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Ethics and Practices: Some Views

Narrative and Communitarian ethicists will point out that ethical virtues are developed as repeated actions--practices--produce habits that are either virtues of character or vices.  The practices are community-based or community-defined.  The relationship between these and the narratives a community tells is in that the narratives illustrate the practices and locate them in a larger moral story.  Following are several different persons' suggestions about practices, and though Martin Luther is our starting point, the discussion of practices in contemporary ethics really develops in the 1980s and since.

Martin Luther, in Ulrich S. Leupold, ed., Hymns and Liturgy, Vol. 53 of Luther's Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), pp. 61-90)

Luther is known for his territorial understanding of the Church.  But he entertained three kinds of divine service: the Mass in Latin, a common mass in German for the laity and those who did not believe or were not yet Christians, and a third, which he described as follows and in a way that fits with the Anabaptist or believers' church vision for the Church.  I have added italics for the Christian practices Luther noted.

The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people.  But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works.   According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18.  Here one should also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul's example, II Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer and love (as quoted by M. Cartwright's introduction to Yoder's  Royal Priesthood, p. 25, see below).

John H. Yoder

Definition: In Yoder's Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), practice is 'a visible community action that is morally normative or authoritative because it is derived from the work of Jesus Christ in relation to the Holy Spirit and God the Father in the New Testament.  It is God's gracious action in which humans participate and is commanded as mandatory, but it is not rigid or legalistic: it can be carried out in different ways indifferent contexts.  Because the normative practices are not invisible, hidden mysteries, but visible community practices that a secular sociologist could observe and study, each has a dimension--like feeding the hungry as a normative part of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11.20-33)--that can be commended to secular society as ethically normative' (Glen H. Stassen and David Gushie, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pressy, 2003), p. 122).
Normative practices are: baptism, the Lord's Supper, calling out the gifts, the rule of Christ (making peace with one's antagonist) and the rule of Paul (community decision by respectful attention to the leading of each member).

In 'Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture' (in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), later expanded in Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World, Yoder argues that five Christian practices are also relevant for the world at large.  The five practices Yoder considers in these writings are: fraternal admonition, the universality of charisma, the Spirit's freedom in the meeting, breaking bread, and induction into the new humanity.  These practices 'are not ways to administer the world; they are modes of vulnerable but also provocative, creative presence in its midst.  That is the primordial way in which they transform culture' (p. 373).  Yoder sees these social practices of the Church as 'evangelical' (public news that is good) and eschatological: 'It is an a posteriori political practice that tells the world something it did not know and could not believe before.  It tells the world what is the world's own calling and destiny, not by announcing either a utopian or a realistic goal to be imposed on the whole society, but by pioneering a paradigmatic demonstration of both the power and the practices that define the shape of restored humanity.  The confessing people of God is the new world on its way' (p. 373).

About these five apostolic practices, Yoder says:
1.     Fraternal admonition (Mt. 18.15-18) entails: (a) remitting (forgiveness, reconciliation); (b) discernment ('binding and loosing'), and participants who 'harmonize' (two or three witnesses).  Yoder sees this as the 'law of Christ' in Gal. 6.2.  'A process of human interchange combining th emode of reconciling dialogue, the substance of moral discernment, and the authority of divine empowerment deserves to be considered one of the sacramental works of the community' (p. 362).
2.     The Universality of Charisma
Ephesians uses 'fullness of Christ' to describe every member of the body (church) having 'a distinctly identifiable, divinely validated, and empowered role' (p. 363).  1 Corinthians [12] sees every member bearing a 'manifestation of the Spirit for the common good', and this means that greater value is ascribed to the less honoured members of the body (p. 363).  Romans [12] sees each body member having a grace.
3.     The Spirit's Freedom in the Meeting
Paul shows the Corinthians 'how to hold a meeting in the power of the Spirit.  Everyone who has something to say can have the floor, with only a relative priority being given to the mode of prophecy because it speaks 'to improve, to encourage, and to console.'  The others 'weigh' what the prophet has said' (p. 363).
4.     Breaking Bread
'…the Eucharist is an act of economic ethics' (p. 364).  It takes place at the common meal and entails 'believers actually sharing with one another their ordinary day-to-day material substance' (p. 365).  Thus it goes beyond being a symbol: it 'in actual fact … extends to a wider circle the economic solidarity that normally is obtained in the family' (p. 365).  It is a practice that makes people members of the same family through truly sharing material substance together.
5.     Induction into the New Humanity
'Baptism inducts people into a new people, and one of the distinguishing marks of this new people is that all prior given or chosen definitions of identity are transcended' (p. 367).  So 2 Cor. 5.16, 17; Gal. 3.28. 

