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Stop Teaching the Ethics of Jesus!

June 06, 2012

There is a strong tendency within the church for people to extract and teach the ethical framework found in the Gospels. For instance, people might set up a community in which they attempt to live out principles such as giving to someone in need, turning the other cheek and living simply.

There are however a number of interrelated problems with this approach. Firstly it tends to generate guilt. In other words, the more that we hold up certain principles the worse we will feel when we fall short of them.

This leads to the second problem, namely repression. In order to deal with the guilt we will be more likely to avoid a direct confrontation with our failings. In this way we will tend to intellectually disavow what we are doing. One of my favourite parables is the one in which a king returns to his home one day to find a beggar at his gates. Upon seeing this man in rags the king ran into the palace and summoned one of his servants saying, “There is a beggar outside; throw him out immediately. Do you not know that I am too kind and compassionate a man to look upon such suffering?”

It is this logic that we see played out in our own lives on a daily basis. “Do not show me the suffering that takes place in the dairy industry, for I love animals so much that I cannot bear to see such pain” or “Do not tell me where this shirt was made because I love children too much to hear of their horrific abuse in sweat shops.” Here our “beliefs” are nothing more than a form of Unbelief—they are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to avoid the truth. It is unbelief, because it is fully affirmed as what we believe while being that which covers over what we actually do believe (This subject of Unbelief is something I explore in my forthcoming book The Idolatry of God).

Finally this leads to the symptom. In other words we are able to continue to do the action that we expressly attack because we are not directly confronted with it. Hence we see that some of the organisations that consciously uphold the most righteous ethical frameworks have some of the most destructive unethical underbelly (the Catholic Church’s dark underbelly of sexual abuse being just one example).

This was the insight of Paul regarding the Law. The more we say that we should be moral and avoid immorality the more our desire for what we disavow grows. The louder the “no” the greater the temptation to transgress the “no.” The result is guilt, a guilt that is managed through repression, a repression that results in pushing our destructive actions into the unconscious to be manifested in our clandestine actions (i.e. in symptoms).

So what is the alternative to attempting to hold ethical principles? The answer is creating a space of grace in which we are invited to bring our darkness to the surface, to speak of it in an environment in which we will not be condemned or made to feel guilty, a community that will let us speak our anxieties and darkness without asking us to change. In short, a place where we can confront our humanity rather than running from it.

The trick is to create an atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance where people are not told what to do. Where people learn that heresy which claims that, while not everything is beneficial, everything is permissible. In other words, while there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation. In such an environment ethical acts will emanate from the body just as heat emanates from light. One will not have to be taught that they should look after their neighbour as if it were something that we need to be told, they will simply be more inclined to do so.

The desire to have ethical rules to follow tends to lead to the action they forbid. This causes the spiral into guilt, repression and disavowed symptoms. In contrast laying such ethical propositions to one side and learning to accept both ourselves and the other in grace opens up the path to what we have set aside.

118 Responses to Stop Teaching the Ethics of Jesus!

  1. Dan Lee says:

    I like, half agree with what you’re saying here. I think we tend to concentrate on the “i won’t look, I won’t touch, I won’t smell…” and this leads us to dealing mostly with symptoms, rather than what the real crux of the issues are. However, there is an aspect of “wrestling wirh flesh” here. Paul is a great example of that I think. The spirit and flesh are in constant conflict. I do think people want to find principles to live by within christianity, like they do with budhism…

  2. KB says:

    I suppose the thing that grabs me here is your use of the word ‘trick’:

    The trick is to create an atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance where people are not told what to do.

    It’s an interesting term, and I wonder how consciously you’ve used it? When we come to a magic show, we don’t suspend our belief in the natural, we suspend our unbelief in the supernatural: we give ourselves knowingly to the ‘trick’ in order to receive a gift from its particular world.

    In church terms, I think the acceptance of the level of trickery is misunderstood. People actually believe it – while the magician clearly does not.

    I know Katherine Moody has blogged a bit about this but I think there’s something slightly different that I want to explore in your use of the term in relation to getting round the problem of ethics.

    One of the problems Derren Brown comes across is a surfeit of belief: people believe in magic too much – and he wants not to destroy the magic by explaining all, but return them to a proper understanding and enjoyment of magic as suspension of unbelief.

    And I think this is the key pastoral role in the sort of arrangement / community you are describing: people who can bring about not stronger belief, but a more healthy suspension of unbelief. It’s through this suspension that this atmosphere might be created.

    (I think this is why de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists needs a companion volume: Religion for Theists: how believers can take what’s good about religion and religious practice, without having to sign up to the other stuff that comes with it.)

    • David Petrey says:

      The use of the word “trick” implies that it is a difficult task or something similar. It has nothing to do with “trickery” or a magician.

      • KB says:

        Totally disagree. The wording is important.

        • Simon says:

          This is brilliant Kester. I’m loving the Pirate book at the moment, and while I know you said you thought the next would be a work of fiction – I’d love to read you on Magicians, Harry Potter, fairy tales and con-men. In that book I’d love to read the chapter on Peter Popov and Benny Hinn…

          • KB says:

            Funny you should say that… I’ve actually been brewing a long post about Harry Potter for some time. Incredibly interesting what ‘magic’ means in those books – which I adore. And yes, it’d be lovely to do something on Benny Hinn etc. – one of the great illusionists of our time!

        • MM says:

          Peter uses this word in a different way than we would understand it in our American dialect. I’m often surprised when he uses it in conversation and speaking. Is it an Irish thing? I don’t know, but I think you guys are deconstructing a dialectic straw man.

          • Brent Simpson says:

            You really went on a needless rant with the word “trick”.
            The equivalent in Spanish “chiste” is used to say the “key” to doing something.
            We use it the same way in English.
            So, the writer of this article could have used the phrase “the key” instead of “the trick” and we would have been spared your ramblings.

  3. Troy says:

    100% agree. great post.

    how do you balance creating this atmosphere with those times in which a church (to either an individual or group) or person (to another) should exhort the other to repentance?

    there seem to be enough biblical examples of this to consider it a part of our responsibility as brothers & sisters… but certainly not something that is easy to discern or do.

  4. Michaelia says:

    Even if the collective church decided to stop teaching the ethics of Jesus and adhered to a doctrine of love, acceptance, and grace, I’m not sure that it would solve anything. The people who go to churches have been trained since birth to have a certain set of ethics and to expect the same of others. When the church ceases teaching ethics, it won’t change a thing, because group thinking will work on its behalf, and it will cause the same need to tell ourselves a story in order to avoid the truth. We’re doomed, Peter. We’re doomed!

  5. Bob Young says:

    But doesn’t the problem still exist when you change the “should” from the ethics of Jesus to trying to create a space for grace, non-condemnation, etc.? We will still fail at practicing the ideals of grace, judgment, etc. which will lead to guilt and shame… guilt seems to be always up against the failure to execute the “should” … :(

  6. Richard Jones says:

    Two questions come to mind:
    1-what should we teach?
    2-why did Jesus teach ethics?
    OK three.
    3-don’t the prophets contradict you?

  7. Steve Priest says:

    Pete, once again you articulate my thinking pretty much perfectly.

    Richard, we shouldn’t teach anything, we are called to live in love and grace not teach it.

    Jesus lived ethically, he was authentic, true to himself etc. we tell a story of how we would like to live and hide our true selves behind it. We’re afraid we might be the only ones that ‘think like that’ – in truth we probably all are and that’s what we need to realise and share.

