At this point, you might be thinking - but wait. Since America was founded on Christian principles (largely), isn't a lot of our cultural ethic the same as a lot of our Christian ethic? Don't we believe in basically the same things? Certainly, you're not suggesting that God somehow disapproves of good in this world just because our culture also agrees with it, right?
I am not suggesting that at all. But remember when I said that this whole conversation of Christian ethics gets a little tricky? Here's another one of those places.
Because...you're right. Sometimes, culture agrees with us on certain ideas. Certainly, things like mercy and grace and love and freedom and strength and support and neighborliness are Christian ideas that culture largely agrees with. Certainly, these are the kinds of things that culture is asking us to do more of.
There are a couple of sticking points. First, culture doesn't always use our words with the same definition that we do. We've talked about this before, and it's a place where we have to be careful. Culture, for example, uses the word "love" a lot. But when culture says "love," what they really mean is blind affirmation. They want us to not only tolerate, but to celebrate, whatever a person wants to do and whatever choices a person makes in his or her own life. "Love" in the world's definition has no place for something like "truth," unless it is the "relative truth" that declares that whatever a person believes is true for that person.
Christ meant something very different by love. He meant that we should always desire the very best for those around us, that we should labor ourselves for their good. He meant that we should be self-sacrificial for the betterment of others...and that does not mean sacrificing our principles (although the world tries to spin it this way, too).
Likewise, the world tries to tell us that mercy and grace and even justice are earned or deserved. The world wants us to develop a ranking system whereby we determine who is "worthy" of these things. And if we're not sure, our world will tell us. (Hint: it is often wrong and is rooted in the world's own prejudice.) I don't need to give you examples of how perverted "justice" is in our country; you already know.
The second sticking point is even more delicate, more difficult, and it is this: we have to keep in mind why we believe and act the way that we do. In other words, are we living a certain way because Christ commands us to live that way...or are we living that way because our cultural sensibilities lead us to act that way?
Purpose matters. What you have your eyes on matter. What you're working toward matters. Are you working toward the reconciliation of all things to God? Or are you working toward a relative common peace? Are you working toward building the community of God's people into a holy nation? Or are you interested in preserving the nation that permits you to worship your God so freely?
Yes, it is true that all truth is God's truth. And yes, it is true that even those who have not heard the Good News of God still often live by His wisdom because goodness is goodness is goodness no matter where we find it and even creation itself testifies to the goodness of God. (Paul said this.) But if you call yourself a Christian, then you don't get to take such a hands-off approach to goodness. You don't get to pretend that it's just as good for you to live as someone without the Good News as it is for someone in a tribal region that we haven't even discovered yet. If you know better, God expects you to live like you know better. He is not satisfied with you settling for good things when you know holy things in your heart.
So when it comes to these questions of how we're supposed to live, we have to be mindful about why we are living the way that we're living and not just being aware of how it is that we're living. Yes, it's true - sometimes, our cultural and our Christian ethics overlap. Sometimes, they agree with one another. And it's easy to say, then, doesn't that mean that sometimes it's Christian, even when it looks cultural?
Because a true Christian ethic has at its core the heart of God. Always. And a cultural ethic never does.