These five apostolic practices:
1.     are each 'wholly human, empirically accessible' practices (not esoteric) but are also acts of God ('What you bind on earth is bound in heaven') (p. 369).
2.     'constitute the believing community as a social body' (p. 369).
3.     'can function as a paradigm for ways in which other social groups might operate' (p. 369).  The believers' church tradition need not be separatist but can function as a paradigm for culture ('Christ transforming culture').  'People who do not share the faith or join the community can learn from them.  'Binding and loosing' can provide models for conflict resolution, alternatives to litigation, and alternative perspectives on 'corrections.'  Sharing bread is a paradigm, not only for soup kitchens and hospitality houses, but also for social security and negative income tax.  'Every member of the body has a gift' is an immediate alternative to vertical 'business' models of management.  Paul's solidarity models of deliberation correlate with the reasons that the Japanese can make better cars than Detroit.  It was not by accident or whim that I could use as labels the modern secular handles 'egalitarianism,' 'democracy,' and 'socialism,' although each of these terms needs to be taken in a way different from their secularistic and individualistic usages' (p. 370).
4.     'are by nature 'lay' or 'public' phenomena' (p. 370).  That is, they are not religious or ritual activities, and so are (point 3) translatable.
5.     'are enabled and illuminated by Jesus of Nazareth, who is confessed as Messiah and as Lord.  They are part of the order of redemption, not of creation….  The standard account of these matters had told us that in order for Christians to be able to speak to others we need to look less to redemption and more to creation, or less to revelation and more to nature and reason' (p. 370).  'In the practices I am describing (and the thinking underlying them), the apostolic communities did it the other way around' (371).
6.     'none of these practices makes the individual the pivot of change.  The individual is in no way forgotten or relativized; nothing could be more particularly tailored to measure than the notion of every member's possessing (or being possessed by) a distinctive charisma.  Nothing empowers more potently than saying that in the meeting everyone can take the floor.  But no trust is placed in the individual's changed insights (as liberalism does) or on the believer's changed insides (as does pietism) to change the world.  The fulcrum for change and the forum for decision is the more independence of the believing community as social body.  The dignity of the individual is his or her uniqueness as a specific member of that body' (p. 371).
7.     'none of these five practices was revealed from above or created from scratch; each was derived from already existent cultural models.  Table fellowship, baptism, and the open meeting were not new ideas, yet in the gospel setting they have taken on new meanings and a new empowerment' (p. 371).
8.     These practices make thinking of ethics in terms of some consistent moral discourse (e.g., deontological, consequentialist, etc.) difficult.  'Methodological analysis is helpful to illuminate problems of structure, but it is not the prerequisite for the community's right or capacity to reason morally' (p. 372).
9.     'the apostolic model transcends some other dichotomies as well': e.g., revelation and reason, Protestant and Catholic, radical and liberal (p. 372).

In other essays, Yoder spoke of marks of the Church (notae).  Michael Cartwright (following Ross Thomas Bender, The People of God: A Mennonite Interpretation of the Free Church Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herals Press, 1971): 142-145)) presents the following useful chart to understand these practices in terms of their meaning, sacramental form, process, and underlying anthropology.

