
This is a very clever move. The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer. When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.” But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What? It’s not my fault. I told you the truth.” Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive. Remember, words are their use. If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth? It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling. We cannot judge his speech apart from him.
Another example comes from the Lion King. As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.” That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different. Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.” Scar, however, means exactly the opposite. He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard. I have a trap set for you.” And that is exactly what Simba does. Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use. He intends to trap and deceive. It cannot, therefore, be called truth. Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie. When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth. I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.” A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.
We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life. Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years. The last 15 years have been miserable. They hardly talk. They sleep in different beds. And who could blame them? She is intensely critical. He is distant emotionally, and often geographically. He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family. But, the couple stays together “for the kids.” Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage. That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses. The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash. We might be tempted to say, “How rude!” But can we blame her? The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse. Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context. The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick. How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation? For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation? Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade? He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one. Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude. Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified. He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention. Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love. Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful. The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else. The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.
Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents. Even if its the exact same message. This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use. Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control. Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children. Are they really telling the truth? Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control? Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family. The same is true between spouses. There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created. Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way. The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker. The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me. My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.
The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison. Most of us have better marriages than the one described above. We are ambiguous people. This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth. If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying. But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure. So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt. We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth. Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth. It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.
How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion. Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”? Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves. And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.” Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways. Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness. We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible. As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant. We think God is nice.
It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means. Love means the cross. Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others. Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another. It also means that love is confrontational. The cross is not a sentimental gesture. The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict. Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins. He died to fight against our sins. He died to defeat them. He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him. Love is not “nice.” Love is not “tolerant.” Love is full of conflict. But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself. Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person. And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.
“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell. Or so it seems. Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone. In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.” And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too. It’s the perfect invention. Meanness masquerading as Christianity.
It’s difficult to object. It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus. It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too. But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so. Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character. Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself. And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact. The cross is the central expression of who he is.
What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard? Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after? I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat. Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness. When they speak, people listen. If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word. And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace. There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion. Whatever they say means, “I care about you.” Whatever they say is fitting. Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).
“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by. Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7
That is the love of Jesus. We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him. They are only good because they come from him. Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life. We cannot have it any other way. If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different. I would mean, “I want to destroy you.” Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.” And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus. The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.
©M. Benfield 2017
1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.↩
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.↩
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.↩
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.↩
5. Ibid, 45.↩
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.↩
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.↩