Chapter 4: Ecumenical Social Ethics Today, by Charles C. West

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 4: Ecumenical Social Ethics Today, by Charles C. West

(Charles C. West is Professor-emeritus at the Princeton Theological Seminary, USA and was K.C. Abraham’s guide for his doctoral studies there.)


One always runs a risk in entering a dialogue from out of another society ten thousand miles away, even when the conversation is within the community of the Church. The risk is somewhat less great, however, when the occasion is to celebrate the ministry of an old friend and colleague. K.C. Abraham is no stranger to the ecumenical search for an effective social witness today, with all the controversy it involves, and the new directions it takes: It is a pleasure to join him in that search.

Let me begin with a concept that has become popular in ecumenical circles during the past few years: that of "paradigm shift." Konrad Raiser, now General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, uses it to describe, a change in theological perspective which affects the whole range of ecumenical work.1 His colleague and former student Martin Robra applies it specifically to a change in perspective on social ethics in World Council work.2 K.C. Abraham describes it as a change in theological and ethical perspective brought about by the participation of the Third World in the ecumenical movement.3 They all make important points. I would like, however, to suggest that "paradigm" has a broader and deeper meaning than these changes indicate. There are paradigm conflicts in theology, philosophy and ethics. Unlike natural sciences, whence the term was borrowed, one does not replace the other as investigators become convinced that the new one is more meaningful. Rather they exist side by side. They influence and often subvert one another. Decision for one or the other is a commitment of faith that is more than the rational insight of which Thomas Kuhn speaks. It is more complete, though of the same character, as Michael Polanyi’s "personal element" in all knowledge. What the authors cited above are describing is differences of perspective and experience within one basic paradigm. It is inclusive enough to hold them all in one community of faith and discourse. It deepens and changes through the dialogue between them. But it is one of at least four that compete with each other, both within and outside the Christian tradition. Let me briefly enumerate them.

A. The Paradigms

1. The first, and probably the oldest, is the paradigm of participation in an order of being. For the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Egypt it took the form of a union between cosmology and political order. Gods and human rulers interacted in a sacred sphere to sustain this order. Nature and humanity were defined by their part in it. The Greek philosophers projected the essence of this order more in terms of reason than mythology. Chinese Confucian civilization found it in a system of relationships which bound together heaven and earth, emperor and officials, government and families in an unchanging harmony. There are undoubtedly parallels in Hindu cosmology as well. In all these societies, and in many others, human life was given meaning and direction by participation in an eternal order which embraces all things, and determines the place and the right behavior of all who are a part of it. Ethics is participation in this order.

The classic struggle with this paradigm took place in Christian history during the early centuries when neo-Platonic metaphysics was conquered by the biblical drama of creation and redemption. But it still is with us today where eternal life and immortality of the soul replace the hope of resurrection. It faces us afresh when ever the order of a traditional society with its apparent timeless harmony of nature, humanity and religion offers to absorb or replace the Christian message. It arises in demonic forms when cultures, threatened by change, idealize their own past and try to enforce it against enemies within and without.

2. The second paradigm is that of reality, human and divine, defined by an absolute structure, doctrine of law. The modern form of it we call fundamentalism, but it has its ancient forms. Jesus faced it among the Scribes and Pharisees of his time. There was a Chinese philosophy known as Legalism two centuries before Christ which served the emperor well in efforts to establish his authority. Islam is based on a revealed doctrine and law which embraces the whole of life, both personal and social, though it is often softened by interpretation. Legalism has dogged Christianity throughout its history whenever a particular structure of the Church, a particular doctrinal statement, or a particular form of behavior, has replaced the living Christ as the expression of divine revelation and the guide for human life.

Absolute law is a derivative paradigm. It arises in troubled times to protect an embattled society when its religious confidence fails, or to create order when chaos threatens. It replaces participation in cosmic reality with power in the form of positive divine and human authority. In the Hebrew-Christian context it replaces the living God with a structure of organization, doctrines and laws that claim to embody God on earth. Human beings become creatures of law. The meaning of life, the way to salvation, is obedience to the structure.