Nota or Practice
Meaning for Me
Sacramental Form
Meaning in Terms of Process
Underlying Anthropology 'To Be Human Is …'
Bind and Loose
Fraternal Admonition
To arise out of and to produce moral community
Love the Brothers and Sisters
The Supper
Covenant Celebration
To share 'food' with others
Scripture (tradition)
To take up anew one's history
Follow Christ
The Plow Left Behind
To forsake the good for the best
The Basin
The Cross
To subject my freedom for the need of my brother or sister
Praise God
To give thanks
Make Disciples
Adding to the Church
To join a voluntary covenanting community
Greet the Brothers and Sisters
Sandal and Satchel
Mobility, 'as you go' cosmopolitanism
To keep widening one's experience of Christian fellowship

Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 187:

Definition: A practice is (quoting MacIntyre) 'any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and the human conceptions of the ends and good involved, are systematically extended.'

James McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986).

Definition: Practices resemble a game like chess or football: they have as necessary elements a goal, an allowed means, rules and the intention of really participating in the practice' (Stassen & Gushie, Kingdom Ethics, p. 123).  Quoting McClendon: 'The rules are not arbitrary additions we might very well discard….  It is exactly the rules that constitute' the practice (McClendon, Ethics, p. 163).  McClendon further states that 'many virtues have their home in connection with particular practices whose pursuit evokes exactly those virtues' (McClendon, p. 169).  'The lives of those who do engage in these practices must have at least enough continuity and coherence to permit the formation of those virtues and sustaining of those intentions--in a word, their lives must take a narrative form,' particularly an embodied narrative like a drama (p. 123, quoting McClendon, p. 171).

Michael Cartwright, 'Practices, Politics, and Performance: Toward a Communal Hermeneutic for Christian Ethics,' (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1988).

Cartwright opposes an objectifying of Scripture, which is rather to be understood as part of an ongoing process of communication in particular communities and traditions.  This communication, moreover, is not via such constructs as modes of moral discourse, which are too abstract, but the practices, politics (community organisation and life), and performances of real communities.  He is interested in a prescriptive use of Scripture with respect not to rules but practices of the Church, with the contemporary Church engaged in a living dialogue with earlier Church practices.  One can observe better and worse 'performances' of those Scriptural practices.

L. Gregory Jones and Stephen Fowl, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991).

Jones and Fowl see hermeneutics as political, and therefore one's community--its interests and resources--will guide interpretation.  This means that one must be careful about the politics and practices of a community in which Scripture is read (and they are thinking firstly of the academy versus the Church).  In the Church, where we practice baptism (an affirmation of friendship with God and not the world) and the Lord's Table (where we practice fellowship and hospitality to the stranger), we might (there are, note, bad performances of these Scriptural practices) be able to read Scripture over against ourselves.

Verhey, Allen.  The Practice of Piety and the Practice of Medicine: Prayer, Scripture, and Medical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College and Seminary, The Stob Lectures Endowment, 1992).

Verhey, Allen.  'Scripture and Ethics: Practices, Performances, and Prescriptions.'  In Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects.  Ed. Lisa Sowle Cahill and James F. Childress.  Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1996): 18-45.

Allen Verhey notes James Gustafson's concern in the 1970's that there was little literature on the relationship between Biblical studies and Christian ethics.  Since then, much attention to the two has led to a consensus of opinion (Birch and Rasmussen, Furnish, Hays, Ogletree, Sleeper, Spohn, Verhey): 'a recognition of the great diversity within scripture, an acknowledgment that judgments about the unity or 'wholeness' of scripture are not simply given with the text, an affirmation of attention to the particular historical contexts of particular texts, an appreciation of the necessity of other sources in addition to scripture for reflection about the moral life and for contemporary moral judgments, a refusal to authorize a 'prescriptive' use of scripture (that is, appeals to scriptural rules to settle directly a concrete question of what should be done today), and a recognition that the Christian community provides the context for reading and using scripture' (21).  Two developments are calling this consensus into question: the 'turn to literary criticism in reading scripture,' including the turn from text to reader, and the turn to social location--the reader's community (pp. 22f).  Overall, Verhey (who is part of this consensus) defends the consensus not over against those calling it into question but by appreciating the new attention to readers and community, which brings with it the new emphasis on the prescriptive use of Scripture and a community's performances of scriptural practices.

