Repost: Why the Ethics of John are Dangerous for Both the Church and Political Discourse (Skinner)

The TwelveNearly a year ago (last October 11, 2013), I published the following post on my previous blog. Today during a the Q & A portion of a fabulous lecture given by Dr. Willie Jennings (Duke Divinity School), a stranger from the audience stood up to sermonize (rather than ask a question) and much of what he said betrayed the sort of thinking I discuss below. So, I thought it would be a good thing to share again. Enjoy.

Few writings have shaped orthodox Christian doctrine or the popular Christian imagination as much as the Gospel of John and its story of an enfleshed God who stepped down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Apart from John’s presentation of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine Chalcedon ever happening. And if you have been exposed to much teaching or preaching within contemporary Christianity, you have no doubt heard language and themes drawn largely from the Gospel of John. (I often tell my students that John, along with Paul’s letter to the Romans, are the two most foundational NT writings shaping both early doctrinal developments and the current American Christian ethos).

Against the backdrop of John’s importance within contemporary American Christianity, I see a significant problem which goes largely undiagnosed. One characteristic feature of John’s Gospel is its use of dualistic language to tell the story of Jesus. We see this from the beginning of the narrative: the Word is the “light of humanity” which “darkness” has not overcome (1:5). Jesus is “from above” and he has entered the realm “below” to fulfill his mission. Were we to draw the picture comprehensively, we would have to look at the language of truth v. falsehood (also present in the Epistles of John); flesh v. spirit, and on and on. In my opinion, this sort of language is often swept uncritically into the Christian lexicon without the necessary attention given to the rest of the NT which, by and large, does not work in such extremes. A simple comparison of Jesus’ teaching in John with his teaching in the Synoptics will easily support this point. So here’s the undiagnosed problem as I see it:

Given the Gospel’s influence, many Christians are led to the uncritical stance that the external world is to be regarded in the same extremes we see in John’s story of Jesus. And in my experience, this also creates an ethical dualism in which individuals are only able to conceive of ideas or proffer opinions rooted in right v. wrong,  good v. evil, black v. white, or whatever dualism you prefer. This creates an imbalance in which Johannine ethics become the dominant way of thinking about the world and people. (I can already hear some of my colleagues objecting that this statement is ironic since there has been much discussion over whether there is any such thing as ethical material in the Gospel; I think there is by the way). This sort of either/or thinking is dangerous in virtually every area of discussion, but I think it has the potential to be even more destructive in the context of current American political discourse. Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).

Political discourse in the US needs no help thinking in such extremes, but the introduction of Christian language in current political squabbles only serves to confirm my suspicion that American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament. Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.

13 thoughts on “Repost: Why the Ethics of John are Dangerous for Both the Church and Political Discourse (Skinner)

    1. rwwilson147,

      I think you might be missing my point, but I will attempt to clarify and answer your question at the same time. First, my wider point was about the inability of some to hear the distinctive voice of John (specifically in its use of dualistic language) and incorporate it into the wider spectrum of voices we hear in the New Testament. Second, the primary imperatives in the Fourth Gospel are “love” (as you have noted), “follow,” and “believe.” While all of these are essential to the Christian enterprise, they are not enough. As a former pastor, I can tell you that you cannot run a community of faith solely on love and belief. I hope my clarification helps you better understand what I was trying to say.

  1. Ah, thanks a lot for the clarification. My apologies for not taking the time to be clear about what I was trying to say; I’ll give it a bit more time now. I agree that people misunderstand the GoJ and don’t integrate John’s thought, even into additional traditional misunderstandings about the wider NT–it is a long conceptual way back to 1st C. Jewish Christian thought and not many of us even get close (I know I’m not there). So, I think I got your point, mostly, but kinda disagree.

