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Why the Ethics of John are Dangerous for Both the Church and Political Discourse

October 11, 2013

Few writings have shaped orthodox Christian doctrine or the popular Christian imagination as much as the Gospel of John and its story of an enfleshed God who stepped down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Apart from John’s presentation of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine Chalcedon ever happening. And if you have been exposed to much teaching or preaching within contemporary Christianity, you have no doubt heard language and themes drawn largely from the Gospel of John. (I often tell my students that John, along with Paul’s letter to the Romans, are the two most foundational NT writings shaping both early doctrinal developments and the current American Christian ethos).

Against the backdrop of John’s importance within contemporary American Christianity, I see a significant problem which goes largely undiagnosed. One characteristic feature of John’s Gospel is its use of dualistic language to tell the story of Jesus. We see this from the beginning of the narrative: the Word is the “light of humanity” which “darkness” has not overcome (1:5). Jesus is “from above” and he has entered the realm “below” to fulfill his mission. Were we to draw the picture comprehensively, we would have to look at the language of truth v. falsehood (also present in the Epistles of John); flesh v. spirit, and on and on. In my opinion, this sort of language is often swept uncritically into the Christian lexicon without the necessary attention given to the rest of the NT which, by and large, does not work in such extremes. A simple comparison of Jesus’ teaching in John with his teaching in the Synoptics will easily support this point. So here’s the undiagnosed problem as I see it:

Given the Gospel’s influence, many Christians are led to the uncritical stance that the external world is to be regarded in the same extremes we see in John’s story of Jesus. And in my experience, this also creates an ethical dualism in which individuals are only able to conceive of ideas or proffer opinions rooted in right v. wrong,  good v. evil, black v. white, or whatever dualism you prefer. This creates an imbalance in which Johannine ethics become the dominant way of thinking about the world and people. (I can already hear some of my colleagues objecting that this statement is ironic since there has been much discussion over whether there is any such thing as ethical material in the Gospel; I think there is by the way). This sort of either/or thinking is dangerous in virtually every area of discussion, but I think it has the potential to be even more destructive in the context of current American political discourse. Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).

Political discourse in the US needs no help thinking in such extremes, but the introduction of Christian language in current political squabbles only serves to confirm my suspicion that American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament. Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2013 4:47 pm

    It is exactly this dualism a strict good vs. evil that George W. Bush employed after 9/11. Look at the dangers and situations that created. A concrete example: if the good-evil binary is the primary constitution of our ethics, then how do we deal with a Edward Snowden, or a Chelsea Manning?

  2. October 11, 2013 6:16 pm

    Wow, Chris! If I might add just a few remarks to this extraordinary piece: the good news as I see it is two-fold: (1) that there are relatively few loons around like Bachman and Jordan, and (2) that there are those of other faiths (notably now the Muslim Malali), who put the lie to GJn’s polarizing claim that only those who believe in Jesus will see “the Father”.

  3. Aaron permalink
    October 11, 2013 7:37 pm

    I am but a simple Christian. I study, what I can, to learn more. I do not read (nor speak), Greek, Latin, Aramaic, or Hebrew. My application of my faith runs on simple lines of “does this make sense” in my life and experience. I am criminal justice person, and one who studies the Christian faith from my simple way. To the angst of some, I am actually spiritually happy with that.
    As usual, Chris you are one of my favorite religion writers. I am glad I get the opportunity to read your material. As a CJ person, I commend this statement, “Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).” The argument of separation has been beat to death. The important part is the “religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country”. I applaud that statement. This is the reason I believe the founding fathers had a no establishment (separation is not in there) clause in the Amendment.
    I like to believe that they knew someone was going to try and force a religious government in the future. They did not believe that religion should be separated, but rather controlled. This supports your thought that “Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.” Before I end up writing too much, I will end. Good job my friend.

