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Flexing the muscles of the mind

Dr James Read
Dr James Read on the battle of good over evil.

In childhood stories, good and evil were always black and white, polarised opposites. But in the real world—especially in today’s I-won’t-bother-you-if-you-don’t-bother-me culture—the line between right and wrong is often a blurry one at best.

Dr James Read is in the business of helping people navigate those regions between right and wrong.  He’s the head of The Salvation Army’s Ethics Centre in Canada and is visiting our shores in July, so Hayden Shearman took the opportunity to hit him with some curly questions on morality and how we can use the muscles of our minds to tackle them.

James—or as he prefers, Jim—has a PhD in philosophy from UCLA, is the executive director of The Salvation Army’s Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and a senior policy analyst for the Army’s International Social Justice Commission. Aside from these formal titles, he’s also a lifelong Salvationist, a leader in his local church, a husband, a father and a grandfather.

New Zealand’s recent same-sex marriage bill is the perfect example of the complexities of morality. We need to determine what the Bible says on the topic, what the Christians response should be, and how that response can be carried out in a world that doesn’t necessarily share our worldview. Throw in the element of The Salvation Army, an openly Christian organisation working with people from almost every religious and cultural background imaginable, and you can see how questions of ethics can become tricky.

Jim’s role within the Sallies is to help provide answers, or at least a framework for discussion, around those ethical questions. So let’s get straight to it, Q&A style, with the man himself …

All this mind stuff about ethics and morality, isn’t Christianity just about faith and feelings?

As a lifelong Salvationist, I have had a deep commitment from the beginning that as part of the Church we need to support the disciplining of our minds. We are called to worship God with our minds and our intellects, as well as with every other part of ourselves. So, if The Salvation Army is a part of the Church and not just a para-church, it needs to demonstrate its commitment to the educating of the minds of people who are Salvationists.

Using your philosophy studies as an example, will ‘educating of the mind’ challenge our faith or strengthen it?

I suppose both. We cannot be strengthened without challenge. I did not find [these studies] subversive to the faith. There is a need to do our best to think clearly and be motivated by a pursuit for truth and understanding—those are essential to the philosophical enterprise.

Obviously, each country will have their own unique ethical issues, but what are the key moral concerns you see today?

In places like Canada and New Zealand, we have never had a Christendom model—in the sense of having a state church, or thinking that to be Canadian, you have to be Christian. But there has been a dominating unspoken assumption that a broadly Christian worldview frames issues.

What now is called ‘secularisation’ means that we can’t just assume people will defer to [the Bible and Christianity] anymore. Whether reasonable or not, there is much more suspicion towards religious authorities. That leaves a challenge for churches and people of Christian conscience. Is there a common language in which we can discuss these issues? Or is there a parting of ways? Are we able to authentically speak the language of the gospel without using the terminology [that fewer people understand] of the gospel?

We often hear the word ‘tolerance’ bandied about. Is this a starting point for a common terminology, if such a thing exists?

I don’t think there’s any [common terminology] systematically across the board. But to pick out tolerance, for instance, from a certain point of understanding, tolerance is central to a Christian value system.

In the Bible and in Church history, there is great discussion about the importance and centrality of something that is legitimately called ‘tolerance’. But we shouldn’t assume that that term is used identically by all in the public forum. Tolerance might mean, ‘I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me’, which from my standpoint is quite thin. It is substantively different from saying, ‘It’s going to take hard work for us to live together peaceably, but instead of living in separate worlds, let’s work on building a common life together.’

You knew it was coming: in relation to same-sex marriage, how should the Church respond?

We are being forced to think about this issue at a depth that we haven’t had to before. Do we think that marriage is a legal structure that is really owned by the civil authorities? Go back 100 years in your country and mine. If people wanted to know about someone’s birth, they’d consult the church baptismal records. We don’t do that any longer, because we don’t believe that the recording of births is the job of the church. … [Similarly,] it would be odd for us to somehow think that the government would introduce a dedication (christening) ceremony [for infants].

