Greg Carey: The Bible and Ethics

A Christian organization has been advertising a public conversation about racism. The promotional materials ask whether Christianity offers unique resources for responding to racism.

Maybe. But White Christianity has a fairly awful track record on the subject, not least in the United States. Early on, slaveholders refrained from sharing the gospel with enslaved Africans, fearing that the message might inspire them to expect their freedom.

Later, white people developed a biblical theory called the “Curse of Ham” to justify the enslavement of Black people. This convoluted interpretation claims that Noah’s curse against Canaan — “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25, NRSV) — applied perpetually to all African peoples (10:6). When many enslaved Black Americans began embracing the gospel, slaveholders made it illegal to teach them to read and edited the Bibles available to them, all in efforts to prevent people from building the connection between the gospel, on the one hand, and freedom and dignity, on the other. After slavery, segregationists appealed to passages prohibiting the Israelites from intermarrying with other people. The Bible didn’t save us from racist wickedness.

Naturally, we Christians turn to the Bible when we have moral questions. Christianity and its Bible have been turned to all kinds of uses, some good and some evil. Here in the United States, we’ve done so especially with respect to matters of race, gender, and sexuality, piling up verses on one side or the other to support what we already believe. I suppose we might add immigration to the list, too. Or climate change.

Christian apologists sometimes argue that we have no sure foundation for moral judgments apart from the revelation of God’s will. But revelation hasn’t stopped us Christians from disagreeing with one another. If God provided the Bible to tell us how to be moral, God surely did not bother to guarantee that we’d all get the same message.

But here’s the thing. Why should we assume we need the Bible in order to be moral? I would argue that relying on the Bible to know right from wrong is at best a sign of moral immaturity and at worst a moral smokescreen. I’ve never needed the Bible to tell me not to be cruel to puppies, and neither has anyone else in the world. Deceiving one’s beloved and being unfaithful? Most of the world’s civilizations know better, Bible or no Bible, Jesus or no Jesus. Defrauding the poor? People do it, but we all know it’s wrong. The Israelites may have needed Amos to remind them, but they already knew.

We generally know right from wrong with or without the Bible, with or without the gospel. When we can’t agree on matters of morality, that’s probably because complex issues are at stake. For example, I’m not quite a pacifist. If I see someone hurting a child, I’d like to think I’d be willing to use violence to stop them. But that fundamental moral sensibility doesn’t tell us whether war is justified in one case or another. The Bible won’t either, I’m afraid.

During the Nazi period, Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw Christians endorse enough awful things that he reached a simple conclusion: we Christians have a nasty tendency to justify our behavior by calling it God’s will. He’d come to understand how “evil should appear in the form of light, good deeds, social justice, historical necessity,” and that conventional Christian ethics can reach their limits. In the end, he argued, we grow accountable to God not by indexing Scripture on every moral question, but through our accountability in relationship to one another. When “reason, principle, conscience, freedom, and virtue” fail, what’s left is “obedient and responsible action” in “faith and in relationship to God alone,” for God will forgive the sinner who acts in faith.

I do believe the Bible helps Christians sort through some issues in distinctive ways. Every religious and philosophical tradition, to be honest, has its own distinctive ways of valuing life. Our Bible is filled with grace and mercy, the principle that because God acts kindly toward us, we respond with kindness — love — toward our neighbors. This is not to suggest that the biblical chorus always sings on key, but it is remarkable how often biblical texts call us to adopt the position of the vulnerable. “Remember, you were once migrants too.” “A certain main fell into the hands of robbers and was left half-dead.” “Every day the rich man feasted while Lazarus lay at his gates.”

When we read the Bible in community, especially a community that expresses the richness of God’s diversity, we open ourselves to being shaped as responsible people. That’s very different from expecting the Bible to answer our moral questions. But by God’s grace it is enough.


Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.

Facebook | @gregc666
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Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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