  4. October 11, 2013 8:04 pm

    Sorry for getting the name wrong. See http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-october-8-2013/malala-yousafzai

  5. October 11, 2013 8:42 pm

    Resonating with these thoughts… thanks for posting! I’m wondering though… might the problem not lie with John’s Jesus or with the Fourth Gospel itself, but with the reading? I do understand and appreciate the concern that “American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament.” But if we were to attend more diligently to the way the Johannine narrative works to break down the very dualities it sets up, perhaps we would find Johannine ethics less dangerous. If we can figure out how to approach the ethics of John (which I agree is there), if we can find a way to articulate the ethical reflection/ethical force that is woven into the narrative – perhaps we would actually find a great resource and a more flexible ethic than is expressed elsewhere in the NT Canon. Big “if”s… but worth trying!

    • October 11, 2013 10:15 pm

      Your comment strikes me as very insightful. I wish we were sitting down over coffee at the moment as I would very much like to hear more from you on this. Thanks for weighing in.

  6. Josh permalink
    October 11, 2013 8:52 pm

    It’s also possible people with this problem just aren’t reading John very well …

  7. Clay Daniel permalink
    October 11, 2013 11:35 pm

    So well put, Chris–thank you. I completely agree that, because political culture is adversarial by nature, its participants find it easy to overstate difference and play demagogue with the polarities. Baptizing our political squabbles with John’s antitheses is a dangerous practice, I agree.

    But if our political culture overstates the antitheses of the gospel, the rest of our culture is in much more danger of understating them. Yes, the Synoptics are different from John, but those differences can be overplayed as well. As I listen to our leading lights and my own generational peers and then read the New Testament, I am struck by how ubiquitous these polarities are in the NT–even in the Synoptics. Our contemporary discomfort with them only draws them in sharper relief.

    And a good thing, too, for is salvation not a radical thing? These polarities remind us of the mire from which we’ve been drawn and the grace in which we stand. No wonder, then, that John is at the heart of the modern Christian ethos–and that’s much more a good thing than bad. Only through Jesus do we see the Father: yes and amen! Without that polarity we have no hope.

  8. October 11, 2013 11:55 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Chris. This post evokes the statement by E. Käsemann that “[f]rom the historical viewpoint, the Church committed an error when it declared the Gospel [of John] to be orthodox” (_The Testament of Jesus_, 1).

  9. Michael Gorman permalink
    October 13, 2013 5:18 am

    Chris, I’m intrigued but not persuaded by your comments/concerns. Ethical dualism in the NT is hardly limited to John, and in contrast to the DSS, the light-darkness language of John and 1 John, at the end of the day, is world-affirming rather than negating, and displays the possibility of sin running right through the leading disciples. So while I understand the potential dangers, I’m not sure they are as great as you suggest, and I’m not sure the church should back off John just because George Bush or whoever has abused the biblical text (probably not John) in constructing a political ideology. If the church responded in that way to all misuse of the Bible, we’d have a very small canon or canon within the canon. I’d be interested in your further thoughts.

    • October 13, 2013 10:44 am

      Mike, thanks for taking the time to reply to my post. I am not suggesting that the church should “back off John” nor do I think that John’s dualistic language is, in and of itself, a bad thing. My point is that we have let John’s dualistic presentation of the cosmos dominate our thinking as Christians to the point that we have neglected other (less black-and-white) portions of the NT. I also agree that the dualism in John is world-affirming, but when read against the backdrop of Romans 1-3 (as so many of my friends, students, church friends seem to do), John’s dualistic language is misinterpreted and turned into a warped way of looking at the entire world. Perhaps I am reading too much of my recent experience with people into my reflections, but I am surprised you don’t see this tendency I have described as pervasive in both church and society. Also, the title of my post is intentionally provocative. I figured more people would click on a link with such an unqualified assertion. 🙂

  10. October 14, 2013 3:42 am

    I’m dubious of the notion that Johannine dualism informs modern discourse to the extent you imply. People by nature tend to be dualistic. We love forming in- and out-groups, we love binary thinking, we love black and white simplicity. Excise John from the canon and Christians would still go busily about their business of dividing the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the spirit from the flesh, etc. Sure, Johannine thought may provide implicit support for existing dualistic tendencies, but it’s hardly the root of the problem.