3. The third paradigm is more modern, that of Enlightenment humanism. It, too, has ancient roots, both in Epicurean materialism and in Stoic rationalism. One finds suggestions of it in the Confucian model of the true scholar. Gandhi found many of its values in the Bhagavad Gita. Still, as a full paradigm it is a post-Christian redefinition of idealized Greek humanism. It dismantles Greek cosmology and Christian revelation alike, yet retains the confidence in human reason which characterized the one and the hope for a fulfilled future that is derived from the other. It turns the human being into an individual, and places all confidence in the goodness and power of that individual pursuing his or her own objectives in freedom from restraint to understand, master, and organize all reality -- personal, social, natural and even divine -- for the greatest good of all. Ethics then becomes the rational pursuit of subjectively defined goals, private or as agreed upon in groups. Public ethics require only that a social context be maintained by law and custom, which maximizes the freedom of individual self-determination.

Marxism has presented itself as the total nemesis of this worldview, and in a way it was. Yet it is still a variation on the same paradigm. The individual is replaced by collective humanity, a vision of the free individual expressed in and through the whole species creating itself and universalizing its power over nature by its labor. History, to be sure, is not only the progress of humanity but also the drama of class war, brought about by the division of labor, private property, and exploitation. Salvation comes therefore through revolutionary action by the dehumanized victims of this process who rediscover in the solidarity of their total deprivation, the true humanity which will finally triumph. The ethic is provisionally revolutionary, finally rational planning by one humanity working in harmony to universalize itself. The paradigm is militantly, if collectively, humanist.

Christian ethics has learned many things from this paradigm, both good and bad. Human rights, both political and social, have been dramatized as a command of God. The relation between freedom in Christ and freedom in political and economic life has been newly conceived. The dynamic of God’s justice judging and transforming the powers of this world has been grasped in new contexts. The dimensions of divine blessing on human enterprise and of the vast new responsibility it brings for creation and the quality of human life, have expanded beyond previous imagination. In all these ways this post-Christian humanism has reminded the Church of whole ranges of its gospel which it had restricted or forgotten.

At the same time this paradigm poses a constant temptation for the Church, the more so because its humanism is post-Christian and draws so heavily on a vision of the human which is inspired by Biblical revelation and the person of Christ. It is tempting to turn the perfections of God -- God’s justice, mercy, holiness, faithfulness and love -- into perfections of human nature. It is easy to forget the self-centred perversity of our human ambitions and causes, and therefore to turn the struggle against sin into a self-righteous crusade against evil. We have learned from the Enlightenment and its Marxist negative image some bad lessons: a self-righteous view of human nature, individual or collective, a good-evil dichotomy in our judgment on others and in our social action, a shallow sense of human community, and an exaggerated confidence in the power of human beings to manage and control their own destinies.

4. The fourth paradigm I will call, though the term is too weak, relational. Reality is found not in an order of being, not in a law, not in the free self-expression of human beings pursuing their individual or collective ends, but in the relationship established by the one who created us, has made himself known to us, called us, made a covenant with us, remained faithful to us when we have broken that covenant, who has come to us in Jesus Christ, redeemed us and our world in the victory of Christ over sin and its powers, and made us witnesses by the power of the Spirit to his coming in glory. Ethics in this paradigm is to live in this relationship, to trust its promise, to repent and be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2) In response to the one who calls and forgives us, and to discern our responsibilities to the world around us in the light of this creator and redeemer. K.C. Abraham, following Martin Buber, puts it well: "Who Yahwe is, is known only in the events of his continuing relation to the Hebrew people, a relationship in which the knower is transformed."4 So it is also with Christians who seek to understand and respond to the triune God in the world today.