  8. Dan Cooley says:

    We shouldn’t teach anything? Really?

    Doesn’t that go against the direct command of Jesus in the great commission Mt 28:19-20?

    I understand the desire to live the truth and not shout a bunch of rules, but we are commanded to also teach the truth. There needs to be some balance here…

  9. Bob Young says:

    Steve, not so sure it makes sense to not teach anything. How would we know we are called to live in love unless someone taught us that?

    I agree that humble, candid authenticity is needed (rather than hiding our true selves),, especially when talking about ethics.

    Oh well…

  10. chris says:

    please read some herbert mccabe

  11. Steve Priest says:

    I guess this will probably come down to translation and semantics. The word ‘teach’ is probably where we are stumbling.

    For me it suggests instructing, telling whereas I read the Matthew passage, and most of Jesus’ ‘teachings’, as ‘demonstrate’ or ‘model’.

    We can’t teach people how to live in love, we can only show them. Or, to put it another way, the only way we can teach people how to live in love is to demonstrate that, to actually live it. Is this not what Jesus did throughout his time on Earth?

    How do you ‘teach the truth’? Is this not precisely what Pete is arguing, we set ourselves up to fail by attempting the impossible.

    • David Petrey says:

      Jesus clearly taught using words. The very scripture sited was a case of Jesus teaching/instructing them what to do, using words. You can’t read the gospels and say that Jesus only taught by example. He did model and demonstrate, he taught with stories and parables, but he also instructed.
      You said “we shouldn’t teach anything, we are called to live in love and grace not teach it.” But even modeling is a form of teaching.

    • Dan Lee says:

      Parables, are lessons in themselves. Jesus taught, and demonstrated. Sometimes they were stories, sometimes they were action such as washing feet. Paul definately taught.. a lot. And by the way, to say Jesus lived ethically is the understatment of all time and I think down plays the spiritual nature of his life all together.

  12. Adam says:

    I believe that there is a posture Christians can adopt that balances the responsibility to teach while allowing people to fully be themselves.

    Simply put, it is the position we take when we let go of trying to control things, either people, systems, or ideas. We can share our experiences. We can even normalize the experience of others when that is helpful to them.

    The difficulty of living in a life of “love, grace, and acceptance” is that these things are hard unless we take a hard look at ourselves. This is why it is much easier to externalize our faith into ethical principles, biblical knowledge, or coat our language in so much jargon as to be meaningless.

    (I’m enjoying this thread and hope it continues.)

    • Keith St.Jean says:

      Thanks Adam. That was a great response. You have encouraged me today.

    • John La G says:

      Adam, so with you on this. Religion is largely about control, both projected and internalized. Over the last few years, I’ve been letting go of religious identity and tribal alliances (often unsuccessfully). Hadn’t read Peter’s xlnt writing in years, but linked here by a Facebook entry. I feel increasingly alien to religious conversation.

      You say, “The difficulty of living in a life of “love, grace, and acceptance” is that these things are hard unless we take a hard look at ourselves. This is why it is much easier to externalize our faith…”

      Like narcotics, religion woos us into endless proxies – externalizations – fake permanence. Now into the second half of my life, I simply want to know, and become, love that can embrace an enemy. Yet it seems like an impossible koan – loving one’s enemy. I’m maintaining hope that there is a Universal Ethic intrinsically embedded into creation’s fabric and, in some mysterious way, that Ethic is who we really are.

  13. Keith St.Jean says:

    It is an interesting dilemma to be sure. How do you maintain an attitude of open acceptance and love and yet still encourage people to growth. Pete you may not teach the “ethics” of Jesus but in your many writing you are attempting to encourage believers to a new ethos in being a Christ follower. This is noble and your voice and ideas are refreshing and very needed but in doing this you are (however inadvertantly) creating a measure that people will compare themselves to. This is a distinctly human tendency. I work everyday with people who struggle with addictions and my desire is always to have them feel welcome, to have their humanity restored to them, to make them aware that they are loved and accepted as they are. However I would be lying if I said that I did not want them to grow in their faith. If I do not teach them an ethical framework (for the record I do agree with you on this point) how then do I go about encouraging then towards this growth and transformation.
    As I write this I am realizing a control issue in myself and so maybe the answer is self evident here. I am afraid to simply let God do the work of transformation and feel like I need to be involved somehow.
    Thanks for your words Peter, they always make me think and encourage me to growth (how deliciously ironic.)

    • Cheryl Kennedy says:

      Keith St. Jean and Tom Forrester, thank you for addressing the Holy Spirit’s role in our transformation. I think the concept of drawing close to Him and resting in His promise to complete His work in us is so counter-intuitive that we keep defaulting to the gospel of try harder. Thanks for the reminder that apart from Him we can do nothing.

  14. Bill says:

    Of course it would be great to have an atmosphere of grace in a community. But if you say ‘stop teaching’ then you are also telling people what (not) to do. So isn’t that a bit contradictive? Isn’t the christian call for love and grace a teaching in itself?
    If we could just embrace our fear to be honest with each other, about our own imperfection, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have an open debate on christian ethics beyond that point of freedom.

  15. Richard Jones says:

    Hmmm…it seems to me that Jesus has a reputation of being one of the greatest ethical teachers of all time. Maybe that’s all a misconception. Also (and no offense intended here, really), I think Pete tries to be a bomb-thrower in theological discussions. In other words, he tries for the sensational, the shocking, the surprising (which I think he would just call “true”–and maybe so.) I think this worked in How (NOT) to Speak of God (which I really liked and have taught–how could I?–a few times), but I’m not so sure I follow the logic of this post or that it is accurate. I don’t think all of us function in this way. But it does drive a lot of traffic to your blog…

  16. David Petrey says:

    I am an admirer of Pete’s writings(at least the parts I can understand). And here I don’t think I can disagree with his diagnosis but I think the solution needs to be expanded upon. I don’t think we can remain faithful to the new testament and not teach people. But there is certainly an issue in the church with people hiding their sin and feeling for one reason or another that they can’t disclose the things they struggle with. And yes this is where grace needs to be modeled. And the church needs to do a better job of helping people to feel ok about confessing their sins. We are all sinners, that’s the point. If we were not then we wouldn’t need Jesus or each other. But because we don’t want to be seen as not progressing in our faith, we can’t confess our struggles(as if we were the only ones struggling). That is a problem, but I don’t know if the solution is to not expect anything from anybody. We are clearly called to obedience, but I think our expectations are not realistic.

    This is where our pride keeps us from being real. If we could believe that being broken is a good thing, that is brings us closer to God. That when we see someone who has sinned and has been humbled, we should want that because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” James
    “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

    We all have blind spots in our lives. Part of loving one another would be to lovingly point those out. And if the church as a whole has a blind spot(and it always will) then those who see it should pray and do what they can to help the church to see it. I think one of those blind spots has been social justice. And now in the past ten years it has been coming to the surface. The church today as a whole is more aware of its responsibility and more has been accomplished because of it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that Pete’s reasons are the only reasons why people ignore certain things. Like sweat shops and child labor. I think that people are busy and know that they can’t fix everything that is wrong with the world. There are only a certain number of things a person can focus on outside of their primary responsibilities in life. There are only so many hours in a day.