Now, on marriage, I think we’re now being forced to ask: ‘So, what we do in a Salvation Army hall when a couple comes together to exchange vows; is that the same thing that happens before a Justice of the Peace, or are they overlapping?’ Some countries have split the two, where a church marriage does not constitute a state marriage.

We have to theologically ask what we mean by ‘marriage’. Is it just a set of contractual arrangements that determine what happens when it breaks down? Or is it a covenantal relationship? I would find it very strange if the government said, ‘Okay, we’re going to have a covenantal ceremony.’

The church should be asking if we have really understood what marriage is. The implications ought to be much more about men being married to women than about men marrying men and women marrying women. Because if we’re thinking about covenantal relationships, have we really been teaching and upholding that within the church?

Once we’ve done that, there is a lot of soul searching to be done as to whether that intimate covenant can be entered into by two men or two women. The Salvation Army has believed—and I think for good reasons—that, no, whatever that relationship is, it is not possible for it to be entered into by people of the same sex. But  we shouldn’t just write off and demonise those gay Christians who see things quite differently.  

Abortion and euthanasia are two other sticky topics that we find ourselves scrutinising the Bible over. Does it provide directives on these current hot topics?

The short answer from me is that, yes, I do think the Bible says something. But when I say that, I also will grant that there will not be a particular chapter or verse we can point to. And for most things, we really wouldn’t want to point to a single chapter of verse that says, ‘Okay, it says this and that settles it, let’s move on.’

If it’s a serious issue, I think we need to be prepared, as Christians, to defer to the authority of God’s Word and special revelation—reading Scripture intelligently and as a whole. I think the Bible says a good deal about the way we need to understand our own lives and the lives of other human beings.

There is a kind of stewardship we have in regards to our own lives and the lives of others. Lives are not pieces of property that can be invested or squandered on a personal decision. There is a reverencing for life that is a matter of love of our neighbour. Now, it’s a long way from that to answering conclusively the questions of termination of life in the cases of abortion and euthanasia, but I think we can make some progress along the way that’s for sure.

The Salvation Army holds to a high standard of personal morality for its members (soldiers). When other Christians have no problem with the odd glass of wine or putting a dollar on the office raffle, is the Soldier’s Covenant still relevant in the 21st century?

Anther short answer—I think, yes. We’re distinctive, if not unique. A couple of years ago, I went to the Red Cross Museum in Geneva and discovered the confirmation papers of its founders. They were almost identical to the Soldier’s Covenant in terms of what people swore to. So these kinds of pledges that The Salvation Army still has were more widespread a century ago. We do need to ask whether we’ve just failed to evolve in the way that other Christian fellows have. It’s a legitimate question.

However, the other side of it is that, I think, frequently we get it wrong as to the rationale for making the covenants that we do in becoming soldiers. This isn’t an example from the covenant, but when I was in junior high, they introduced square dancing in PE class. I remember saying to the teacher, ‘I can’t do this; it’s against my religion.’ It wasn’t really—I just wasn’t comfortable in my relations with girls. Part of the reason they introduced these dances at school was about maturing and growing up. I wanted to put the discomfort behind me by appealing to some part of my religion.

For example, in terms of gambling, we might say: ‘Oh well, that’s part of my religion [not to gamble], therefore I don’t have to think about that’, and perhaps we might also believe that every Christian should take the same oath. [But instead,] we should better understand these covenants as a witness to the world at large.

We need to understand the devastation done by the gambling enterprises today. I’m not talking about the office pools and so on that we get nit-picky about—these trivialise what our commitments should be as soldiers. But we should take note of the fact that so many in our society are complicit in exploiting the weakness of those who get themselves into sometimes suicidal difficulties over gambling.

There needs to be people in our society who say, ‘[I will not gamble]. Not because this is somehow inherently up there with murder; but rather, because here is an activity that is a dangerous activity, and I’m going to be someone who says there is a better way that we can care for our neighbours and still enjoy life’

*See www.salvationarmyethics.org for more on the Canadian Salvation Army Ethics Centre

By Hayden Shearman (abridged from War Cry 29 June 2013, p5)