I know I’m not alone in my feelings of frustration, anger, and ultimately exhaustion sparked by terrorist killing of innocent people such as we saw this past weekend in Paris and Beirut. “What can I do?” is a question that sparks frustration and helplessness, while anger at the senseless loss of life is overwhelming. We live in a fallen world, and hope grows dim.
German theologian Helmut Thielicke writes “We live in a world scarred by sin, often succumbing to its pressures ourselves, but we also hold to hope of righteousness and complete justice.” Still, I find the hope of righteousness and justice very weak in light of our circumstances. The strongest militaries in the world can’t stop ISIL – superpowers with most of the world’s capital at their disposal can’t bring about righteousness and justice. The sad truth is this: We can’t make, inspire, or force others to live moral lives. Where in the world is righteousness and justice?
In the Matrix of Christian Ethics, Nullens and Michener serendipitously offer a helpful perspective. In their introduction they provide some historical markers. They describe Socrates, who would have found righteousness and justice in gaining knowledge; gaining wisdom would supposedly make people act morally. And yet, the Roman Empire with all of its libraries, love of philosophy, and pursuit of knowledge wasn’t characterized by righteousness and justice.
The authors talk about ethics as understood in pre-modernity; they call this time “the empire of the church,” and it was the church that would be the guarantor of universal morality. People looked to the church for ethics; the perception was that they didn’t need a personal knowledge or understanding of right and wrong because it was entirely based on the authority of the church. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know that power corrupts and absolute power actually thinks “Christian Crusades are a good idea!” Righteousness and justice do not emanate from the power wielding church.
The authors continue with a word on modernity, a time in which societies fell in love with reason. This was the age of scientific revolution, the Reformation, and the enlightenment—all of which benefitted from the elevation of reason but they could rightly be asked “Can ethics stand on reason alone?” This is the age that culminated in two world wars, rampant racism, along with the triumph of consumerism at the expense of the poor. Righteousness and justice do not emanate from reason.
Finally, the authors discuss post-modernity and the deconstructionism of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose approach questions everything, sows doubt, and dismantles whatever it encounters. But underlying this approach is a commitment to justice. “All human understanding is filtered through interpretive schemes, bases, cultures and backgrounds. Deconstruction seeks to bring these issues to light, to help recognize the latent prejudices causing the suppression of ideas the oppression of people and the prevention of justice.” While I appreciate Derrida’s passion for justice, I have to ask “Justice based on what?” Post-modernity is the age in which terrorism has flourished—and why wouldn’t it in a world that acknowledges no universal truth? If some crazy militant Islamist says “Allah is sanctioning the killing everyone who doesn’t agree with our theology!”—who am I to disagree? Righteousness and justice are either based in reality, transcend time, and are universally applicable, or we’re screwed.
Righteousness and justice exist in the universe because they exist in God; and God exists in this world through the church, imperfect as it is. The church has everything we need to beat Islamic terrorism. Earlier I mentioned that my hope is waning, but that isn’t simply because the enemy is so evil it’s also because the Church is sound asleep.
Nullens and Michener briefly mention a bright spot in church history—a time when Christians were persecuted, and didn’t influence through politics, military, or prosperity:
The early Christians began caring for and sharing with each other with deep compassion, in ways completely known in the classical world. The poor were given food, drink and clothing. The sick were cared for instead of being shunned. Christian attended prisoners, widows, and orphans. During plague epidemics in Alexandria and Carthage, followers of Christ risked their lives to care for sick and bury the dead. This was an upside-down revolution in a society with a low regard for the value of human worth.
If Christians lived lives that reflect God’s love as we’re called to do, if we had another upside-down revolution, I believe Islamic terrorism would disappear. All the frustrated, angry, bored 20- and 30-somethings around the world would be attracted to the faith that not only believes God is love but acts it out—living expressions of God’s justice and righteousness in this world.
 Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 22.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 21.