Sheep, Goats, and Ethics From Powerlessness

I hate how Christian ethics is done.

And I admit when I say this, I may not fully appreciate or understand Christian ethics as it has historically been done. But I hate what I understand.

And this is what I understand.

Christian ethics privileges and empowers action. It does so by making the identity and intention of the actor, rather than the relational nature of the action taken (its effects and consequences, intended and unintended), as the focus of contemplation. What matters most is “good people” (always self-identified) acting with the best intentions (again, always self-identified) to better the lives or well-being of others.

This bothers me because it fails to appreciate how relational an act is. If a person chooses to express their love for others or concern for the world through the exercise of some kind of power (state power or social power), then there will be coercion or violence involved. And coercion or violence can easily be, well, “misunderstood” as something other than love or compassion.

And then the self-centered nature of the Christian ethical conversation — it’s all about how the actor felt and meant, rather than what the actor actually did — becomes clear.

This is ethics from power. From a position of power, that insists acting is possible, and thus always the more moral course than not acting. I suppose it makes sense, given that Christian ethics arose is Christendom, contrived by powerful people to justify the exercise of power, to provide justification and salve consciences that acts clearly harmful, destructive, or even downright murderous were somehow “moral.”

I don’t like ethics from power. And I don’t think the Bible, to the extent that it is even a guide to ethical behavior, gives us an ethic from power.

Rather, scripture gives us an ethic from powerlessness.

That is the story of God’s people in scripture — not actors, but acted upon. Not subjects, but objects. Not as a powerful nation, but one besieged, conquered, exiled. By God, who tells them several times, from the Red Sea (explicitly) to Golgotha, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.”

What might an ethic from powerlessness look like?

How about Matthew 25 and the story Jesus tells of the final judgement?

(31) “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  (32) Before him will be gathered lall the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates nthe sheep from the goats.  (33) And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  (34) Then othe King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you ufrom the foundation of the world.  (35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  (36) I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  (37) Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  (38) And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  (39) And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ (40) And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these dmy brothers, you did it to me.’   (41) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (42) For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  (43) I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  (44) Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  (45) Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  (46) And these will go away kinto eternal punishment, but the righteous kinto leternal life.”

Now, a lot hinges in our reading of this in who we see ourselves as and where. For good Lutherans, who believe deeply in unearned salvation by God’s Grace, this is a disturbing passage, for it suggests that those on the left and those on the right somehow earn their eternal fates through their deeds.

And let’s set that aside for a minute.

Mostly, I’ve heard this interpreted as a prompting to act, that most Christians see themselves as either potential sheep or possible goat. That this judgement is for them, and that Jesus was telling his disciples how to act in the world. We should feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so forth. This is fine as it goes, all of these are acts we can do in love and mercy for the world. There’s no real conflict with  anything else Jesus ever taught in Matthew (or elsewhere).

But the passage comes after a long series of things Jesus tells his disciples about the end of the age, the coming of the tribulation and the Son of Man, the cursing of the fig tree (which may or may not represent the Temple in Jerusalem), and the parable of the foolish and the wise virgins. And all of these are things Jesus is describing will happen either around or to the church. Things which we as God’s people will simply watch, powerless to do anything about or even know when they are coming.

Yes, Jesus admonishes those who wait to fill their lamps. Possibly by doing deeds of love.

But I think there’s another way to read what’s going on at the judgement of the world.

It all hinges on who we think “the least of these” are. If they are others, not us, then we are in the running to be sheep or goats, depending on how we act.

But what if “the least of these” is us? The church? The followers of Jesus?

And in this, Jesus is assuring the church that in the midst of the horrible things happening in the world, there will be some kindness, some mercy, some compassion shown to his people. And that, on some level, the world will be judged by how it treats the church.

Not by how much power or privilege it gives us, not by allowing us “religious freedom.” But by simple acts of kindness that defy the violence of the world.

So, how does this relate to ethics? Simply this: by being the church, we provide the world a chance to meet Jesus. Not through our words or our testimony, our desire (or call) to make disciples, but in the misfortune of our lives, by being a people in need, subjects of power (rather than objects), poor, sick, imprisoned. This is one way way show the world who God is, and how to respond to God. In this, Jesus tells us there will be sheep and goats — those who respond with kindness and mercy and those who do not. We will receive much, and some of it will be exactly what we need.

Again, a hard reading for many Western Christians, who wish to give rather than receive, who wish to be hosts rather than guests, because power and privilege are inseparable from hospitality and charity. And, after all, aren’t most of us we relatively well-off white people, ridden by guilt, who somehow need to assuage our consciences and deal with our power? Aren’t we self-sufficient? Don’t we have what the world wants, needs, desires?

It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and. Once, I preached on a story I edited for The Saudi Gazette about Muslim charities in Jeddah striving to help homeless and impoverished Saudi widows by giving them a place to live and some skills to earn a meager living.

“Even though there are no followers of Jesus anywhere in this, can we say with any confidence that the widows aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet those who help them, and those who help aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet people in their need?” my sermon went. “Because I see Jesus throughout, and I trust that God, and grace, are present.”

It’s hard to lay down power and privilege. We’d rather disperse it more democratically, so all have equal amounts. Maybe that’s possible, but I don’t think so. Which is why I see Jesus calling us to powerlessness, to be “the least of these” in a world that has never much cared for the least of anything. To take that risk, knowing we have the assurance of God that we will be cared for. Whatever happens.

We may be objects. But we are the objects of God’s love.