    I don’t think it is a matter of dualistic ethics in John over against that of a non-dualistic Synoptics, as if there were a dualistic apocalyptic worldview in John and not the Synoptics, but rather a failure to understand the dualistic “ethic” of the NT. I think that you may be exaggerating the differences between the GoJ and the Synoptics. For instance, think of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Isn’t that essentially dualistic, either/or, black or white thinking? Then there is ” he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. …” “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword…” Yeah, there may not be as many polarizing, black/white, either/or linguistic tropes in the Synoptics as there are in the JoG , and there isn’t even a call to love one’s enemies there, but they both imbibe the same apocalyptic (biblical?) worldview that divides people into believers and unbelievers, the righteous and the unrighteous. For instance, the parables of Jesus in the Synoptics are rife with dualistic scenarios; he is also a dualistic thinker. It is not a uniquely dualistic thought structure used by the GoJ that “creates” an inappropriate contemporary political dualistic dynamic–people naturally do that all the time anywhere all on their own.

    Hence my point: If one actively and practically and actually loves ones enemies s/he won’t easily demonize them, and will be less likely to misunderstand NT teaching as a tool for political or other advantage in the kingdoms that are of This World while losing sight of the cross-carrying strategy in the Kingdom of Heaven, seeking power in the kingdoms of Satan versus the power to serve in the Kingdom of God. Ooops, there I go again, talking dualistically. 8>)

    1. I appreciate your clarifications but I would say two things in response: (1) Not only am I not overstating the differences between the Synoptics and John, I don’t think you’re going nearly far enough. (2) I want to take issue with your last sentence: “If one actively and practically and actually loves ones enemies s/he won’t easily demonize them, and will be less likely to misunderstand NT teaching as a tool for political…” This is EXACTLY what the Gospel and Epistles of John do–demonize their enemies. The enemies of Jesus in the gospel are “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) and in the epistles it’s the “antichrists,” “liars,” etc. (i.e., those who have left the community and are denying the bodily existence of Jesus).

      1. I still think you are conflating John’s descriptors of the Jews and later gnosticizers with what might be called the prescriptors of an ethic. Oh, and I don’t think you are apprehending the deeply antagonistic relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees and how much they are “demonized” in the Synoptics. Just one example:
        Matthew 23:15 (ESV)
        15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
        There are many more. But again, these are descriptions not prescriptions, theological evaluations of antagonists, not generalizable ethical principles that can be applied in any other context (at least not properly), neither from John nor the Synoptics.

  2. Isn’t part of the issue related to how communities of faith read the documents as they pertain to ethical standards, oftentimes in a very literal, dialectical fashion? Burridge ‘s Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to NT Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) begins to address the need for an integrated and balanced ethical reading of Paul and the Gospels (John is addressed on pp. 285-346). Burridge emphasizes the “grand” concept of imitating Jesus. In his section on John, he does begin to address the dualistic language of the FG, in particular as it relates to the “authorial” attitude toward the “Jews,” where in these contexts the language you described (light/darkness, above/below, etc.) often appears (e.g., Jn 8:12-30). My impression, which could be mistaken, is that pastors oftentimes for a variety of reasons (time, tradition, etc.) are loathe to challenge their congregants with a more critical reading of the texts. Over the last two yeas, I have conducted a series of narrative studies of John entitled, “John the Storyteller” (an obvious allusion to Stibbe’s book) that attempt to encourage a more critical reading of FG in a pastoral setting with the hope of identifying and understanding how FG employs its terms in communicating its story of Jesus to its ancient audience.

  3. I would also add that situating our contemporary reading of John in its ancient setting (literary, cultural, theological, etc.) would do much to clarify and limit our understanding of the text in more holistic ways. For example, a surface reading of John 8:44 could lead a non-critical reader to assume that the “author” of FG, and the character Jesus by extension, were describing the “Jews” ontologically as the offspring of Satan. Many a famous commentator (e.g., Luther, “The Jews and Their Lies”) have appealed to such a simplistic reading for various purposes. However, once one understands that John may be operating within the theological matrix of prophetic criticism akin to the prophets of Israel (e.g., Isaiah especially), the highly inflammatory and often dualistic language becomes more understandable to our modern sensitivities (see my paper on “Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict in John” on my site as one example). Such an interpretation, if correct, also limits the modern readers’ ability to use the text in ways for which it was not designed. Such a reading belongs to hermeneutical and pragmatic tasks (again note pp. 23-25 of the paper above).

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