The practice of prayer is seen as a performance of scripture.  It is closely associated with the community's reading of scripture, is 'learned in Christian community, and it is learned not only as an idea but as a human activity that engages one's rationality, and which focuses one's whole self on God' (p. 29).  Practices have an internal good, and in the practice of prayer this is attending to God.  'Given our inveterate attention to ourselves and to our own needs and wants, we frequently corrupt the practice.  We corrupt prayer whenever we turn it to a means to accomplish some other good than the good of prayer, whenever we make of it an instrument to achieve wealth, happiness, health, or moral improvement.  In learning to pray, we learn to look to God; and after the blinding vision, begin to look at all else in a new light' (p. 29).  'In learning to pray, we learn as well certain standards of excellence that belong to prayer and its attention to God, standards of excellence that are 'appropriate to' prayer and 'partially definitive' of prayer: dispositions of reverence, humility, gratitude, hope, and care (attention to our neighbour as one related to God) (pp. 29f).  'These standards of excellence form virtues not only for the prayer but for daily life--and for the reading of scripture' (p. 30).  There are various forms that this practice takes: 'invocation and adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and petition' (p. 30).  Invocation and adoration entail remembering God, which leads to repentanceThanksgiving entails gratitude to God and 'can train readers [of scripture] to stewardship of their gifts, including scripture and the skills to read it.  It trains readers to share their gifts, to use them in service to the community, without the conceit of philanthropy.  The conceit of philanthropy divides the community of readers into two groups, the relatively self-sufficient benefactors (or scholars) and the needy beneficiaries of their interpretative skill' (p. 31).  Prayer thought of as magic to get what we want is the opposite of prayer as hope and care.

Verhey also looks at reading scripture as a practice.  The good internal to this practice is remembering and owning this past as theirs, as 'constitutive of identity and determinative for discernment' (p. 32).  In learning this, 'Christians learn as well certain standards of excellence 'appropriate to' and 'partially definitive' of this practice--three pairs of virtues for reading scripture: holiness and sanctification, fidelity and creativity, discipline and discernment' (p. 32).

He also looks at the practice of moral discourse.  Its good is also 'remembrance, and its form is evangelical, remembering and telling 'the gospel of God'' (p. 34).  This discourse was practised through moral deliberation, discernment (which will include prayer and reading scripture) and memory (pertaining to the community's identity, perspectives, fundamental values, commitments).

Jonathan R. Wilson, Gospel Virtues: Practicing Faith, Hope & Love in Uncertain Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

Wilson sketches the practices for Christian virtue ethics as follows (44f):

1.     Not merely human activities but engage the grace of God
2.     Embody and extend Christian virtues
3.     Have a history.

In this book, Wilson looks at the virtue of faith as the Christian way of knowing, with the attendant practice of education; the virtue of hope as the Christian way of being, with the attendant practice of worship; and the virtue of love as the Christian way of doing, with the attendant practice of hospitality.

