What is distinct about a Christian virtue ethic?
Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue ethics. However, we should be confident that we have an important contribution to make to the broader discussion.
We can be grateful for the work of scholars like Alasdair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Wilson in emphasizing the importance of the development of virtues for the life and witness of the church.
Here I will offer five suggestions, drawing on the authors cited above:
1. Christian virtues are not isolated moral principles or laws extracted from the Bible.
Scriptural virtues are embedded in narratives of God with his people. For a follower of Jesus, virtues cannot be understood apart from the gospel narrative that leads us through Galilee and Judea to the crucifixion and resurrection.
Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth.”
2. People, including Christians, are susceptible to delusions and distortions about their lives and morality.
We want to believe that we are more virtuous than our actions and inaction might suggest.
The story of Jesus forces us to examine our own lives. We enter into a space where we can face ourselves with honesty, confess our sins, celebrate grace and be inspired by the story of the gospel.
3. Christian virtues are related to the mission (“telos”) of God in the world.
The purpose or meaning of each human life is discovered in relationship to the mission of God.
The virtues are an expression of how people understand God, his calling and their purpose in the world.
At a minimum, faithfulness to the mission of God requires virtues like humility, service and compassion.
4. The process of the development of character or virtues can be likened to the metaphor of a journey.
People are transformed by the pilgrimage with God as they face new challenges that test their faithfulness, integrity and dedication.
5. Individuals need a community (church) to encourage and nurture Christian virtues.
A supportive community, living by the principle of grace, provides a fellowship of discernment and encouragement for the long journey.
So, do virtue ethics offer a helpful approach to moral decision-making?
I think most people would agree that people with strong sets of virtues will generally sort through moral issues and make good decisions.
The emphasis on the long process of character formation matches our understanding of Christian discipleship and transformation.
Pastors and teachers should be encouraged to emphasize gospel virtues in their preaching and classroom discussions.
Those of us that serve in the broader marketplace are challenged to find ways of representing the virtues of our faith in social contexts of competition and affluence.
We will have to be discerning in distinguishing between “cultural” virtues that will vary in different settings and “gospel” virtues that are essential for discipleship and mission.
I have one major concern about the virtue ethics approach that I can represent in a story.
A former colleague was the child of a Jewish couple that had been saved from death in a concentration camp by Oskar Schindler.
Few people would have described Schindler as a virtuous man. He was a member of the Nazi party. He was unfaithful in marriage. He used bribery to get ahead in business. He drank to excess and was addicted to a lifestyle of affluence.
One assumes that many German Christians who served the Third Reich would have been scandalized by Schindler.
But when a Jewish concentration camp opened near his factory, Schindler used his money and influence to save more than 1,000 Jewish women and men.
Let me pose the question: If you were a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, would you have preferred to place your fate in the hands of Schindler or in the hands of a Third Reich soldier who maintained his marriage vows and personal piety?
The story of Schindler raises uncomfortable questions about how we prioritize certain virtues and our vices in our historical situation.
We might ask: Is it enough to be a faithful husband and loving father in a world where 925 million people are hungry?
I am struck by a recent poll that showed that 85 percent of Americans (and presumably Canadians) were unaware of extreme hunger in Africa and the Middle East.
Is it enough to be virtuous in business dealings in North America while ignoring that the mass displacement of 65 million people is a new global reality?
This means that one out of every 113 people on the earth is on the move as a refugee from violence or environmental catastrophe, as a migrant looking for work, or as someone that simply hopes for a better life.
What does virtue mean in the context of desperate people crowding into boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea?
I propose that the Christian church faces a challenge in rethinking the virtues that God requires for our mission and witness in today’s broken and wounded world.
We need to bear in mind that the God of our Scriptures always was concerned for the well-being of the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
Virtues should move us toward the margins and borderlands. The discussions and conclusions about virtue ethics will be important for the future of our churches and our nations.
Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ resource specialist and is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.