    Am I contributing to sweat shops in China(or wherever)by buying my clothes at certain stores? Maybe, probably. But unless there is an easy and not too expensive alternative, don’t expect people to change. I love Shane Claiborne and the issues he brings to the table but I don’t think I have time to learn to make my own clothes. I’m not opposed to it. I just don’t think its practical for me right now. It that selfish thinking? Maybe. But I can’t do everything. And because I know I cannot do everything. I can’t alleviate the suffering of the entire world, I don’t feel guilty about it. Maybe a tiny bit of guilt. But I live by grace. I serve God the best I can and that’s it. Jesus is the savior, I am not.

    Am I crazy? Does any of that make sense? I realize that I am probably not even on the same level of thinking as Pete, but this is how I see it.

  17. Paul Irby says:

    Isn’t Peter “teaching” by simply posting this blog, as well are many of those commenting? There is A place for teaching and a place for conviction from the Holy Spirit that drives people toward Christ. Guilt drives us away from Him. Jesus’ example and his teaching are to be part of our life of faith and hearing other’s interpretations of those teachings is a part of that community. Discernment is required when hearing any teaching. Just because someone condemns does not automatically mean we must feel guilty.

    • ian says:

      In response to the ‘teach/not teach’ thread it is helpful to point to the words of/attributed to St Frances of Assisi ‘Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words’. Or possibly to the ancient Quaker exhortation ‘let your life speak’.

      I’m not sure Peter is saying anything here that has not been a deep part of being truly christian ever since the idea of being christian was birthed. in fact the early response to the commune/sect was not ‘listen how they talk great wisdom’ but ‘see how they love each other’

      so Peter is mining into he core of the life of faith here …. because surely it takes infinitely more faith to love than to talk.

  18. Dan Hauge says:

    I think I agree with the central thrust of the post–that an atmosphere of striving to be good can actually be counterproductive, while an atmosphere of honesty and grace can inspire loving response.

    But it still seems a little silly to make some kind of absolute binary between ‘teaching’ and ‘loving’. Jesus himself managed to do a lot of ethical teaching, yet still created a place of grace and acceptance around himself that people were drawn to. I think it’s more in the ‘how’ of doing the teaching, perhaps more as an invitation than a set of requirements.

  19. Andy gr says:

    Zinzendorf in the eighteenth century argued that what we’re aiming for is people who do what’s right naturally, without even noticing. He argued that confident, cheerful gratitude is the only thing that can create such people: http://www.zinzendorf.webs.com.

  20. Joan Ball says:

    Why do you assume that guilt is an outcome of falling short of ideals?

  21. Pingback: be and let be « words with pictures

  22. i believe this is why jesus said that even WANTING to do the thing is the same sin. the focus in teaching should be on “fixing” the source of the need/desire to do bad things rather than on the committing of the act itself.

    even just not doing it when you want to can lead to anxiety, whether you slip and commit the act or not.

    until the person excises even the desire to sin, teaching them not to do it only leads to guilt, as peter says.

  23. Aric Clark says:


    One thing that has consistently bothered me in your writing has been your persistent use of the word “ethics” to mean one specific type of ethics “deontology”. Not all ethics is about creating or following rules. Nor is the fostering of guilt necessary to ethics.

    Much of the New Testament seems to me to be an argument for teleological or virtue based ethics over deontological ethics (a focus on fruit, not rules/obedience). I get stuck whenever you use the term “ethics” in this way because ethics is just trying to live right. It doesn’t strike me as possible or reasonable to argue for some space or form of community that is beyond ethics. You’re just arguing for a different form of ethics.

  24. Collin says:

    Peter is a philosopher first, theologian second. The nature of his language and writing is one of extreme. The point is spoken much louder and much more subversively than just some Christian teacher.

    His point seems to be—cultivate a community of grace, doubt, emotion, thought, love, joy, peace, hope, lack of hope, whatever—a place where people can be who they are and know they are loved like Jesus loved.

    I think he was being extreme to drive that point home. Maybe I’m wrong.

  25. “Jesus’ actions got meaning through his words; Jesus’ words got credibility through his actions.” John Stott.

  26. Alex says:

    “Where people learn that heresy which claims that, while not everything is beneficial, everything is permissible.” I think in some ways this is a good idea. But my concern with it isn’t upholding biblical standards but ensuring churches are safe for everyone. Unethical behaviour is usually something that negatively affects others. To have a safe church you need to have rules which prevent people from abusing and mistreating other members and apply appropriate consequences where this occurs.

  27. Brandon Noel says:

    Joan Bell,

    Because that is the natural order in humanity. It is the story of Adam and Eve (failure leads to shame) our knowledge and cotinued proliferation of the Law merely makes us aware of these shortcommings, and like the Adam and Eve story, humanity’s natural inclination is shame. To think otherwise, I would assume you don’t work with many people, most of the people I counsel and deal with can all confess a root of guilt and shame in their life about “how bad a person” they have been or are currently. The clothing of the cross was a better covering than the skin of animals in the Garden… It is a perfect covering… No more shame. Remove the shame and the guilt, and it restores something fundamental about the Eden paradigm. In the Garden, it wasn’t that there was no sin, it was that they had no knowledge of it, the tree they ate of was of “the knowledge of good and evil” and this was what god wanted them to avoid! He knew what it would do to them, to us, to all humanity. And Christ was the cure for that, we simply have continued in our ancestors path by reinstating the effect of Law because it is in our nature, it is our tendency and within our understanding. What Peter is talking about here actually requires a form of thinking and behaving of a completely “unnatural” source. One cannot create the “space” he refers to for others nor inhabit it while retaining a natural mindset.

  28. re: Aric Clark

    here’s my take on ethics, as if you asked or cared.

    let’s separate ethics first, and not speak of it globally. it really has no form or shape in a global sense.

    let’s take, for example, murder. for the majority of people in society there’s no need to teach an ehtical stance based on not murdering people. its clearly bad and i’d say that most people don’t even want to ever actually murder someone. that hasn’t always been the case, but it is now.

    what’s changed?

    well, many things.

    but one of the things, i suppose, is that people have more empathy today (through stuff not directly related to murder, including our entertainment) and can imagine more easily what its like to be in another person’s shoes.

    and many more things on top of that.

    but since in this simple example i hope you can see that there’s really no need to teach the ethics of not murdering, you can see where its possible (in an ideal world) to have a community ‘beyond ethics’ as you say.

    • Aric Clark says:

      M Leonard Devoe,

      Thanks for your reply.

      There is no universal form of ethics all agree to as you say, but moral reasoning has been going on quite extensively for a long time and we can be much more specific than either you or Peter have been in this conversation so far. There are many different schools of ethics which have their own methodologies and results and don’t look at all like a system of rules that inflicts guilt such as Peter describes in his post.

      I doubt that people are inherently more empathic now than before and it would be impossible to measure in anycase. What you describe with the idea of murder is called a synthetic moral norm – that is the very word murder contains the ethical reasoning that got us to what appears to be broad social consensus. By defining a particular act of killing as “murder” you are making an ethical judgment – that this act of killing was an illegitimate one. There is hardly consensus that all acts of killing are illegitimate and therefore the ethical conversation is very much alive. It is not beyond ethics at all.

      • My problem with that philosophy is the same as with all the normative definitions, its very difficult – or at least was very difficult – to say what came first.

        were people ready to accept the idea (of there being an unjustified killing in this case) and just didn’t have a name for it? (as I believe) or did the naming of it precede the acceptance of the idea? (as you believe)

        its a big problem in our view of “history” that cause and effect are often mixed up or at the very least unclear.

        • Aric Clark says:

          It’s not a chicken and egg problem it’s an ongoing conversation. The idea of murder is ancient. What exactly we would define as murder is in constant development. Once it would have been acceptable to stone someone to death for adultery. Now it is not. That development is the process of moral reasoning. In other words, ethics.

