For the course in Christian Ethics that I will be teaching at the College of Transfiguration this semester I will be using a book edited by Vic McCracken called Christian Faith and Social Justice. Again, like the course in which I will be teaching Augustine’s On the Trinity, McCracken’s book is not necessarily one I would have chosen if it were up to me. But again since I am covering courses for a colleague who is going on sabbatical it isn’t up to me.
McCracken’s book has some qualities that make it useful for an ethics course. It has a rather clever pedagogical device. Five scholars–each representative of a distinctive tradition within Christian ethics (libertarianism, liberalism, liberationist, feminist, and virtue ethics)–offer essays in which they introduce and defend their perspectives on social justice. Then all the scholars engage and respond to each others’ positions in follow-ups to the foundation essays. The critical engagement is fruitful: strengths, weaknesses, blindspots are revealed. And for the most part, the book is readable and accessible. It should work pretty well in a classroom setting.
The downside of the book is that, like so many edited collections, the essays and the responses are uneven in quality. They range from good, to okay, to poor, to puzzling. One wonders, for example, in the case of the liberationist perspective, which is pretty poorly represented in this book, if it would have been better to simply read an excerpt from Gustavo Gutierrez. For that matter, even with the good contributions from the virtue ethicist and the liberal ethicist, one wonders if it wouldn’t have been better to read some pieces by Hauerwas and Rawls. And quite frankly, I’m puzzled by the inclusion of a libertarian position. It’s hard to see how this perspective is representative of an important stream within the field of Christian Ethics. A Roman Catholic (natural law or otherwise) or Evangelical perspective would have been a better choice. If I had a choice I would have used Sam Well’s introductory textbook and reader because they better introduce students to the classic and contemporary voices in Christian Ethics.
I suppose I also regret not having the chance to introduce some theologians and ethicists whom I think could be quite challenging, helpful and transformative in a South African context. I rather think folks like Emmanuel Katongole, Stanley Hauerwas, Sam Wells, and John Milbank offer perspectives on social justice that are more engaging, realistic, and hopeful than some of the rather tired debates between libertarians, Rawlsian liberals and liberationists.