Glen Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Stassen and Gushee discuss the understanding of practices for Yoder, MacIntyre, and McClendon and follow McClendon’s description (pp. 122-124). They approach Christian practices through the Sermon on the Mount, noting that it is today a neglected portion of Scripture for Christian ethics.  This was not always so: in the early Church, the Sermon on the Mount was the most quoted part of Scripture for Christian ethics.  The reason for this is that it is typically seen as idealistic, and so a practical ethic needs to be drawn from elsewhere.  The command to do what is taught in the Sermon on the Mount in 7.12ff is overlooked, and the antitheses of Mt. 5.21-48 are viewed as more descriptive of everyone's actions than as proscriptive for Christian disciples (and the rest of humanity).  But Stassen points out that Matthew's triadic structure of Jesus' sayings here point out that each antithesis has a (1) description of traditional righteousness, (2) a vicious cycle whereby one is caught in sin, and (3) some transforming initiatives which might get one out of the vicious cycle and beyond traditional righteousness to practice Kingdom ethics.  This looks as follows (p. 142):

Traditional Righteousness
Vicious Cycle
Transforming Initiative
1. You shall not kill
Being angry, or saying, You fool!
Go, be reconciled
2. You shall not commit adultery
Looking with lust is adultery in the heart
Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk. 9.43-50)
3. Whoever divorces, give a certificate
Divorcing involves you in adultery
(Be reconciled: 1 Cor. 7.11)
4. You shall not swear falsely
Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim
Let your yes be yes, and your no be no
5. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth
Retaliating violently or revengefully, by evil means
Turn the other cheek, give your tunic and cloak, go the second mile, give to beggar and borrower
6. Love neighbor and hate enemy
Hating enemies is the same vicious cycle that you see in the Gentiles and tax collectors
Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your father in heaven is
7. When you give alms,
Practicing righteousness for show
But give in secret, and your Father will reward you
8. When you pray,
Practicing righteousness for show
But pray in secret, and your Father will reward you
9. When you pray,
Heaping up empty phrases
Therefore pray like this: Our Father …
10. When you fast,
Practicing righteousness for show
But dress with joy, and your Father will reward you
11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12.16-31)
Moth and rust destroy, and thieves enter and steal
But pile up treasures in heaven
12. No one can serve two masters
Serving God and wealth, worrying about food and clothes
But seek first God's reign and God's justice / righteousness
13. Do not judge, lest you be judged
Judging others means you'll be judged by the same measure
First take the log out of your own eye
14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs
They will trample them and tear you to pieces
Give your trust in prayer to your Father in heaven

There is an Old Testament, particularly an Isaianic, background to Jesus' Kingdom teaching.  They look at Isaiah as a background for Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom (Is. 9.1-7; 11; 24.14-25; 25; 31.1-32.20; 33; 35; 40.1-11; 42.1-44.8; 49; 51.1-52.12; 52.13-53.12; 54; 56; 60; 61-62).  They identify seven 'marks of God's reign' which are relevant for Kingdom ethics:

'Deliverance or salvation occurs in all seventeen deliverance passages in Isaiah; righteousness/justice occurs in sixteen of the passages; peace in fourteen; joy in twelve; God's presence as Spirit or Light in nine (and God's dynamic presence is implied in all seventeen).  These five characteristics of the reign of God are remarkably consistent in the deliverance passages.  We may conclude that these are characteristics of God's delivering action as  described in Isaiah.  In addition, healing occurs in seven passages.  It may be seen as a mark in its own right, or as part of the themes of peace and restoration of outcasts to community, since major infirmities caused people to be treated as outcasts.  Return from exile occurs in nine passages.  Therefore, these also may be key ingredients in the reign of God as prophesied by Isaiah' (p. 25).

