This Year's Christian Ethics Final Exam

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Every year my Christian ethics class ends the year with a final examination that amounts to answering a hypothetical question. The point is not to get to any particular answer but to see how they get there. Do they have the tools to think through ethical decisions with wisdom and discernment? Below is this year’s question. Note that this is purely hypothetical and fanciful. I don’t think this is America’s future, and I don’t at all think this is the trajectory of American Islam, or American Christianity. So here’s this year’s situation. How would you answer it?

As you listen to your three friends, you find it hard to keep your attention. You wonder if maybe it’s your age. You never expected to still be in ministry at this age. But, then again, with life expectancies and medical technology as they are these days, seventy seven really isn’t all that old. You also never expected to be back in Louisville, where you went to seminary, but here you are, and you are one of the most respected Christian voices in the country. Your insight matters to Christians all over your town, and beyond to believers throughout CentriFuge (the denomination formerly known as the Southern Baptist Convention). That’s a heavy burden, especially today.

Kentucky isn’t the Bible belt anymore. The United States has become much more pluralistic than what you experienced growing up, and the religious landscape has shifted. It’s still kind of hard to drive down Lexington Road, and see The Southern Buddhist Theological Seminary there where the Beeches used to be. The “Just as I OMMMM Christian-Yogic Meditation Center” where Mohler Hall once was still unnerves you a little. Most of Kentucky, like the most of America, is generically secularist, much like Western Europe when you were younger. Christianity is still vibrant, of course, but not at all what it once seemed in terms of public presence.

The fastest growing religion in Kentucky is Islam. Immigrant communities from the Middle East and Africa most often are Muslim these days, but the largest growth is through conversion. Young people tired of the burned over anti-spirituality of post-Christian secularism seem drawn to the authority, the community, and the perceived authenticity of Islam. You’ve seen many of your former youth group kids now Muslim. At the same time, you have a lot of sympathy with your Muslim neighbors. They’re committed to strong families, and they seem better than most at navigating their children away from cultural rot.

The largest Muslim group is not much like what you’ve always known as Islam. It’s a far-right “restorationist” group that is to historic Islam roughly what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to historic Christianity. While differing significantly, this group insists it has recovered the ancient Islamic faith, and alone “refuses to compromise with modernity.” Mainstream Muslims, mostly overseas, denounce it as a “cult” but the “restorationist” Muslims are by far the dominant Islamic group now in America and Europe.

That’s what brings the meeting together this morning. The meeting consists of three members of a small group in your church. Emily Schreiner is a faithful church member, the granddaughter of one of your old seminary professors, and currently the governor of Kentucky. Jeremy Bazelon, also a church member, is the mayor of Metro Louisville-Nashville-Cincinnati (“One City/Three Locations” goes the motto). Alya McKenzie is the third figure in front of you. She’s a former Muslim. You led her to Christ, and you’ve seen her thrive in discipleship. They each have a connected dilemma, and they need your help.

1.) Mayor Bazelon has to weigh in on an issue with the city schools to keep from sparking civil discord. Public school is now compulsory all over the country, with no private education or homeschooling for students in grades three through nine. The public schools have required all students to wear uniforms, for years now. The largest Muslim group is outraged.

Reacting against a pornographic American culture, the branch of Islam that has grown the most is the one with the most extreme view of modesty. Women, from young children to the elderly, are required by the decree of their religious leaders, to cover every part of the body, except for the eyes. This is why Kentucky Muslim women are immediately identifiable, by the wearing of these restrictive religious robes and head scarves. The school system mandated the wearing of uniforms, thereby banning this kind of religious dress, sparking outrage from Muslims (led by the Council on Koranic Manhood and Womanhood) and civil libertarians.

Now the city is reconsidering the decision, with heavy opposition from feminist groups (who believe these practices are degrading to women; especially minor girls who cannot consent to this kind of treatment) and conservative groups (who believe the loss of a common American culture, through Muslim “identity politics,” is fracturing the country and segregating Muslims from becoming part of the American mainstream).

Mayor Bazelon worries about whether the rule is a violation of Muslim religious liberty. At the same time, however, he wonders where things will stop if the city grants an exemption. After all, another fast growing group is the racist/nativist/Satanist white supremacist religion, the Church of the Aryan Nation, which requires its male adherents to go shirtless to display the bigoted and violent sayings they’ve carved into their skin. The mayor worries a “loophole” for the Muslims will open the door for this too.

2.) Governor Schreiner is concerned about the most talked-about human rights issue in the world today. The reactionary Islamic communities, along with some reactionary Christian groups, now practice ritual female “circumcision,” known by human rights activists as “genital mutilation.” While the vast majority of Muslims have never done this, this particular sect of Islam justifies the practice as ancient, and grounded in a valid interpretation of their religious teachings. The older, more mainstream, Islamic groups denounce the practice, as does a coalition of feminist and Christian groups, who believe it is inhumane and assaults the dignity of women.

Governor Schreiner is horrified, as you are, by female genital mutilation. There are efforts in the Kentucky legislature to restrict or outlaw the practice. The Jewish community, while denouncing the practice too, is concerned that such efforts might also lead to the outlawing of circumcision generally. After all, many of the courts have started ruling that the circumcision of men is also cruel, inhumane, reduces later sexual sensation, and happens without the consent of the one circumcised. Most Jewish leaders abhor the awful practice, but also worry about whether court application of the laws would inhibit the religious liberty of their synagogue.

The circumcision party of restorationist Islam insists that outlawing this practice would violate their free exercise. This practice, they argue, is what separates their group from what they believe to be the “corrupted” and “modern” versions of Islam that have been dominant since the Middle Ages. For them, they say, it would be tantamount to outlawing baptism.

But you’ve seen the horror of what happens to these girls and women.

3.) Alya is a godly Christian woman, an immigrant to the States, who grew up in mainstream Islam. She married a convert to the most extreme form of American futuristic Islam, and later came to know Christ. Her husband is not pleased with her Christianity. Alya is six months pregnant, with a little girl. Her husband has insisted that, when the baby is born, they “circumcise” her and that she wear the restrictive dress all of her life. Alya is strongly opposed to both scenarios (especially the first). At the same time, she wants to follow the mandate of 1 Peter 3:1 to be submissive to her husband that he might be “won without a word” by her conduct.

You must decide how to advise the mayor about religiously mandated dress, the governor about female genital mutilation, and the mother about the balance between submission to her husband and care for her daughter. What is right and just in these situations? What is loving to neighbor? Walk through each step of ethical reflection, explaining how you arrive at your answers, grounding your answer in Scripture, the gospel, and, if applicable, natural law and common grace. Think through the implications of your answer in each situation for unintended consequences, and show how you would resolve those.

Across the table are three Christians, each perplexed about what it means to follow Christ with their place of authority and responsibility. They look to you for an answer. You look down at your Bible, and blink. Outside you hear a lone cricket chirping in the night…

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.