    • October 14, 2013 11:54 am

      Dan, thanks for taking the time to reply. I am not attempting to make a simple causal argument. Rather, I am saying that Johannine dualism is one factor contributing to our inability to have political and religious discussions with the appropriate level of nuance and qualification. Also, I don’t necessarily agree that people are by nature dualistic. I do think this is endemic to a western, and specifically North American worldview. I have lived in other cultures (specifically in the middle east) and didn’t observe a consistent tendency for people to oversimplify and provide a false choice in religious and/or political discourse. Thanks again for taking the time to read and reflect.

  11. John permalink
    October 14, 2013 5:22 am

    Does this apply here?
    I John 1:5 5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

    Dallas Willard makes a big deal of this in The Divine Conspiracy.

  12. October 14, 2013 8:45 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I appreciate your thoughts; I agree and disagree. From my perspective the current political morass in Washington finds more of its source in Modernist dualism and political zero-sum games than in the Johannine corpus. Doubtless, Christians may be influenced by John’s writings and the church has very often interpreted them as a right/wrong dichotomy.

    It’s important to note, however, that John was dealing with Christ through the lens of Platonic philosophy (Jesus-as-logos) and thus the dichotomy is less right/wrong and more ideal/flawed. That the Church has misinterpreted the texts (and it must said, so too has Christian academia) is the fault of interpreters and not the texts themselves. We are the ones not revealing the nuanced mosaic of Jesus, not John.

    • October 14, 2013 9:43 pm

      Michael, thanks very much for reading. I reiterate here, something I said in a previous reply: I am not arguing for a strict causal relationship between John’s discourse and the overemphasis on dualistic polarities in American politics. I am merely trying to point out one factor that (as I see it) complicates the Christian entrance into the political realm in the US. As for John’s use of Platonic philosophy, I am afraid we will have to agree to disagree. In the Johannine Prologue I see (as do many other contemporary scholars), a quite clear intertextual interaction with Genesis 1. The LOGOS is more related to the God who speaks (LXX: LEGO), and thereby creates both light and life (two important things YHWH creates in the chapter). Thanks again for reading!

  13. October 14, 2013 9:34 pm

    This is a silly article. Can anyone imagine having an open-minded discussion on the moral nuances of child beating, senior citizen mugging, or animal torture? It’s obvious that black and white moral issues do exist, which is exactly what John was pointing to. That this deluded pseudo-scholar can’t see that is more of a testament to his lack of intellectual acumen than anything else.

    • October 14, 2013 10:57 pm

      wordsmith321, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I’m afraid you haven’t caught my meaning, so allow me an opportunity to clarify. In my comments, I am not suggesting that there are no such things as black and white moral issues. I believe there are. The point I am trying to make is that not everything boils down to such simple division. There are many issues (especially those that touch on theology and politics) that are incredibly complex. Perhaps these comments will help you understand my intention a little better. Thanks again for taking the time to read.

  14. Patrick permalink
    October 18, 2013 3:12 pm

    Context is important here. John is writing about( I believe) mainly a spiritual warfare between what he perceives as “God’s authentic Israel”(believers in Jesus as Messiah) versus “inauthentic Israel” fakes who reject Jesus as Messiah and rely only on their first birth assets.

    That specific generation does have a sin liability God required of them(and warned them of in Torah) and a spiritual blindness that no other group ever did or ever will possess. Jesus made this clear in Matthew as well as John.

    That dichotomy is part of this entirely black and white mantra, IMO.

    Having said this, if we only have John to study, even there it is as clear that God so loved the entire world He gave His Son for it and prayed for the very men who murdered Him.

    So, all humanity has a value because of Christ that is incalculable by the human mind, including Caiaphas and Hitler or any other “bad people” . Loving them is our job and I get that from John, so I see no problem if John is all I have.

    Superficial Christians are the problem, not John. I ought to know, I have been one for around 40 years now.

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