Thus Stassen and Gushee argue that Jesus' Kingdom teaching (as seen particularly in the Sermon on the Mount) is marked by characteristics of the Kingdom derived from Isaiah, and that this teaching formed the practices of Christian discipleship.  Christian ethics needs to focus on practices--'not merely ideals, and not only rules or principles that ought to be done, but practices that are actually and regularly done, embodied in action' (487).  Referring to Mt. 7.12-27, they conclude that, ‘according to Jesus, there is no authentic Christianity, discipleship or Christian ethics apart from doing the deeds that he taught his followers to do’ (p. 486, italics theirs; cf. Mt. 28.16-20).  Their review of the book in the final chapter offers a list of concrete practices taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and further developed to apply to today (pp. 487-488).
            *'Disciples develop a holistic ethic of character, attending critically to their passions and loyalties, way of moral reasoning, perceptions and basic-conviction theological beliefs; they live humbly before God, mourn what is wrong in themselves and the world, surrender themselves to God, hunger and thirst for God's delivering justice, offer compassionate action, forgiveness, healing and covenant steadfastness to those in need, give their whole self over to God, make peace with their enemies and persist and even rejoice under persecution (Mt. 5.3-12…);
            *'Disciples ground their moral decisions and way of life in biblical authority, reading the entire canon as Jesus did--through a prophetic grid that heightens emphasis on God's grace, the moral aspects of Old Testament law, the content of righteousness as deeds of justice, mercy and love, and an awareness of the inner wellsprings of all action (Mt. 5.17-20…);
            *'Disciples practice Jesus' teaching in the context of belief in the grand biblical narrative, especially the account of the inbreaking kingdom within which Jesus undertook his ministry; this account of God's character, will and action in history then grounds the development of particular moral principles, rules and judgments within the situations presented by life (Mt. 5.17-20…);
            *'Disciples read Jesus' moral teaching not as high ideals, hard sayings, counsels of perfection or evidence of our sinfulness, but as concrete instruction for living; they focus where Jesus did, on the particular transforming initiatives that enable disciples to break humanity's vicious cycles, which block obedience to the will of God the Creator and Redeemer.
            *'Disciples do not murder or bless violent killing; instead, they humble themselves, take peacemaking initiatives and act to prevent violence in personal, social, national and international life (Mt. 5.21-26, 38-48…);
            *'Disciples value life at it vulnerable beginning and vulnerable end, acting to prevent abortion, embryo destruction, reproductive cloning, narcissistic genetic modification and euthanasia (Mt. 4.21-26...);
            *'Disciples honor God's intentions for male-female relations by treating one another with respect, encouraging mutual submission and a gospel/kingdom focus in gender relations and confining the expression of genital sexuality to celibate singleness or monogamous covenant marriage (Mt. 5.27-30…).
            *' Disciples understand marriage as a binding covenant, marry wisely, seek reconciliation in times of marital conflict, divorce with extreme rarity, and guard and honor the joyful permanence of their marriages (Mt. 5.31-32…).
            *'Disciples live out delivering love and justice in every relationship, especially with regard to the most vulnerable, the excluded, outcast, powerless and oppressed (Mt. 5.43-48…).
            *Disciples speak truthfully rather than deceptively or dishonestly; they keep covenant and live in truth, withholding it only in rare moral emergencies under conditions of social evil (Mt. 5.33-37…).
            *Disciples work for justice in race relations and economic life, living in relative economic simplicity, avoiding idolatrous acquisitiveness, consumerism, greed and injustice and feeding the hungry and poor as both a personal and social practice (Mt. 6.19-34…).
            *Disciples exercise creation care in numerous ways, such as energy conservation, limiting family size and resource use, supporting public transit and appropriate government regulation (Mt. 6.19-34…).
            *Disciples practice almsgiving, fasting and prayer without seeking human recognition for their piety; they pray in a manner designed to deepen their commitment to, and participation in, God's reign (Mt. 6.1-18; 7.6-11…).
            *'Disciples retain their distinctiveness as Christ-followers while graciously engaging the world with a pioneering, pastoral, service-oriented and transforming presence (Mt. 5.13-16; 7.6-12…).
            *'Disciples study, reflect upon and obey the teachings of Jesus, and seek to train others to do the same (Mt. 7.12-27…).'

Practices and Worship: Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004).

