This semester, I’m teaching “Christian Ethics in Engagement with U.S. Culture.” My students and I are exploring together the ways in which various approaches to Christian Ethics conflict and converge with the values of U.S. culture(s).

One of our conversation partners is Albert Borrgmann, who teaches philosophy at the University of Montana. We’re reading Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for our Country (University of Chicago Press) in which Borgmann says that Americans’ best ethical commitments include “landmarks of decency” (equality, dignity, and self-determination), “virtues of  excellence” (wisdom, courage, and friendship), and practices of justice, grace, and stewardship. Clearly, both Aristotle and Christian faith inform his perspective.

It’s his concept of “real” ethics which I find to be especially helpful. “Real” ethics means “taking responsibility for the tangible settings of life.” Borgmann uses what he calls “the Churchill principle.” In 1943, when the House of Commons had to be rebuilt after Nazi bombing, Winston Churchill said to the members of Parliament: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The tangible settings of life are the “buildings”—the institutions, shared public spaces, cities, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and households—in which we live. Corporations, governments, schools, parks, coffee shops, bookstores, and families either nurture or constrain our abilities to live ethically. Borgmann says:

If we are unaware of how the shaping of our household typically shapes our practices, we can tell our children to do their homework, to stay away from soda pop and snacks, to talk to us, and to practice their instruments till we are blue in the face—it will only create frustration and resentment unless our home is so arranged that doing the right thing comes naturally or at least does not require heroic self-discipline (p. 10).

It’s a powerful idea: we may and should arrange all our “tangible settings” so that the kind of life we hope to have seems possible.

Our focus is too narrow if we see an individual’s choices and decisions in isolation from the shaping contours of context and community. Our tangible settings make and unmake us, or, at the very least, they enlarge or shrink our vision of what we may become. 

“The Churchill principle” is a “church principle,” too. Faith-communities make it either more or less likely that people will be able to live a Jesus-kind-of-lifeIt’s difficult to nurture peacemakers in a faith-community which uses attack as its main way of relating to culture; to encourage love in a group which uses fear to manipulate people’s behavior; and to celebrate the essential equality of all Jesus-followers in a community which privileges the ordained, males, Anglos, and the “successful.”

By contrast, a community of servanthood provides an alternative to the culture’s jungle of competition. A community of generosity offers an alternative to the marketplace of greed.  A community which treats people the way Jesus would treat them—not as strangers, but as friends—opens up an alternative to our society’s too-common alienation and loneliness.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder once said: “A racially segregated church has nothing to say to the state about integration. . . [And] only a church doing something about prisoner rehabilitation would have any moral right to speak—or have any good ideas—about prison conditions or parole regulations.”

What a community says matters only if its words become deeds. Truth calls for more than announcing; it demands enacting. We need alternative communities guided and inspired by the Jesus-story in which people develop, by means of steady and shared practice, greater capacity for living in the Jesus-way and in which faithful and functional structures support and reflect the Jesus-mission.