Ethics, then, is the exploration of this relationship, of its claim on us and on the world. In this relationship we discover our own unfaithfulness, our self-centred misuse of divine gifts, our distorted ideological perspectives, and all that is included in the word sin. We know ourselves and the world as being judged by a righteous God, brought to repentance and restored to life. We see this happening to the world around us as well, and it determines our engagement with that world. We are in the midst of a history, the total meaning of which we do not know, whose limits we cannot escape, but which we know to be directed toward its fulfillment by a God of justice and love. We know ourselves to be stewards of the gifts of this God, responsible for such power and dominion as is given us, to the one whose character is revealed in the powerlessness, the servanthood and sacrifice of Christ. Being judged and transformed ourselves, we try to realize in our time the gracious purposes of a God who reaches out for the poor and marginalized among us, and who calls us into a community of mutual acceptance and forgiveness.

B. The Ecumenical Context

It is my thesis that the last paradigm has been basic for ecumenical ethics from its earliest expressions to the present, and that it is the context which continues to make encounters between radically different social experiences and theological perspectives fruitful. Let me list, without claiming to be exhaustive, a few characteristics which it gives to this dialogue.

First, it is a dialogue which is open at every point to new insight from the word of God. A dynamic of judgment and repentance, directed first at the Church itself, operates in it.

Second, it is a dialogue of mutual confrontation, correction and new direction among the participants who bring it not only different but often conflicting analyses of the world, engagement in social action, and convictions about the work of God.

Third, it is an open search for new ways by which the Holy Spirit works and Christ takes form in the world, and for patterns of faithful response. This too may lead to clashing styles of piety and social engagement which challenge and correct each other.

Fourth, It is a dialogue about human responsibility to confront the powers of this world with the power of God, to bring about justice and peace through human action and witness. It presupposes that Christians are so engaged, that their praxis in the faith is subject to reflection and reform in the midst of life not in some theory apart from it.

Fifth, it is a dialogue among Christians about their stewardship of God’s non-human creation in the light of God’s purposes for it and for the future of humanity.

Within these parameters the dialogue is open to an ever-increasing variety of perspectives and points of view, based on the vast plurality of human solidarities, of culture, of class, of nation, language, and common experience. It is relationships among all these that are built and transformed in the encounter.

It is in this context, I believe, that the changes which Raiser, Robra, and in a different way Abraham, call paradigm shifts, should be understood. Raiser maintains that "Christocentric universalism," a phrase which he quotes from his predecessor WA. Visser’t Hooft, was the early paradigm of the Ecumenical Movement but that after 1968 it was no longer adequate. Robra extends his argument. Christocentrism could no longer cope with the challenge of religious pluralism; universalism did not grasp the depth of alienation among the poor and the marginalized; salvation history did not do justice to the plural histories of the world’s many cultures and nations; the unity of the Church in Christ offered no power or guidance in overcoming sexism, racism and human exploitation. Pragmatic realism as an ethical method expressed in the concept "responsible society" could not expand its perspective to include these new challenges. Even liberation theology, its still Christocentric successor, failed to come to terms with both technology and the human relation to nature.

Therefore, say Raiser and Robra, the search is on for a new concept of ecumenical theology and ethics. A new way of seeking truth, especially moral truth, is replacing the old linear logic of Western rationality. A spirit of mastery is yielding to a spirit of solidarity. Conceptually structured systems of truths known by experts are giving away to an "ethic of discourse" in the "living world." Raiser suggests that image of "Oikoumene, the one household of life" and suggests three emphasis in it: (1) "a Trinitarian understanding of divine reality and of the relationship between God, the world and humankind;" (2) "life" understood as a web of reciprocal relationships as a central point of reference (instead of history);" and (3) "an understanding of the one church in each place and in all places as a fellowship in the sense of community of those who are different from one another."5 Robra sees in the meetings and actions of the World Council of Churches during the past fifteen years a new style of "dynamic interactive reality" in ecumenical ethics. He finds in the 1990 Seoul Conferences on "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation" not the chaos and confusion most observers reported, but "a case study in paradigm change". There was conflict. No longer did "the transnational global definition of reality expressed in abstract terms as above" controlled the proceedings. Rather concrete, often contradictory experiences were taken seriously and a covenanting process took place outside "the model of the great church councils."6 Out of this process, he maintains new concepts will emerge to discern the will and purpose of God in social mutuality, participation, and sensitivity to the marginalized and excluded people of the world.