          • At which point you go against your own argument that defining something as wrong nails it down and now you’re joining in with my side of the argument.

            well, i don’t know how to discuss this with you any further if you keep jumping sides.so i’ll bow out of this discussion.

      • certainly naming and identifying these things helps to spread it and gives people an easier way to digest it then to teach them that someone somewhere will be very angry if you don’t listen to them.

  29. Kerry says:

    I wonder if the dilemma here about guilt is, in fact, a submission to a human construction, and with that the perpetuation of some poor theology. To highlight this with a biblical narrative: When the son returns to the father in the story of the prodigal son he has guilt. However the father has no desire for him to experience guilt. It is the son’s problem not the father’s. Is Pete caught within a conception of humanity that is predicated on anthropological and not theological grounds. God does not seek to induce guilt. Far from it. Paul understands that the law was never given to produce guilt but to be a means of grace. Paul recognized how it had failed because human beings forgot the source of the law and with that the intent of the law.
    Jeremiah 31.31 had long ago established a time when there would no longer be a need to teach the law, or say love God, because all people would do this naturally. However that future may still prove to be eschatalogical despite all our hopes to the contrary.
    Jesus himself was known as Rabbi, teacher. A teacher teaches on all levels which includes practice but. for Jesus. this did not exclude language. Paul, so favoured by Pete, also teaches. His letters are filled with teaching trying to detach the followers from the things they thought they could rely on and renew their understanding in Christ. It is also simply unrealistic to Paul to say he did not teach ethics as well. Whether we want to reach the same conclusions as Paul today in quite contrary contexts is a very different matter, but we can’t deny his, nor Jesus’, teaching life. Ethics needs to be lived, and taught, but it is also spoken and dialogically shared. I remember a friend in London’s gay scene talking of how gay men would talk about their sexual lives as a means of discerning boundaries, seeking affirmation and, believe it or not, direction.
    We aspire to the day when ethics need not be taught, I just don’t think we currently inhabit it. What we do need to do though is more particularly talk of grace as the deconstruction of guilt. By saying we should not teach ethics are we in fact allowing guilt and not grace to ironically prevail? Are we denying our humanity rather than recovering it?

  30. Judson says:

    Regarding the idea that we shouldn’t advocate, compare ourselves to, or strive toward some sort of ethical ideal, I really like the idea but don’t how to reconcile that with things Jesus said like “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    It seems a big recurring point in Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s teaching, and the NT at large is the idea that there is in fact something called holiness and that we need to realize that we aren’t there. We need to experience that tension, because it is only there that we are able to experience grace. Grace and forgiveness depend on the assumption that there is shortcoming and failure to be overcome.

    So maybe the response to the destructive process of seeing a standard, falling short, feeling guilty, repressing and disavowing symptoms, is not to get rid of the standard. Maybe the response is to wade right into the falling short (which is only recognizable if a standard exists. I think…) openly, lament our brokenness fully, and there be able to receive a depth of grace that doesn’t ignore our faults but rather brings them out into the open, says ‘I love you’ anyway, and begins to transform them through the destruction of guilt and shame. Or as Kerry just articulated well, talking of grace as the deconstruction of guilt.

    I think a lot of destructive guilt in people comes not just from seeing an unreached standard, but from being in an environment where people aren’t open about their brokenness. So they think other people are saints and they are the sinner. In which case the standard isn’t the issue so much as the culture of clean presentation that alienates the dirty.

    • Paul Mahugh says:

      Cryptic as Peter often is, I don’t think his theory ignores ethics at all. I think it says that practically, to truly lead people to a place of peace and an ethical life, we have to start ignoring ethics in church or whatever spiritual circle we run in. I hear that in the life and teachings of Jesus, at least as loudly as I hear the importance of holiness (which, linguistically, is better understood as completeness).

      Moralism is a sort of “gumming” at life as though we had fangs, isn’t it? I think the basis of what Peter is doing is pointing out that we don’t have fangs so we can stop slobbering all over each other. Could be my projection, though.

  31. Beautiful and pure. xo

  32. Peter says:

    Great post and threads. Guilt is important, and shame is important. If your actions are exploiting someone else, however acceptable they are to society, guilt should exist and should provoke change. It is the natural corollary of having the love of Christ in us that we are moved by compassion (and guilt).

    It is key that there is “teaching” on ethics. The issue is not that teaching is being done, the issue is on where people are in their own relationship with Christ and so how they respond to the teaching. Teaching on ethics should be informative – “given the deep love you/we have for others, let’s consider what is right in x situation” versus “thou shalt not wear Addidas trainers”.

  33. Liam O says:

    not sure this leaves space for the kind of engagement with suffering, injustice, and evil the world needs. Not that I think we need to teach ethics, or that a space for honest reflection is not needed, but this sounds a little too much like a support group for oppressors, and what is also needed is a space to look in the face of those who you are called to love but who live by YOUR suffering and tell them the pain you feel. In other words, should not the victim and the victimizer feel like they can be who they are, especially when we are so often both.

    • Liam O says:

      wow, it seems to me that Jesus offered loved to some oppressors, but also harsh judgement against others. It was, at least in my reading, to the suffering and oppressed that Jesus often created community. This is complicated of course by the relationship of all Israel to Rome, and it is true that Jesus offered a different response to rome than say zealots, but if we let go of all value I think we would ignore the lived experience of too many folks we should instead be lifting up and valorizing.

  34. I see it as opening a great deal of space for engaging injustice. Once we have that untightening of categorizing what is good or bad we have breathing room to examine injustices. And I also can’t help but think that Jesus was told he seemed to offer too much of a support group for oppressors…please take that in the spirit it is intended!

    • Liam O says:

      oops replied to myself instead of to you : /
      to put this all specifically, maybe white males of wealth might be able to change who they are and how they move in the world by being given the space in a community where they can honestly engage who they are without judgement. However, what if this is an illusion which simply reinforces their idealogical, economic, and even rhetorical domination of others. In other words, I am not convinced that there does not also need to be an honest addressing of grievance that then accompanies healing. I may be nit picking, but there is evil in the world that denies flourishing to others. I see these crushed people in my work, and while new hope is born in their lives, I am not sure I can see new hope in mine until i acknowledge how I have participated in their suffering.

      • Ethics seem to exist whatever you call them. I think the presence of ethics and our need to name things and ethical/unethical is a byproduct of our natural tendency to categorize things as black/white good/bad, which is a very good and extremely important instinct, but also one that defies having a category for something as powerful and overarching as love. I take what Peter is saying as getting ethics out of the picture and being fueled by love, kinda in the way he said that heat emanates from light, because when something as powerful as love enters the picture then ethics kind of fall away and aren’t even an issue because love trumps everything. And I have a connection with the part that says “In other words, while there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation.” I connect with it because it has brought a lot of healing and meaning for me. I’ve experienced discussing my destructive behavior with someone and bringing ways I’ve been destructive to them and having them respond to me with such love that has taken away my fear with them. I can be human with them without fear because deep love is there. So it’s realistic to me and very precious to me. I hope this makes sense…

        • well and this might be my own bias about what the faithful community is about, but does this also leave room for truth telling that other would call advocacy. Maybe for this vision of the new community advocacy and that sort of basic political change are irrelevant or hopeful possible outcomes, but not the point. For me and my vision of what the community called together by Christ, it is essential, and so it is the voice of the victim calling for justice I am deeply concerned with…However, and let me be clear, the idea of gratuitous grace, of full acceptance, is one I also find valuable. I hope my critique does not sound like dismissal. I am worried though about the balance, and again this is just my perception, between what I may need for healing and what this world needs from me for healing, and being a community that both accepts individuals for who they are but has the courage to name and face evil is important. if that makes sense.

  35. Nick Jackson says:

    I’m wondering if there is a way to quite openly practice the ethics of Jesus but hold onto this complete acceptance and suspension of judgement of the darkness in us and in others. I’m thinking of putting into practice some of the experiments Mark Scandrette talks about in Practicing the Way of Jesus, but then not evaluating our efforts. Instead we merely set out to do these practices and then move on, not giving any consideration to whether we were succesful or not or to who participated fully and who didn’t.

  36. ErikB says:

    There is ample room for both grace and truth, for teaching by example and by words and sometimes just being in Christ.
    Jesus clearly called us to a higher life, not just to remain as we are. He changes us, recreates us. And he gave us very lofty ethical standards: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”. No exceptions or addendums, just perfection. And the grace to get us there. Let us help each other along the way.

  37. Paul Mahugh says:

    Isn’t this an ethic of Jesus? I took that to be his point… http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%208:1-11&version=ESV

  38. Tom Forrester says:

    Perhaps the “atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance” is found in ways such as the passage of prayer, wisely spoken by Jean Vanier in Peter’s prior post today. I do believe we can be encouraged by people who are willing to accept our darkness in a non-condemning way. And encouragement can help bring change. But becoming one with Jesus to the point of having the Holy Spirit in us can transform us into His image. The “atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance” is found within us because He is in us. It’s attainable, but He requires “diligent seeking.” Heb 11:6 Mt 7:7

  39. KB says:

    I’ve expanded my thoughts on the idea of the ‘trick’ here, beginning a short series on ‘Religion as Illusion.’

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  41. Lily says:

    I more than 1/2 way agree with you; implying that I don’t completely agree. What do you do with scripture that tells us to confront sin? I think that is the greatest test of grace. Yes, we need an atmosphere which allows us to be open and honest with one another about our sins (“confess your sin one to another”), but when we see sin (e.g. a person in a committed relationship who is having an affair, a spouse beater, a child abuser, the list is long) what do we do? Leave it for fear of not being graceful enough? Say something and risk hurting the person? Say something and risk being ostracized ourselves for being “ungracious”?

    So I agree, we need a place of grace. We need to be grace-filled with one another, we need to love each other regardless of our foibles. But we cannot just allow sin to go unchallenged and impenitant.

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  43. Tim says:

    Dude, this is Lutheran. The old person has been crucified with Christ so one is free to live as one would under God’s grace. When one lives from the gift of faith she does good or lives “ethically” as a natural expression of gratitude. (Oh, and make sure to note that the light and heat comment is directly taken from Luther.) You’re getting pretty confessional Rollins…I like it.

    • Tim says:

      Oh, but I would say that we can find such community and common ground through honesty about our sin. We hold our SIMUL existence together in community.

  44. barry says:

    Some of Pete’s thoughts reminded me of a comment early on in Kester’s new pirate book–‘quite, explicitly, jesus broke jewish law in order to expose that the fact that jewish law was, in the hands of the pharisees, already broken.’ Seems to me, that this idea of not ‘teaching ethics’ or at least not teaching them in the form and manner they have been, is related to this law-breaking idea–i also think that may of the comments reveal how one-dimensionally we all tend to look at things…people responding to two things primarily: teaching and confronting sin–instead perhaps of contemplating the veracity or otherwise of pete’s thoughts about guilt and repression as a result of a particular way of presenting things

  45. Barbara Hayden says:

    Your blog reminds me of the book we are reading at church, “The Cure.” I particularly appreciate that you applied it so concretely.

  46. Josef says:

    The following lines from Rollins post sounds beautiful at first …

    “The answer is creating a space of grace in which we are invited to bring our darkness to the surface, to speak of it in an environment in which we will not be condemned or made to feel guilty, a community that will let us speak our anxieties and darkness without asking us to change.”

    … but the problem with this approach is nicely demonstrated in an epic scence from Breaking Bad (S04E07), which takes place in a kind of Narcotics Anonymous circle :

    “Without asking us to change”??? Rollins stance points in the direction of an anemic and apolitical Christianity that confirms status quo. Why the need to play out grace against holiness?

  47. Geoff Little says:

    Your article, Pete, misses the forest for the trees. The purpose of faith community is community – not a classroom. Who goes to church or synagogue to learn ethics, anyway? We learn ethics at a more profound level – through spirituality. Great spirituality takes place in life with others, week-to-week, day-to-day, talking, laughing, working with, and living. No faith community worth their own time would focus on setting up a meritocracy of what-we-believe (I know these are out there, but the readers of this blog are not primarily attending such). I wish your articles and books were more flesh-to-flesh, on the street, life-to-life instead of head in the clouds metaphysics of faith and philosophy. Not that I’ve read everything you’ve ever written. Maybe it’s out there. Love/peace. Geoff

    • Peter Rollins says:

      Sorry Geoff! I never got the memo telling me that I was to write to you and your level! BTW I don’t think you understood the article as I am making the point that you seem to be trying to contrast with the piece… i.e. I am arguing for (as well as putting into practice) communities that don’t teach ethics (hint: the secret is in the title), but express grace. *Facepalm*

      • So are you saying that Jesus didn’t have students, he had disciples? That the Gospel cannot be conveyed didactically alone? That more than cognition is needed? That Gnosticism was wrong all along?

        Such novel ideas. And I agree with the post above. Glad we’re all reading Mutiny! together. Thanks for working to be the very negation of this particularly imperial social order.

  48. Brian says:

    Wow. First I read this excellent post, then the next article I read at CNN.com perfectly paralleled this issue. Heres the link. It’s about someone moving from a structure/story of unbelief to a story of belief as it relates to the healthcare system in the


  49. Thom Skinner says:

    My question is what necessarily leads this toward being compassionate or doing the good?I’m not convinced that feeling good I.E. lack of guilty feelings is absolutely allied with actually doing good? Lastly what separates this in any way from Stephen Hayes’s ACT or Acceptance and Commitment therapy which just from my reading has a very similar approach coming from a Buddhist perspective or for that matter Alcoholics Anonymous. A small note, I find it fascinating that the story Pete used was basically the opposite story to the Story of the Buddha,where his family/society tried to protect him from being confronted with Age,Sickness and Death. Ultimately he dealt with these things and we know the basic contours of the rest of the story….

  50. Carl Yoder says:

    Have you been reading the Apostle Paul?

  51. DougJohnson Hatlem says:

    Stop teaching the ethics of Jesus? Really? Most Christians are going to have a hell of a time figuring out how to stop something they haven’t ever begun in the first place.

  52. Alan says:

    I’m not much of a rigorous thinker by any means, but…I see a lot of Badiou’s arguments here, particularly (and perhaps not surprisingly) with his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil: his critique of the cottage industry of “human rights” as rights to advance NON-evil, as opposed to the good; the “immanent break” of a truth (i.e., love); and:

    “We might put it like this: ‘Never forget what you have encountered.’ But we can say this only if we understand that not-forgetting is not a memory…In one of my previous books, my formula was: ‘Love what you will never believe twice’. In this the ethic of a truth is absolutely opposed to opinion, and to ethics in general, which is itself nothing but a schema of opinion. For the maxim of opinion is: ‘Love only that which you have always believed.’”

    One of my favorite quotes is from St. Diadochos, who defined humility as “attentive forgetfulness of what one has accomplished.”

    Finally I do think self-forgiveness and gentleness towards oneself is one of the (if not THE!) hardest thing to master.

  53. Sam says:

    And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34 ESV)

  54. phil says:

    so when Jesus says ‘take up your cross and follow me’ he’s just messing around, yeah? to say that imitation of christ = guilt is simplistic.. another straw man knocked down.. hurray..

  55. phil says:

    there’s such a lot of good in this idea, but it bothers me how easily we can caricature churches as being bullying or guilt-ridden places. surely we can do both- offer a space where all are welcome, and nobody is judged, and then is able to be transformed as well, by pastoring/teaching/mentoring. Jesus’ command to the woman caught in adultery ‘go and sin no more’ he forgives, he accepts.. and then he changes… I love what Rob Bell says: ‘God loves you exactly as you are, but loves you far too much to let you stay like that’. It’s so easy for us to make some monster out of evangelical Christianity, but I have seen many lives changed, addictions broken etc by exactly the opposite of what Peter is saying here- some things are wrong, and Jesus helps us stop doing them. And a whole lot more things are right, and Jesus can help us do them. I think Jesus loves us far too much to just say ‘Here i am, a space for your pain..’ as transformational as that is, it’s not the whole story, surely?

  56. Flemming Abildtrup says:

    Simply love and agree! Thanks a lot, Peter!

  57. Bill Colburn says:

    Pete: excellent post. As soon as we ‘extract and teach’ we create something different from what is. Religion? Note, then move on – leaving the eternal, eternal.

  58. John La G says:

    Hadn’t read Peter’s xlnt writing in years, but linked here by a Facebook entry. I feel increasingly alien to religious conversation. I’m maintaining hope that there is a Universal Ethic intrinsically embedded into creation’s fabric and, in some mysterious way, that Ethic is who we really are.

  59. In characteristic fashion, Pete, gets our attention by saying the opposite of what many of us would presume: that the ethical teachings of Jesus are a helpful guide to living a God conscious and love-filled life. In what I suspect is a neo-freudian analysis, Pete suggests that the ethical teachings of Jesus make us feel guilty, which produces avoidance and repression and creates unsafe, graceless communities of inaction.

    First I would suggest that guilt is only one of many possible responses to the Sermon on the Mount and other ethical teachings of Jesus. Another possibility, is that we hear those instructions, (“sell your possessions,” “forgive;” love your enemies,” etc) as an invitation into the kind of life that is possible because of the present reality of “the kingdom of love.” Jesus seemed to think that his instructions were meant to help us be more free: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” So apparently we have the capacity to construe the kindest invitation as an angry threat.

    My daughter recently suggested that as a family we read a biography of a heroic female. So last night as we together read an account of the life of Mother Teresa, I found myself feeling both drawn to Teresa’s lifestyle and articulate commitment to simple love, and, at the same time, wanting to poke holes in the myth and aura of Mother Teresa– dismissing her as a naiv media created sensation. The guilt or shame we feel in the presence of ethical vision and example says more about us than the ethic in question. The problem isn’t Mother Teresa, its my own small minded, jealous and jaded heart. Rather than avoiding her ethical vision, I might press in and ask myself, why, when I’m presented with an example of loving humanity, do I get critical and angry? Why am I not hearing this account as an invitation and possibility for myself? I want to be in a community that won’t leave me as I am, but cares enough about me to ask, “Mark, for some reason you have a lot of negative energy around Mother Teresa, what’s going on there? How can we help you be more free?”

    • Nick Jackson says:

      I’ve been thinking more about Pete’s post and what you had to say about it, Mark. First off I think Pete very deliberately used the word “teaching” in the title of his post, but I’m not sure if he means, “don’t only teach, but practice the ethics of Jesus as well,” or “don’t teach at all, but only practice the ethics of Jesus.” I’m not really sure where to go from there in making distinctions between teaching, practicing, and encouraging, but I think it is important in our communities to consciously attempt to practice the teachings of Jesus together.

      Things get wonky for me when Pete says, “[W]hile there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation.” This is great sentiment and I think we should strive to create communities of “love, grace and acceptance.” A friend of mine has never been told by anyone how valuable she is or how much her emotions matter, and this has led her down a path of low self-esteem and self-destruction. At the moment I know that one of the best things I can do for her is to tell her she is has infinite inherent value outside of her beauty and her intellect or how much she produces and that her feelings are never irrelevant. My hope is that “ethical acts will emanate from the body just as heat emanates from light” as Pete says.

      This stance has a place, but it is not the whole picture. I think we can go further. The problem for me is that if we don’t encourage others to take on the teachings and ethics of Jesus we will contently continue practicing our own ethics, and we do a great job of that. If it isn’t broke why fix it. Since we do a great job of living by our own ethics it becomes less likely that the “destructive things we do… can be brought to light.” But when we practice the way of Jesus we have to admit the darkness in ourselves because we can’t always practice the way, and that is why we need the community of love to not condemn us when we fail. Otherwise we continue taking destructive actions but feelings affirmed in our ethical positions. It is only in practicing the way of Jesus in community of “love, grace and acceptance” that we can show our darkness to ourselves and each other and experience transformation where “ethical acts will emanate from the body just as heat emanates from light.”

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  61. Brent Colaw says:

    I agree completely with what what you’ve said about an environment of Grace, and your assertion that creating rules for how we should act is counter-productive. However teaching what Jesus taught or what God compelled His prophets to teach does not equal creating rules. When teaching is done properly we are painting a picture of what the Kingdom life looks like, what our lives will become when we are fully submitted to the Holy Spirit. This kind of teaching is not guilt inducing it is inspiring. It drives people to “remain in the vine” (draw closer to Christ and listen for the Holy Spirits quiet voice) because they want to see fruit and they know fruit cannot be produced by effort but rather it is the result of being connected to the vine. Don’t stop teaching just teach properly in a Grace infused environment.

  62. There are a number of problematic assumptions in this article, some already pointed out by responders:

    1) Following the teachings/ethics of Jesus leads to guilt and repression
    2) Guilt is always a bad thing
    3) An old Lutheran/Augustinian understanding of Paul’s relation to the Law
    4) “love, grace,acceptance” are in opposition to following the teachings of Jesus
    5) “creating a space” for love, grace and acceptance” automatically leads to some kind of general ethics or Christian ethics
    6) love, grace and acceptance are left undefined (tough love? cheap grace? acceptance of any and everything?)

    I will stick with one of Jesus’ parabolic teachings: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

  63. Jim McNeely says:

    Love this post. I have not had time to read all the conversation in the comments but I did browse them. This subject is my main interest in the world. We see a lot of this sentiment: “I agree with grace, but … (insert your gentle anti-grace statement here)”. It just takes a little drop of pee in your coffee to ruin it, and it takes one little exception to grace to nullify it. No, it all must go, every obligation.

    The great command, to love, which is the one all the others derive from, is the one great undoable thing. We cannot force our own affections. If I hold a gun to your head and say, “love me or die,” you may pretend but even under the threat of death you cannot force yourself to love. And so there is no commandment we can do. Under grace we enter completely into a gift culture where all that we must do is receive, and the only currency is unrequired gratitude.

