Choosing to live differently
When it comes to social justice, members of the Uniting Church can find that making good choices often goes against the flow of culture. But with the right tools and framework, Congregations are already making a difference. And all others can do the same.
Born in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1983, Rev. Dr Margaret Mayman holds a PhD in Christian Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York. For 12 years, she lived, studied and taught there.
Rev. Dr Mayman is the minister at Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney. She discussed with Insights what it takes in ethical thinking to really make a difference for the common good. She also delves into the important things that Congregations have to offer on the ethical front.
Q: How do ethics and religion relate?
Ethics responds to the question — “How then shall we live?” — drawing on the theological understandings we have, the Biblical interpretation, theological reflection and the things that we know because of that.
[As ministers] we don’t always make that connection very well for people in our Congregations and for ourselves. The Reformed tradition has often been focused on our creedal statements and confessional churches have placed a great deal of emphasis on the content of our faith, and maybe not always enough on the content of our character.
One distinctive aspect of Christian social ethics is it is not just concerned with the content of our character [as individuals] but also about the common good. When we make decisions we don’t make them as isolated individuals. We make them in a social context, which is not always just. There is inequity and discrimination and these things have to be borne in mind when we are looking at how ethical decisions are made.
In social ethics, you access tools to enable you to analyse what’s going on. The theological and Biblical resources that we have are enormously enriching in our lives but they are not the only things that God has given us. For example, people who do Christian social ethics in the context of business must understand how economic decisions are made and how corporations function.
Q: Is ethics just for philosophers or intellectuals?
No, it is something for all of us as people of faith. We all need to think about the ethical dimensions of our lives. That involves living thoughtfully, questioning the way things are, asking why things are the way they are, and who benefits from the status quo. We are talking about loving God, loving our neighbour as ourselves and, so, there is also an ethical responsibility to care for ourselves.
One of the issues that is important to my community at Pitt Street is thinking about environmental issues within the context of faith. And that’s a great example of an ethical challenge because you can look in the Bible and find all sorts of things that are potential resources for how we might live well on the planet earth, but you also have to acknowledge there are things in our sacred texts that don’t help us live well in our current context. For environmental ethics it does mean being willing to take the insights that science provides and read those alongside the texts.
Choice is part of ethical decision making. We are all faced with choices. Perhaps part of our task as faith communities is to help people to see we do have the choice to live differently.
One of the wonderful things about ethics is it empowers people to see themselves as agents. We are not just people to whom things happen. Christian social ethics is grounded in practising communities and we come to understand that together we can make a difference.
Many people have begun to talk about Congregations as communities of practice. We are not just theological think tanks. We are places where people practise their faith.
Q: What is ethical thinking?
When you study ethics, you learn about theories of ethics. A lot of people believe ethics is about rules and principles. But where do these principles and rules come from? Is it God telling us? Is it natural law? Is it the culture? Is it received wisdom?
One of the things you become aware of is that rules or principles on their own aren’t enough, because sometimes they come into conflict with each other. Ethical theory helps us to analyse what’s happening rather than actually providing us with the answers.
The other major stream of ethics is Utilitarianism — the greatest good for the greatest number and maximising happiness. But that also has its problems because if the greatest number is always your concern, then you don’t pay attention to the needs of dispossessed people and marginalised minorities which, from a Christian point of view, is not an adequate ethic in itself. But you can use Utilitarianism as one of the tools available for ethical reflection.
From a Christian ethical point of view, the theory I prefer is Teleology. It’s concerned with the “telos”, the end point, or goal, in history. Christian ethics is grounded in the vision of the reign of God. The ethical question is, “How do we get from where we are to the kind of world that we believe God wants, and the kind of character God wants us to embody in terms of kindness, forgiveness, patience and all the virtues?”
I think for many people in the Uniting Church, there is a real conviction that we should strive for the reign of God here and now, that it is not just something to look forward to in life after death.
This makes living ethically a very compelling project. However, it is held in tension with the recognition that we cannot expect perfection of ourselves or others. But we do have an intent to live well; to live in what we understand to be God’s way.
For parish ministers, people in chaplaincy roles, lay and ordained people, the ongoing practise of kindness and compassion is usually called pastoral care. But I think that it is also ethical.
The recognition of the value of a human being is central — for example, when people in Uniting Ageing are caring for those with dementia. The dignity and humanity in a person is intrinsic to who they are. Even if we can’t always see it, we must keep relating to them in ways that honour their full humanity. When we do this, we see that spark of humanity still present. We are called to see people with dementia as people rather than as their problematic behaviours.
Q: In the work you do as a minister, how do you relate morality to justice and the common good?
The US theologian, Cornel West, who was one my teachers at Union Seminary, says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We can understand love in our relationships with our family and friends, but if you take that to a public expression, then we are talking social justice. Ethics addresses both the inter-personal and the social.
“Love Makes a Way” are living out that sense of Christian love for asylum seekers who are out of sight and out of mind for most Australians. They are taking love into the public space and naming off-shore detention as a love/justice issue.
We sometimes get muddled, thinking that ethics is about personal morality (and so much Christian energy has gone into sexual morality) that we have sometimes lost sight of the social dimension of ethics.
In my work on marriage equality, I try to bring an ethical perspective to bear by raising up the voices of people who are most affected by the ethical conversation, by telling stories about couples who have been together for a long time sharing love and deep commitment. And by drawing people’s attention to the damage done to people when their relationships are diminished and rendered second class.
It is helpful for people to understand the idea we have about marriage is a rather recent development. Marriage has evolved. Of course, there have always been loving marriages, but that wasn’t the purpose of marriage for most of history.
One of the most vocal arguments against same-sex marriage is concern about children. But this is unfounded. The reality is that 25 per cent of same-sex couples are already raising children and all of the social science shows that these children do as well as children raised by opposite-sex parents. However, marriage equality would provide security for those children and an end to discrimination against their families.
Good ethical work means bringing together stories and real lives with theoretical knowledge and philosophical analysis. A crucial element that needs to be included in the marriage equality discussion is freedom of religion, and the Church and State relationship. There are secular scholars in law and politics whose work can help us reflect on these issues. So we can understand that separation is actually an important guarantor of religious freedom. When people of faith seek to impose a particular religious view of marriage on the State, and to determine who the State [allows to] marry, we jeopardise this important principle.
Using an ethical framework involves a process of reflection. When faced with a choice, we [need] not rush to judgement. We begin to gather information from the stories of people who have knowledge because of their life experience. We access knowledge from scholars in science, social science, law, economics and other disciplines. We reflect biblically and theologically on what we have heard, and then, in community, we discern what action we can take to change the situation in the interests of love and justice.
Interview by Lisa Sampson