An Autobiographical Word
Overall Vision: To offer faithful service to Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom through scholarship, teaching, and activism in Christian Ethics.
My work is rooted in a vision of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught it. (See Kingdom Ethics). This Kingdom or reign of God involves God’s reclaiming of his entire rebellious and suffering creation, through the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians are nothing other than Christ-followers; that is, those who follow Jesus Christ in joyful involvement in Kingdom work.
The Kingdom of God is something that God does, and yet human beings are invited to participate in this joyful effort alongside and in fidelity to God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We believe that God will ultimately triumph and bring in his reign; but we know that God is looking for co-participants in these redemptive efforts. We also know that God is not a deus ex machina who does it all for his creatures, and that we dare not succumb to laziness or complacency as we wait for God to take care of the messes that we create with our sin.
My sense of vocation is rooted in a series of calls: to follow Christ as a disciple, to serve in full-time ministry, to teach, and then to pursue the field of Christian ethics. These calls came consecutively between the ages of 16 and 25 and remain anchor points for my life and work today.
I was trained as a Christian ethicist in the Union Seminary (NY) tradition, with a special assist from a version of the Baptist and Union tradition mediated by Glen Stassen, now of Fuller Seminary. This tradition at its best emphasizes being rooted in a serious study of Scripture, centered on Jesus Christ, historically sensitive, socially engaged, and politically active. The goal is to produce Christian disciples who will discern the signs of the times and live faithfully in and for Jesus Christ.
Scholars who have proven especially influential in the development of this tradition and in my own thought include, besides Glen Stassen, Larry Rasmussen, Ron Sider, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Howard Yoder. At the next level of influence I would place Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Rauschenbusch. My own thought has been deeply affected as well by the Catholic social teaching tradition and its interlocutors outside the Vatican. I am aware of an ancestral indebtedness (through my primary mentor voices) to aspects of the Anabaptist tradition, a version of the Calvinist tradition, and the magisterial theology of Karl Barth. I also find kinship with the progressive baptist tradition represented in (besides MLK) James McClendon, Clarence Jordan, Henlee Barnette, and Jimmy Carter, and the McAfee School of Theology, where I now teach.
My own exposure to the Holocaust shaped my thought deeply, as it did the work of both Stassen and my doctoral supervisor, Dr. Larry Rasmussen. Among the many implications of this exposure was an awareness of the life-and-death stakes involved in the work of the church in the shaping of Christians as either faithful disciples or cogs in the machine of injustice, oppression, and even mass murder. I seek to participate in a Barmen-type ethic and definitely have been forced to develop a Holocaust-shaped ethic. (See my Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust.) Elie Wiesel is a hero for me and has affected my thought profoundly.
My research continues to return to questions of how Christians live faithfully and proclaim their ethics truthfully in culture. But this issue gets much more specific when we get more concrete about which Christians, in which culture, at which era. I am especially called to speak to how evangelical and Baptist Christians in the United States of America are to live in a time which I perceive to be a moment of gathering national and global decline that could lead to civilizational collapse. Sometimes my work has focused on the shaping of disciples in the life of the church. (See especially Bolder Pulpit, Preparing for Christian Ministry, and Getting Marriage Right.) Other times my work has turned to the question of how Baptist and Christian universities should understand the nature of their work. See The Future of Christian Higher Education and The Scholarly Vocation and the Baptist Academy, as well as numerous articles. And much of the time my work has turned to the arena of government and politics. (See Toward a Just and Caring Society, Christians and Politics beyond the Culture Wars, The Future of Faith in American Politics, A New Evangelical Manifesto, and Religious Faith, Torture and Our National Soul.) These latter books have been accompanied by a considerable amount of activism and direct engagement on issues such as human rights and the environment.
While I plan to continue such engagement, in the next stage of the journey I want to dig deeper in the theological and ethical tradition of the church (and beyond) to try to articulate a comprehensive moral vision sturdy enough and broad enough to ground at least my version of Christian social ethics for the 21st century. Suggestions of this digging are found in my Only Human. I have just published The Sacredness of Human Life, that explores the intellectual roots of this majestic moral norm, the arguments of those who reject that norm, and the moral implications of the concept for humanity today. I think that properly understood it brings together the concerns of such disparate strands of thought as are found in the natural rights tradition, liberationism, feminism, eco-theology, and personalism together with classic themes in Christian and Jewish thought. It is the only future for the human race; we learn to value each other as sacred or we will eventually perish together.