    “In this is love, NOT THAT WE LOVE GOD, but that He loved us, and gave His Son as a propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10

  64. Jim McNeely says:

    I reflected some more on this, sorry to jump in twice. In the Fidelity of Betrayal, Peter makes the point that we can’t help but view the text of scripture orthogonally. I completely embrace this. I view it from the position of 1 John 4:10 as the pivot, and see love as the focus. First I am loved, richly and deeply and greatly. This is the genesis of the meaning of other texts. You also are richly loved, and this is not only meant to be the root and animus of our actions, but the rich soil of our relationship. I am all made of gift, and so are you, and being loved, we give, not because we are coerced, but because it is becoming our joy and our being.

  65. Lance Linderman says:

    Pete- This is extremely thought provoking and was a blessing to read. However, I disagree to some extent and am afraid that this line of thinking can be dangerous. One of the many problems with the church today is that structurally it is set-up to exist predominantly on Sunday for two hours and it has bred a consumeristic congregation as a result. I dont need to give you a lesson on that! As a result now more than ever the world is crying out that we would exchange our hypocrasy and innaction for action and love! it is now more than ever of extreme importance that we structure our “small groups” or “missional communities” or “grace communities” or “gathering” in such a way that it’s very DNA would demand that we be the hands and feet of Jesus and that we would speak the truth with grace. Yes when we teach and practice the very virtues of Christ (ethical principals as you called it) there is for some a growing dissonance that unless dealt with can lead to guilt. But if we don’t teach, practice and build our ways of church around them we will fail miserably. There is no easy way around our call to die to ones self, im all for avoiding the guilt of our brothers with the foundation of grace but not if it cost avoiding truth altogether. There must be balance. Furthermore, i agree that we do not need to tell others what to do. Instead our words need to be replaced with example and action.

  66. Charley Earp says:

    I respectfully disagree that there is a widespread problem of people teaching turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and so on today’s churches. Most churches teach that God is a moral perfectionist who is so outraged at human sins like masturbation that he had to subject his perfect human son to a brutal execution to appease his righteous indignation. If you don’t symbolically consume the blood of this sacrifice, you will fry for an eternity in hell.

    That shit is messed up.

  67. Scott Hall says:

    I agree. Using Jesus primarily as an ethical example, whichever side of the socio-political one might lean, is idolatry and ultimately sets those who interpret Christianity this way up for disappointment. Christianity is unique from other religions in that the “religious” part of Christianity (i.e. the law, or the life of God With Us – Jesus) is used as a diagnostic assessment of the fact that we all fall short of the Glory of God. The cure is the Gospel. Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. Either accept this free gift of God, that is salvation through a crucified perfect Christ, and be regenerated by the Holy Spirit, or reject it and keep trying hard to be perfect in whatever moral framework you might happen to imperfectly operate in.

  68. Tim S. says:

    One thing about what you arre proposing that is radically different than the way we do things now: it requires a profound trust in God. Our reliance on ethics can push God out of the way and substitute the work of the Holy Spirit with our frameworks. I would be really interested to see how this kind of community works.

    Thanks Pete.

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  70. Jim McNeely says:

    I agree Tim – ethics is actually the ultimate idolatry. We split the good into the moral and aesthetic, and read God’s choices the same, so that we can paint God as subject to the higher moral good, and thus worship the dead law instead of the living creator. Much more here if anyone is interested in this line of thought: http://thereforenow.com/2011/11/the-euthyphro-dilemma/

  71. Eric Masson says:

    I do love your reasoning most of the time. This line though is so deeply western-centric that it will eventually fail the universality test. Ask how one would apply this in a community of animistic Sudanese, and the requirement for practical, geographically specific ethics would be compelling. Additionally, I think you limit yourself to the “surfacing” of menial sin. I think all rational communities agree that mortal sin and barbarism must be taught as outside the boundaries of acceptable living; we cannot simply offer passivity in response to malfeasance, abuse, or outright self-mutilation. There must be an ethic, deconstructed, reformable, and adaptable, but an ethic none the less.

    • Peter Rollins says:

      :) That is a bizarrely specific claim! I don’t think I know anything about animistic Sudanese. However I am making a universal claim. I limit myself? It’s a blog post lol!

      However if you want to know more about the broad position I advocate I would recommend Zizek’s book Less than Nothing. The section on Hegel will give you some background to the frame I use.

      • Eric Masson says:

        What I mean is the teaching of ethics is essential in certain communities. There is a balancing act between temporal and geographic ethical teachings and resisting the entropy of foundationalism. Additionally, in communities where the grievances are atrocious and insidious, fear of condemnation may be essential to effect permanent cultural change. In Germany, anti-semitism still exists, but it is illegal to publically deny the holocaust. In America, anti-semitism exists, and it is legal to publically deny the holocaust. Perhaps that may change someday, but the particular history of that nation compels the teaching of a clear prohibition against certain horrific sins. In a sense, I agree Christian ethics that become modernistic bricks in a community become relics of idolatry. However, developing ethics as a response to community needs is the responsibility of the episcopality, in whatever form they appear in your neighborhood.

        To use your example, a pastor may teach her congregation that knowingly purchasing shirts made in sweat shops can be unethical. This is a dangerously precarious teaching if condemnation follows for someone who, say, bought the only shirt she could afford.

        However, a pastor may teach her congregation that it is unethical to hide or coverup the sexual abuse of children. If it later comes to light that a person hid sexual abuse of a child to protect the perpetrator, condemnation would be the appropriate response. In the latter case, a clear Christian ethic is appropriate and, perhaps, even essential. There are certain behaviors that must illicit strong, clear condemnation.

  72. Dale Short says:

    Mr. Rollins: My two cents…

    I’m reminded of the verse from Proverbs, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” I believe this blog argument “seems” right to us because it embraces human nature and pragmatism.

    There’s nothing practical about Jesus’s teachings, and I believe that’s because he offered a path for learning to reject the human-nature autopilot we live on. If he didn’t come to change everything, then he’s just an odd footnote in history. We can’t have it both ways. If you choose not to follow Jesus’s example, that’s your business. But don’t claim the imprimatur of his teachings; that’s patently dishonest, if nothing else.

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  75. Joseph says:

    “The desire to have ethical rules to follow tends to lead to the action they forbid. This causes the spiral into guilt, repression and disavowed symptoms.” Specious reasoning and generalization that cannot be demonstrated as fact. Ultimately you can only make this assertion for yourself. Not everyone will have the same problem.

    • Peter Rollins says:

      I recommend that you listen to the interview I gave in order to get a little more background to the argument. Levinas, Caputo and Lacan are important sources in this area.

  76. Patrick Marshall says:

    I’m working through Richard Rohr’s book Simplicity, and right after re-reading this post, I picked up Rohr’s book and read this paragraph which, I think, says what you are saying:

    “I don’t believe that Jesus had a plan of what the perfect society was supposed to look like. In any case this plan isn’t evident from the New Testament. Instead, Jesus gave us a process, a way of hearing, a way of union, a way enabling us to look past the world of appearances and to press forward to the truth. To be free and empty of oneself, free not to make an idol of any system, is real freedom that makes community possible.”

    I’d be interested to get your take on this, Peter. Is this in line with what you’re suggesting, or does “the way” that Rohr mentions end up constituting an ethic in itself?

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  79. Erika Rae says:

    I’ve never seen this idea put in these terms before, but I’ve got to say that it excites the hell out of me.

