Do We Lack the Moral Imagination? Part One: Demasking the Scapegoat
November 3, 2016
Middle East Consultation 2017 – The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity
November 17, 2016

By Suzie Lahoud

 What man. . . if with a scrupulous attention he searches all the recesses of his soul, will not perceive that his virtues and vices are wholly owing to different modifications of personal interest? . . . For after all interest is always obeyed; hence the injustice of all our judgments. -Helvetius[1]

The vision of humanity is inherently myopic. We are barely able to see the needs of our neighbor in the house, apartment, or even cubicle beside us; let alone to recognize the needs of our neighbor across borders. Yet that is precisely what Christ calls us to do.

Humanity’s natural proclivity is to act, and increasingly so at the collective level, primarily in its own self-interest. However, despite our innate failings, there is a means by which this propensity may be transcended. “In religion,” Niehbuhr writes, in his classic discourse, Moral Man and Immoral Society, “all the higher moral obligations, which are lost in abstractions on the historic level, are felt as obligations toward the supreme person” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2446). “Thus,” he continues, “both the personality and the holiness of God provide the religious man with a reinforcement of his moral will and a restraint upon his will-to-power” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2447-2448).

Niehbuhr goes on to highlight another significant element found in the teachings of Jesus- what he calls “the paradox of Christ.” This, he sums up by quoting the famous Christological axiom in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (ESV).

It is in embracing this paradox, Niehbuhr contends, that “the religious tension which drives toward asceticism is resolved by condemning self-seeking as a goal of life, but allowing self-realisation as a by-product of self-abnegation” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2472-2475).

In conversation with Niehbuhr, theologian Miroslav Volf refers to this process as a “de-centering” of self that must precede a “re-centering” on Christ (Volf, pg. 70)[2]. “It is no longer I who live,” writes the Apostle Paul, “but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV). In another paradox of the Gospel, it is this re-centering on Christ that further orients us to the Other.

However, Niehbuhr concedes that the social implications of our religious beliefs are often lost when we fall into the pitfall of over absolutizing our obligation to Christ such that the Other is removed from the equation, and over individualizing the out-workings of our faith such that it has no communal repercussions (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2630-2632, 2642-2644). In a sense, we allegorize every aspect of our beliefs until they are stripped of any concrete consequences for a morally just life on the grander scale of society as a whole. This leaves an empty shell of religiosity that is no better than a mere identifier of group belonging-  another measure by which to distinguish “Us” from “Them.”

Yet, at its best, Niehbuhr contends that religious imagination can engender a transcendent concept of love across racial, economic, and sectarian boundaries that considers the needs of the Other as of equal importance to one’s own (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2656-2659). In a stunning conclusion, Niehbuhr reflects that:

In part the religious ideal of love is fed and supported by viewing the soul of the fellowman from the absolute and transcendent perspective. Your neighbor is a son of God, and God may be served by serving him. “What ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me,” said Jesus… It is this religious insight, flowing from the capacity of the religious imagination to view the immediate and the imperfect from the perspective of the absolute and the transcendent, which prompted St. Francis to kiss the leper and to trust the robber; which persuaded Paul that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free”; which inspired an old Indian saint to greet the soldier, who, in the time of the Indian mutiny, was about to put the cold steel of his bayonet into the body of the saint, with the words, “And thou too art divine” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2490-2498).

However, Niehbuhr concedes that this “moral and social imagination” nurtured through religion is rarely able to overcome “the imagination which makes one’s own nation the peculiar instrument of transcendent and divine purposes” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2587-2590). The patriot is as true a worshipper as any other, and he will as surely conform his religious dispositions to his nationalist loyalties as he will place his political preconceptions under the sovereignty of God.

Tragically, what we are witnessing in the world today is something much more sinister than merely misguided patriotism. Somewhere along the way public discourse went into a downward spiral from selfish to scapegoating, and public action deteriorated from marginalization to exclusion and violence. To echo the profound insights of both Volf and Niehbuhr, the tendency for hateful nativist policy and shifting blame towards the Other is not a Lebanese problem. Nor, even in light of the shock and disbelief following the outcome of the US presidential election, is it an American problem. Neither does the rise in xenophobic violence in the UK following Brexit make it a British problem, or the revival of neo-Nazism in Germany make it a German problem. This is a human problem, and it is one that we must expose and repent of before we fall prey to our own primal inclinations.

What we so often lack is a moral and social imagination that can envision the needs of the Other and bring our self-interest and will-to-power in submission to a holy and sovereign God. What I am proposing is that before we place blame, before we engage in political discussion, before we cast the ballot, that we take a moment to pause and reflect. Perhaps a moment to de-center from self and to re-center on Christ. A moment to consider: who is the Other in our current reality?  What does life look like when viewed through their eyes?  How can we better serve them, placing their well-being equal to, or even above our own?

While this may seem the painfully unpragmatic musings of an idealist, even Niehbuhr, the father of Christian realism, grants that such musings can yield significant utilitarian benefits in altering the fabric of society (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 5093-5106). As Niehbuhr writes:

“The truest visions of religion are illusions, which may be partially realised by being resolutely believed. For what religion believes to be true is not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its truth is not doubted” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2765-2767).

How different would the world be if we fully believed the words of Christ and truly loved our neighbor as we love ourselves?


[1] As quoted by Niehbuhr, (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 2328-2332).

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribner, 1960.

[2] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.


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