John Stackhouse is the author of Making
the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real
World (Oxford University Press, 2008). Find more
of these columns at www.Faith Today.ca/
C anadian Christians often feel confused about how to respond appropriately to issues like female genital
mutilation, the Hindu practice of sati
(widow burning) or the censoring
of religiously offensive cartoons.
We are often warned to avoid
imposing our own cultural values
on others. If we are white and
middle class, we may be told not
only to shut up, but to feel guilty
about the oppression in which our
Yet we are also often told, sometimes by the same people, that we
should support campaigns for justice on behalf of all who lack it.
Is it still acceptable to declare
certain actions as moral wrongs?
The University of Chicago’s Richard
Miller considers this question in
the wake of acts of terrorism such
as 9/11 in his book Terror, Religion,
and Liberal Thought (Columbia
University Press, 2010).
He argues that yes, these acts
were not just “harmful to the interests of me and mine,” but objectively, categorically evil.
But on what grounds can we say
so in the face of cultural relativism?
Feminist scholars have raised
similar questions for decades. If
there are no universal moral values,
feminism itself is doomed as a
political movement. It will have no
purchase on the conscience of
anyone who doesn’t already agree
with its ideals.
As a privileged white man myself, I am delighted to hear the
message of cultural relativism. It
tells me that I have no right to judge,
let alone meddle in, the affairs of
others – such as the cultural practices of poor women of colour.
That’s great news, since we privileged white men have a long history
of not caring a whit about poor
women of colour. Thus I happily
receive their implicit permission to
focus on my own cultural values –
making money, extending power,
silencing dissent and ignoring the
busybody activists seeking to impose their values on me.
That can’t be the way forward.
And, paradoxically, most Canadians are not in fact consistently
relativistic. Rather, we are fiercely
moralistic, at least about the
things we care about. From child
molestation to littering, most
Canadians today are quick on the
draw with absolute judgments.
Negotiating this shifting ethical
ground, then, requires sensitivity
and fast reflexes. We can be in the
middle of a conversation in which
we’re all shaking our heads at the
values held by some other group –
“Well, I don’t agree with that, but if
I’d been raised in that group, I’d
probably agree with it, so I guess we
just ‘live and let live,’ eh?”
Then, without warning, we can
be expected to join in the denunci-
ation of those horrible Muslims for
doing A, or those heavy-handed
Israelis for doing B, or those stupid
Tories for doing C, or those man-
iacal Pentecostals for doing D.
So what do we do?
First, we recognize that nowadays
we are not in fact living in a culture
in which anything goes. We note
that cultural relativism is usually
deployed as a defensive weapon
against opponents who seem close
to winning the ethical argument.
Second, we give thanks that so
many Canadians really care about
justice, even if we don’t always
agree with how this or that Can-
adian conceives of it or seeks it.
Third, we recognize that we do
not see everything correctly. Most
readers of Faith Today don’t believe
in the infallibility even of the
Pope, so we had better not award
that privilege to ourselves. Since
we have only limited and distorted
views of reality, we must get
together with people who disagree
with us, ask them questions, and
listen hard and long.
We must listen to them as fellow
human beings who don’t have
simply different values and experiences than we do, for if we
listen that way, we’re just tourists
visiting among exotic “others.”
Instead, we listen to them as
people who might actually know
things we don’t, see things we
don’t, value things we don’t – and
things that we might be better off
knowing, seeing and valuing.
Fourth, we consult Scripture,
listen to church tradition, do our
analytical homework, pray for
guidance, and rely on the Lord
Jesus to guide us to right thought,
right passion and right action.
And, finally, we act. We trust
God to supervise things such that,
if we are actually wrongheaded in
our quest, God will prevent us
from doing too much harm and
correct us in time that we may join
the right side. But in the meanwhile, we do all we can to love our
neighbours as ourselves and bring
to the world as much shalom as
We must venture, humbly but
resolutely, in faithful action. The
alternatives are either imperialistic
overreach or paralyzed relativism.
And neither of those ever did anyone any good. /FT
We are not
in fact living
in a culture
“RIGH T IS RIGH T EVEN
IF NO ONE IS DOING
IT; WRONG IS WRONG
EVEN IF EVER YONE IS
DOING I T.”
—AUGUS TINE OF HIPPO
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
To judge, to help
Can moral judgments actually help bring shalom?