How do you develop a ‘theology of grey areas’?

by John Howard.

When the powerful King David arranges for the death of Uriah the Hittite because he fancied Uhiah’s wife, the prophet Nathan condemns David for what he has done. It was brave of Nathan to do so but the issue was pretty clear. The powerful David abused his power to get what he wanted. Likewise John the Baptist was courageous in criticising Herod for his immoral behaviour. The powerful behaving badly is rightly condemned.

But what happens when the poor, the weak or the powerless behave badly? Rahab the prostitute is justified by her taking in of the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2). Subsequently through this act she is seen to have been complicit in genocide, but she is not condemned for this. It seems that as she is on the winner’s side – it is all justified!

Is this really how God sees things? Because Rahab was on ‘God’s side’ she can’t do a thing wrong? Surely that’s not how God sees it – even if it was how the writers of the book of Joshua saw it. She was poor, she was vulnerable but that can’t mean that she is innocent of moral wrong.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 & 6) challenges us to be on the side of the poor and the powerless. But how do we continue to support the poor and the powerless when they act unjustly? How do we act when others we are working with compromise their principals because of the extreme situations they find themselves in, through no fault of their own?

What does the Sermon on the Mount say about people who are poor and corrupt? Jesus’s teaching to the crowd is simply ‘Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt. 5.48)

Few modern day political issues are pure right and wrong. Take the issue that I spend a considerable amount of my time and energy on – the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It is very clear who the weak and the powerless are – the Palestinians. There is huge injustice done to powerless Palestinians, the Israeli army acts in terribly unethical ways, but there is still much in Israel that is good. The treatment of the LGBTQi community is hugely better than takes place in Gaza or the West Bank. There is corruption in the Israeli Government, but it is as nothing compared to the corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Where do we look in the bible to find a ‘theology of grey areas’ that addresses such issues?

In his sermon on love, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of the primacy of love and seems to acknowledge the imperfection of the aspects of faith that are otherwise considered good. There is perhaps a recognition here of ‘grey area’: ‘As for tongues they will cease, as for knowledge it will come to an end… when the perfect comes the imperfect will pass away.’ The imperfect is transient, there will come a time when such dilemmas are past – but for the moment we have to deal with them.

In the letters to Timothy we have advice to a young leader in the church which recognises the extent to which those we work with – in Timothy’s case members of his church – might well fall short of what we might hope. In 2 Timothy 2 the writer addresses the relationship between the Christian pastor and those who fall short. The advice seems to be ‘(you) must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient correcting opponents with gentleness’(2:24). The advice then is to address the grey areas but in no way compromise with them. Can that be taken as suggesting that in our dealings with the poor and the powerless who are violent or dishonest, we are required to sustain the relationship with them but be careful to distance ourselves from the violence or dishonesty? That seems fine – until you are in the midst of a violent disturbance unjustly inflicted upon your colleagues, who react to defend themselves and in doing so behave less than perfectly. Standing by someone in the fight inevitably brings you into the fight itself, for right or wrong.

But the approach that makes no compromise of love seems to reflect Paul’s attitude elsewhere when he asserts the manner of Christian behaviour without making any compromises for relationships with those who behave in non-Christian ways.  We see Paul expounding this view in Ephesians 4.17 – 5.20: So then, putting away falsehood let all of speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another’(4.25).

It also seems to be the approach taken by James in chapter 2 of his letter. Here he speaks about behaving towards the rich and the poor without prejudice. He speaks about the rich as oppressors and so it is not too large a leap to suggest that he would take a similar approach for other oppressors – such as occupying forces. Here we might also make a link to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5.39). Each takes the very hard approach that the Christian response is always to uphold the integrity and honesty even in the most extreme of situations. One might wonder what Paul would say to refugees starving for want of the generosity of neighbours – is stealing food still theft?

Essentially this brings me to a very uncomfortable place. The biblical approach seems to be that Christians compromised by the behaviour of their non-Christian friends in struggles between the powerful and the powerless still need to uphold the highest principals of moral behaviour, turning the other cheek, sustaining non-violence, refusing to demonise the enemy, love even those who abuse their power over you, even if this then alienates you from your allies.

4 thoughts on “How do you develop a ‘theology of grey areas’?”

  1. There is an interesting difference between the ways that Nathan and John the Baptist approach the wrongdoings they encounter. Nathan challenges an example of behaviour and then points out that David has transgressed his own standards. John the Baptist accuses Herod of being immoral. Advice to young teachers is that one should never label a child as being ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’ or ‘a bully’. It is the behaviour that is unacceptable, not the child. It is the failure to follow this approach that leads to individuals, groups or even whole nations to be demonized, and then sadly to be regarded as appropriate targets for retributive violence.

    The comment has been made that “the Christian response is always to uphold the integrity and honesty even in the most extreme of situations.” But what happens when this conflicts with love? Is being brutally honest always the right approach? Even when it hurts people? At what point does pride in our own integrity have to give way to consideration of the impact of what we say?

    Rotary International has a Four-way test:
    “Of the things we think, say or do:
    1. Is it the truth?
    2. Is it fair to all concerned?
    3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
    4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”

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  2. That comment – “the Christian response is always to uphold the integrity and honesty even in the most extreme of situations” – gave me pause for thought too. The idea that we should state the “truth” whatever the consequences generally conflicts with the injunction to love our neighbour.
    It helps me to make sense of this by making a clear distinction between motivation and practice. The motivation is to treat the person before me as worthy of unconditional love, inclusive and non-judgmental. In practice, being aware of the social consequences of endorsing the sin or transgression, I must turn the discussion to consideration of justice and fairness. In my experience even small children understand this, and say, “that’s not fair!”.
    Incidentally this is not just a Christian dilemma but universal and secular. It requires self-control and forgiveness, and yet is simply part of what it is to be human.

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  3. “The highest principals of moral behaviour, turning the other cheek, sustaining non-violence, refusing to demonise the enemy, love even those who abuse their power over you.”
    Are these still the highest principles when the one suffering injustice or physical hurt is not you personally but someone else? Do you take a non-violence approach when you come across a young girl being abused or threatened with rape or being mugged? Is it morally any different if it is an ethnic group or a small country being abused, bullied or having their possessions stolen by a more powerful group or country? Would you blame the girl if she used a pepper spray to defend herself? Do the ethnic group being abused or the country having its possessions stolen not have the right to defend themselves?

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