The book's contributors explore ethics as worship in the sense that worship constitutes and points to a number of moral practices.  Hauerwas’s major contribution to Christian ethics was to emphasise the relationship between the stories we tell and the virtues we hold.  This matter shows that ethics is not universal but peculiar to a particular community.  Similarly, the practices of a community define the community over against other communities.  Thus a character ethic of narrative and virtue can be related to a community ethic that defines the community in terms of its practices.  What follows is an outline of the contents of this lengthy work, which offers an overview of just what practices and related virtues are considered in this approach to Christian ethics.

1.     Meeting God and One Another:
  1. Gather: social and political significance
  2. Greet God and one another
  3. Confession of sin: reconciliation
  4. Celebration of forgiveness and other blessings, often musically: Christian understanding of the arts and modern communication.
2.     Re-encountering the Story: Scripture as written text and as performed and enacted Word.
Issues in this chapter: authority, justice, truth, description.
  1. Reading: rehearsing identity, practising character
  2. Preaching: naming and describing.
  3. Listening: authority and obedience
  4. Deliberating: justice and liberation
  5. Discerning: politics and reconciliation
  6. Confessing the faith and reasoning in tradition
3.     Being embodied.  After sermon and before sharing of food.  What does Church as living as one body mean?
  1. Baptism: with respect to abortion and cloning.
  2. Marriage: shared embodiment.
  3. Intercession (for poverty, response to scarcity)
  4. Sharing of the peace: practices necessary to maintain trust and sustain the Body.
4.     Re-enacting the Story:
Preparation and consumption of eucharistic food.
  1. Preparation:
1.     Offering: treasuring the creation
2.     Participating: Working toward worship
3.     Remembering: offering our gifts
  1. Forces at the altar:
1.     Invoking: Globalization and Power
2.     Breaking Bread: Peace and War
  1. Eating:
1.     Receiving communion: euthanasia, suicide, and letting die
2.     Sharing communion: hunger, food, genetically modified foods
3.     Eating together: friendship and homosexuality
  1. Conclusion of the meal:
1.     Being silent: time in the Spirit
2.     Being thankful: parenting the mentally disabled
3.     Washing feet: preparation for service

5. Being Commissioned
a.     Being blessed: wealth, property and theft
b.     Bearing fruit: conception, children and family
c.     Being sent: witness

Kevin Vanhoozer, 'Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity,' in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 24):

Christians have a mission to postmodernity, their own understanding of the shape of living.  Mary Midgley says, 'The devolution of Wisdom into Knowledge into Information may be the supreme source of degeneration in the postmodern society' (Wisdom, Information, and Wonder: What is Knowledge For?  (London: Routledge, 1991), n.p.).  Christians and postmodernity agree that knowledge is not disembodied.  'What is needed, therefore, is a translation of the Gospel that goes beyond conveying propositions--a translation that would concretize the Gospel in individual and communal shapes of living.  Proclamations of the Gospel must be accompanied by performances that embody in new situations the wisdom and love of God embodied in the cross' (24).  [And, I would insist, one of the practices that is essential is the interpretation of concretely situated, authoritative texts for the wisdom and love of God embodied in the cross to be known.]


These different views offer a wealth of ways to proceed in trying to think of Christian ethics in terms of practices.  By attending to the different ways of thinking of practices and ethics, one might gain some clarity for discussing moral practices not only in theory but in regard to specific practices.  Practices are, of course, only one way to think of Christian ethics, but they are a very important way.  One outcome of this overview is to realize that ethics is not a matter of discovering categorical imperatives but the peculiarities of unique communities—such as Christians.

[1] Frederick Coplestion, S.J.  A History of Philosophy: Volume 8 Modern Philosophy: Bentham to Russell; Part II: Idealism in America, The Pragmatist Movement, The Revold Against Idealism (New York: Image Books, 1967), p. 88.
[2] For Peirce, James, and the Instrumentalist view, see Copleston's summary in Vol. 8.2, pp. 123f: