Yesterday we looked at the cultural mandate as part of the Creation Commandments, as discussed in John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It. Today we turn to the other part of the Creation Commandments, “The Great Commandments.”
The Great Commadments
Drawing on the teaching of the Torah, Jesus identified the greatest commandments as loving God and loving neighbor as our self. However, Stackhouse sees this pair as implicit in relationships extending back to the Garden of Eden. Thus, they are part of the Creation Commandments.
Three implications. First, these two commandments are the core of all ethical considerations. Stackhouse emphasizes again that loving God or neighbor is not an antithesis to loving ourselves. Because we are all part of matrix of relationships our welfare is inextricably linked to the welfare of others. Obedience to these commands creates win-win-win situations.
Second, love is about positive action, not merely avoiding sin. He writes, “Our mission is to get things done, not to avoid getting dirty, or bloody, in the process—and … we must recognize that loving God and one’s neighbor in this troubled and troubling world often entails dirt and blood.” (211)
He dwells on this second implication. One concern he has is the view that individuals are to be loving to each other but, “... the lesser standard of justice is applied to governments and other secular institutions.” (211) Justice alone won’t cut it. Love must be expressed through these institutions. He emphasizes that by “love” he does not mean personal affection but “… rather, to benefit the other beyond his or her just deserts. Business, schools, hospitals, and governments, among other collectivities, can indeed love in this sense.” (212)
Stackhouse offers the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Germany and Europe after World War II. Yes, the U. S. garnered geopolitical benefits but others benefited enormously from the plan as well. “To benefit from an act of love doesn’t make it less loving or less shalom-producing.” (212) We are not God and our resources are not unlimited, but we often can promote a measure of shalom through collective efforts.
The Sermon on the Mount is revisited. He makes the case that Jesus’ examples are not life-threatening contexts. The core ethic is about going beyond what is strictly necessary to express the love of God to enemies. There is danger in generalizing from these teachings to instances of extreme danger or police action.
Third, our neighbors do the will of God when they love God and neighbor, and we can cooperate with them in their work. Discernment is clearly needed in knowing how to partner. “Indeed, part of exercising dominion over the world is to engage in such discernment, for we are responsible to cultivate the good and weed out the bad as best we can.” (215)
At this juncture (page 215), Stackhouse introduces a lengthy footnote where he takes Yoder, Hauerwas, and many Anabaptists to task for their refusal to participate in various aspects of government and society . They would say that Christian Realists are not fully obeying God but Stackhouse counters that the cultural mandate compels us to exercise dominion over the earth, that all powers are under Christ, and that the body of Christ is mandated (via the cultural mandate) to participate in authority bearing structures in pursuit of a more shalom-filled world. He offers a great quote by Oliver O’Donovan (Desire of the Nations, 12), “The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael or Jehu.”
I have considerable appreciation for significant portions of Anabaptist teaching but two area’s cause me to part ways. One is that I do not believe the “two Kingdoms” can be so neatly delineated, and behavior segregated, as some Anabaptists suggest. The other is that, assuming we could discern the lines, I don’t buy the separatist mandate in light of the cultural mandate that Stackhouse identifies.
One area where I might part with Stackhouse (more in degree, probably, than in outright disagreement) is his optimism about large institutions, especially government, doing good. I don’t deny that these institutions have obligations beyond minimal justice. I would simply argue that love is best and most constructively expressed at the level of close community relationships (i.e., family, church, friends) and other entities exist in a subsidiary role to these localized networks of human relationships.
Here I’m thinking all the way back to Aristotle’s response to Plato’s notion of taking children from parents to be raised in a collective where no child would be given familial advantage. Aristotle countered that the biological bond of parents to children inspires parents to provide, care, and sacrifice for children in a way no collective could equal. Whatever gains might be had by equalizing opportunities would be much less than the advantage of the devotion of adults to children through familial ties. On the whole, we are best cared for by those to we are related and in close community with.
Some government programs, in my estimation, can have a corrosive effect on familial/community ties to the point where family and community networks become peripheral, if not superfluous, to our lives. While I can endorse that government has role beyond minimal justice, considerable discernment is needed to avoid doing harm, much less to being able to do good.