To this perspective two things should be said. First, the elements of what Raiser and Robra call the emerging new paradigm are not new. They have characterized the ecumenical encounter from the beginning. "Christocentric universalism" in theology, and "pragmatic realism" in ethics, so far as they played a strong role, were always provisional. They were forms of human response and human witness, constantly being judged and reformed in dialogue with other partners, even though they were, as they still are, coherent and responsible witnesses. The context of the theological and ethical debate has always been dialogical interaction in which voices from all parts of the oikumene joined, and which have expanded over the years to include more and more partners. The process is continuing. They are a part of it.

Second, the concept "paradigm shift" inhibits rather than promotes dialogue. It divides Christians into two camps, those who operate in the old framework and those who participate in the new. This can only be done by drawing contrasts that mislead, even to the point of caricature: e.g., Christology "from above" vs. Christology "from below," or "oikoumene of domination" vs. "oikoumene of solidarity."7 One perspective is stigmatized; the other is idealized. There can be no mutual challenge and correction. The result is a curious combination of intolerance toward the theological and ethical work of the past and celebration of the most diverse and unreflective expressions of the present so long as they emerge from groups designated as marginalized or oppressed.

C. Contrasting Styles

K.C. Abraham’s concern is somewhat different. His use of the term "paradigm shift" is, I think, mistaken, but his concern is real. He describes the change from "naturalistic/substantialistic forms of thought to historical/ personal categories."8 Within this latter paradigm, which is just the one we have described above as ecumenical, he pleads the case for new theologies which are non Euro-centric but emerge from the faith and witness of churches among the people of the Third World. "These theologies are not marginal," he says, "although they arise out of the experience of the marginalized. Rather they are in the classical tradition of the fundamental reformulations of the Christian faith, just like Augustine, Luther or Schleiermacher." 9 These theologies, and the ethics that flow from them, make universal claims from particular perspectives. They "provide what they believe to be the central vision of the Christian faith." They are essential participants in the ecumenical dialogue which has the same objective.

Within this dialogue there are contrasting styles and they create areas of controversy over social ethics and policy. Let me here delineate just two. Both are represented by Indians, though both are ecumenical in the scope of their allegiance.

1. In a recent book M. M. Thomas speaks of being asked in a public lecture to "expound the Scripture with some degree of autobiography. The suggestion," he writes, "led me to ask myself what particular aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ provided for me the continuing crucial link first between the spiritual experience of my adolescence and of my adulthood, and second, between my inner spirituality and my concern for religious renaissance and social change in India. And it was not difficult to come to the conclusion that it was the Gospel of Divine Forgiveness offered in the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ. It is intensely personal, sustaining a person’s faith, in spite of his/her moral failure, intellectual doubt and spiritual despair of his/herself and the world; and it gives to personal life a sense of direction and destiny. But it also gives him/her a realization of solidarity with all men and women before God, both in sin and in divine forgiveness and opens up the vision and power of a new fellowship and a new humanity in Christ. In that sense the divine forgiveness offered in Christ is deeply social in character, and provides the source, the criterion and goal of the struggle everywhere today for new societies which can do justice to the dignity of the human being. 10

This confession, rooted in the ancient piety and worship of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church and nourished in the ecumenical movement, underlies an ethic of profound involvement in the struggle for social justice, profound realism about the powers of this world including those which possess the righteous, and a profound hope which is never satisfied by the achievements of this world. A dialectic is at work here, between the just cause and the sin of those who espouse it, between the vision of a new humanity in Christ, and the forgiveness of sins that makes it possible, between hope and realism about social change. There is a style of engagement in the struggle and openness to repentance and correction in the midst of it, of combat with the enemies of justice and readiness for the reconciling word that transforms the conflict. It is one way of doing Christian social ethics, one form of Christian witness on the ecumenical stage.

