Vive la revolution: Christian Counter-Ethics

January 02, 2017

Vive la revolution: Christian Counter-Ethics

It is now commonplace to recognise that Western society is ‘post-Christian’, indeed anti-Christian.  For more than a millennium, the taken-for-granted values and attitudes that underlay Western society were hospitable to Christianity, but the environment has turned hostile. More and more, Christian beliefs and behaviours are not encouraged, nor even ignored, but actively opposed.

This is not a defeat to be feared or lamented, but an opportunity to be embraced. It gives us the opportunity to be much more like Jesus and the early church, who understood that the nature of the gospel they were proclaiming was radically opposed to everything that human society took for granted. They also understood that that radical inversion sprang not from divine hatred of human well-being, but from the irrationality of sin. The gospel, and the ways of life flowing from it, are good and healthy—the right way up—and lead to long-term personal and societal health. Sin is upside-down, and ways of life characterised by it lead eventually to personal and social destruction.

For more than a millennium, in Western society, the social acceptance of Christian morality muted this counter-ethical nature of the gospel and Christian behaviour.

An example of this can be found in attitudes to autonomy. Personal autonomy is sacred to contemporary Western society. I decide what’s right for me: my body, my relationships, and my future. Anyone who tries to stop my self-definition is oppressing me, because that autonomy is central to my existence.

But Jesus shows us an alternative value structure. He, the Son of God, came down from heaven not to do his own will but the will of the Father who sent him (Jn 6:38), the completion of whose will and work was more important to him than his daily bread (Jn 4:34). Jesus’ radical heteronomy –willingness to be defined by another – flowed not from oppression or shame, but from love and the conviction that what the Father commanded was good for him, his people, and the world.

These divergent attitudes to autonomy and heteronomy underpin the differences between Christian and contemporary Western views of euthanasia. At the time of writing this article, the South Australian state government was considering a bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill people.[1] What does it mean to ‘die well’?

Autonomy says that if I feel too aged, sick, or weak to any longer live a full, happy life, then I have the right to terminate my existence. That act of heroically choosing the time and circumstances of my own demise is the final act of my humanity.

But heteronomy says that we have personal value from external sources; from people who love us—family, friends, and, ultimately, God. We invite people to remain alive and receive that love, even if they are aged, or sick, or weak. And if people have no family to stand with them in their hour of need, then the people of God, must stand ready to love them, just as Jesus loved the unloved when he was among us. Staying alive in the face of death, railing against it as an enemy, and doing so together, as a community of love, becomes an act of human courage.

Which view is more consistent with the biblical gospel’s view of life and death? Which view better expresses our deepest human longings? Which is healthy, and which is destructive?

A ‘post-Christian’ society is an opportunity for Christians to live lives that are not just counter-cultural, but counter-ethical. In this way we can demonstrate, in both word and deed, the goodness of faith in Christ, and the ways of life associated with life in him. We do so in the face of a culture which is increasingly irrationally enamoured with self-destructive beliefs and ways of life. This is once again the opportunity for the church to testify that Jesus really does ‘save’.

Rev. Kamal Weerakoon is Assistant Minister at Epping Presbyterian Church, AFES worker at Macquarie University, and Adjunct Lecturer at Christ College Presbyterian Theological Centre.

[1] ‘Euthanasia bill with ‘safeguards’ introduced to South Australian Parliament’, ABC News Online, 20 Oct 2016,'safeguards'-introduced/7950988. The bill is available online:

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.