    Here’s the thing – I’ve had this growing feeling that there is something destructive to the psyche about obligatory church attendance (you know…attend every Sunday+ or else). I’ve felt that the problem with this cultural norm primarily is a focus on one’s own soul at the expense of what a person *could* be doing with that time, as per the ethics taught by Jesus. (i.e. – glutting one’s own soul while allowing the literal starvation of others to go on around us without actually doing anything about it.)

    But of course, ‘giving up church’ insofar as belonging to a faith community is concerned isn’t the answer, either. If I stop going – expecting that I am going to match the time I would have spent in church or church-related activities hour for hour with, say, community service, and then fail (which, *of course* I would fail because wow I love my Sunday morning latte), then what does that do to my psyche in terms of guilt produced? Does it shut me down more – or does it inspire me to try harder?

    Anyway. I’m quite possibly rambling – but this is something that has been rolling through my head lately.

    Thanks, Pete for writing this. Good solid food for thought – and I appreciate your suggested solution.

  80. Peter,

    I’m a bit late to this article/discussion–and I rarely ever read or comment on blogs now’days, but this particular article was recommended by a friend and has struck somewhat of a chord with me as it relates to my present circumstances. This comment will be far too long, but it’s late in the game and most have probably moved on from the post all together.

    I’m a live-in staff member of a transition home for ex-prisoners re-entering society, addicts, and former homeless men. We are small (five of us together), and our primary focus is creating a place for individuals to find the freedom to be themselves–to come to a self-understanding that is not defined by their past or societal labels, etc.

    That being said, there are a number of rules we have at the house (no drug or alcohol use, curfew, etc etc). While I don’t believe these rules form the heart of our community, they do set a certain standard and there is a level of expectation that, to be a part of this community, one must at the very least strive to follow the rules and be honest when they fall short of them.

    I also know many individuals who have formed small communities, mostly of friends and married couples, most of whom usually have some similar religious conviction to one degree or another. Most of them also seem to claim to have a certain ethic. They tend to shy away from guidelines in favor of more of an “understanding” based on love, hospitality, simplicity, and so forth–in other words, they try to “create an atmosphere of love, grace, and acceptance where people are not told what to do.” Quite often they fail miserably, getting at each others’ necks before too long. There’s also, often times, a certain degree of sexual promiscuity amongst the group that tends to lead toward a great deal of crippling drama and tension. Enough of that, and soon people can’t stand to even be in the room with one other!

    All that to say, I’m not so sure that we stand and fall by the rules we do or do not create, but by how willing we are to ascend to these rules, and how willing we are to look into what the rules really are and why they are in place.

    Now, I know that’s somewhat off your point, and for that I apologize. So, more to the point.

    Perhaps the problem is not in the ethical teachings of Jesus, but in so many individuals attempt to construct a framework around them so as to distance themselves from them. It seems to me quite preposterous to think that Jesus had any kind of ethical system in mind, be it a system of rules, goals, or virtues. But I also think it’s a bit short-sighted to think that he wouldn’t have expected those who made a claim to want to follow him to live up to certain expectations–at least as far as they were willing.

    The rich young ruler claimed to have met the expectations of the law, which he was also willing to give authority to, so Jesus tells him to go one step further and he couldn’t do it–which, I think, says more about what the man should be claiming about himself than it does a flaw in the law or a flaw in Jesus’ command that the man should have become poor.

    I suppose my problem isn’t with the perceived difficult in following the ethical teachings of Jesus, but the insistence of so many individuals that they are following his teachings. My problem isn’t with someone claiming that we should create communities based on love and acceptance and so forth, but in their claim that said communities should be created and then the lack of their willingness to create them.

    One should feel guilty at their inaction–I don’t think guilt is bad or wrong–no, more often then not it is an appropriate ethical emotion that, when processed properly, can and should lead to a personal, inward, passionate ethical conviction. Repressing one’s guilt is problematic, quite obviously, but that is possibility often actualized, though not a necessity.

    I don’t have a problem with the rules of the Catholic church, which you use as an example (though I do not personally agree with very many of them), but I do find it problematic that so many within the church claim to believe in the power of these laws and rules, yet fail to live up to them, and then fail to be honest with themselves and with others and with God when they fall short of them.

    Rules or not, strict guidelines or not, the problem lies in each individuals willingness to hold themselves to whatever it is they claim to believe. I would rather a person say to hell with Jesus and his teachings because they’re too difficult and I just don’t want to do it than to soften the edges or to make certain claims but do otherwise.

    I don’t think I’m so much disagreeing with what you’re getting at, only that an individual maintaining their own ethical principles is a good thing, and it isn’t threatened by ethical systems so long as the individual is following through inwardly and passionately. A person’s own ethical principles are not always based on a specific structure or framework from outside of themselves.

    At the transition home, each individual believes in those ethical guidelines inwardly and passionately because there is something very serious at stake, personally and communally, if they botch it up. It is the responsibility of all of us to be there in love and grace when they do so–but to think that eliminating those guidelines, on an individual or communal level, would somehow help them through recovery seems to be hovering in the clouds far above the trenches from which we live and work.

    Perhaps its all fine for those individuals privileged enough to have addictions that aren’t illegal, or that have become so ingrained into our present age that they’re even encouraged–but more often then not I don’t think it’s guilt that leads to repression but denial of guilt that leads to repression, denial of responsibility for our actions and inactions, and our willingness to sit and talk about our problems when we aren’t the ones facing any real consequences for them.


  81. De'Juan says:

    “The trick is to create an atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance where people are not told what to do. Where people learn that heresy which claims that, while not everything is beneficial, everything is permissible. In other words, while there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation.”

    Agreed. And this is the problem: you can’t do any of this in an atmosphere of sin, condemnation, Original Sin, Hell, and salvation, which are all core tenants of the Christian faith.

    In other words, to ethically live in Love, Grace, and Acceptance as described above, you have to stop being a Christian.

    I should say, it’s a problem for Christians; I decided to be a loving and ethical person long ago when I decided to stop being a Christian.

    • You’re completely right, so long as we agree to change the definitions for words like “core tenants”, “Christian faith”, “salvation” etc.

      For someone who claims to actually exist as “a loving and ethical person” your language of what people HAVE to do, i.e., “have to stop being a Christian,” is rather questionable. But who am I to say?

      Anyway, kudos to you for your decision to be loving and ethical. I’m glad you’ve figured out such a quick and easy way to achieve something that so many people think is a task for a lifetime.

      • Jim McNeely says:

        I think he is responding to DeJuan. I don’t think you did any of those things!

        • Peter Rollins says:

          Oh dear. I use an app on my phone to look at comments sometimes and it mustn’t tell me if something is a reply or an original comment! I thought it was directed at me. Thanks for pointing this out. I deleted it!

  82. Pingback: Oley Valley Mennonite » Blog Archive » Monday Morning Quarterback — July 15, 2012

  83. Pingback: Pare de ensinar a ética de Jesus | Pavablog

  84. Sylvia Payne says:

    We can choose to be right or to be compassionate, but not both at the same time. This is my main problem with most belief systems as they are practiced today. A state of grace cannot co-exist with judgement.

    Your writings also remind me of this author: “Some who support [more] coercive strategies assume that children will run wild if they are not controlled. However, the children for whom this is true typically turn out to be those accustomed to being controlled— those who are not trusted, given explanations, encouraged to think for themselves, helped to develop and internalize good values, and so on. Control breeds the need for more control, which is used to justify the use of control.”
    ― Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’S, Praise and Other Bribes

  85. Pingback: Grace vs ethical rules « The Mystery of Christ

  86. Chris says:

    I love beggars. Jesus was a beggar and so am I.

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