2. There is another way. The American Black theologian James Cone writes: "When the meaning of Christianity is derived from the bottom and not the top of the socio-economic ladder, from people who are engaged in the fight for justice and not from those who seek to maintain the status quo, then something radical and revolutionary happens to the function of the "holy" in the context of the ‘secular’. ‘Viewed from the perspective of oppressed people’s struggle for freedom, the holy become a radical challenge to the legitimacy of the secular structures of power by creating eschatological images and legends about a realm of experience that is not confined to the values of this world."11 To interpret the story of Jesus, "from the standpoint of the marginalized" (Abraham) in the view of many liberation theologians, leads to an ethic of liberation directly and without dialectical restraints. Christ is in the struggle, against all the forces which support and justify the domination of the poor by the rich, the weak by the powerful. Salvation is continuous with the efforts of the oppressed to achieve their humanity through it.

Between these two styles there are many controversies. Let me list a few:

a) Both styles are rooted in the biblical message. How do we deal with the profound differences in our understanding of how the power of God in Jesus Christ is at work in the world and in the life of the believer?

b) Both styles are aware of the role of ideology in distorting truth and reality in the world. Where does each go for correction of ideological perspectives? What role does revelation play for each?

c) Both are dedicated to human liberation. What, for each, is the relation between freedom in Christ and freedom from the oppressive powers of the world?

d) What role does repentance play in each style, and reconciliation with God and with enemies?

e) The two styles differ basically in their understanding of the powers of this world and the form of Christian action toward them. How total are they? How are they related to human motivations? How can they be made to serve human justice and peace? What is the interaction in Christian witness between resistance to and responsibility for them?

f) What, for each style, is the basis of our common humanity? How do (1) solidarity of the oppressed in their marginalization, and (2) community of forgiveness and grace in Christ, relate to each other?

g) What community is given us in Christ, and what community can we achieve socially and politically among people of (1) different cultures and nations, (2) different class and social conditions (e.g., caste), (3) different ultimate commitments of faith, whether secular or religious? How do changing relations between men and women affect all these solidarities?

h) What is the reality of the Church and what is the role of the Church in realizing community and justice, and in bearing witness to God’s reign in the world?

i) What is the form of God’s promise for human community and for the relation between human beings and the achievements human struggle for justice and peace can achieve in our time?

This is only a list. Behind each question is a field of controversy to be explored in ecumenical encounter. The plea with which I close is that this encounter continue with passion, with conviction, with a determined wrestling for each other’s souls and faithfulness as Christian believers, but with a recognition that the Triune God is our judge and our redeemer. Before this God all of us are called to repentance and new understanding.



1. Ecumenism in Transition (Geneva, 1994).

2. Oekumenische Sozialethik (Bochum, 1994).

3. "Third World Theology: Paradigm Shift and Emerging Concerns" in M.P. Joseph (ed.), Confronting Life: Theology out of the Context (Delhi: ISPCK. 1995).

4. op. cit.. p. 203.

5. Raiser, op. cit., p. 79

6. Robra, op. cit.

7. Raiser, op. Cit., pp 59, 63.

8. Joseph, op. cit., p. 203.

9. Ibid.. pp 204-205.

10. M.M. Thomas, The Gospel of Forgiveness and Koinonia, (Delhi & Tiruvalla, 1994), pp. 1-2.

11. "Christian Faith and Political Praxis" in Joseph (ed.), op. cit. p. 12.