+ The following was originally delivered as part of the 2019 Last Lecture series hosted by Student Engagement and Success. The series prompts its speakers to share their keenest insights and life philosophies by asking the question, “What would you tell your audience if you had but one last lecture to give?”
Beauty is dangerous. I don’t just mean the sort of danger that can follow the unusually stunning––imagine what it might be like to go through life as Denzel Washington or Jennifer Lopez, ever wondering whether people love you for you or just because of the cache being with such a body brings. And I don’t mean the danger of the so-called “beautiful people” who can use their attractiveness as a weapon to manipulate those desperate to bask in reflected glory.
Rather, I mean that beauty––the ways we are moved and drawn by loveliness, by wonder, by that which escapes words yet nonetheless causes us to press syllables into poetry or compose notes into song––such beauty is a power unlike any other. By its nature, beauty draws us out of fretfulness about ourselves, and we become so fixated by it that we forget to be anxious or self-conscious. We stand agape or fall in delightful worship, lost in the invitation to enjoy the ache deep draughts of beauty entails.
But beauty not only invites us to become unselfconscious; its presence exposes all that is not good or beautiful. If beauty invites us to unselfconscious contemplation of goodness or wonder, then the rejection of beauty exposes us. Its presence clarifies our sensitivities and sensibilities; beauty demands a response, even if the response is to misread it and misinterpret it. The beautiful highlights our mistaken perceptions, the ways our vision or our dispositions have been warped so that we actually feel repulsed by its presence. Thus we often move to crush it; we erase or destroy it, and we do this while insisting that we are merely being efficient, effective, or––to get to my own discipline––moral.
So it is that we come to what I want to tell you in this last lecture: For Christians, being moral cannot be separated from embracing the beauty that is God and living in ways that offer that beauty to others. But my field of Christian ethics––and I fear too many churches, whether so-called progressive or so-called conservative––have severed our moral life from goodness, from wonder, from beauty because we have failed to conceptualize morality as participation in God’s life. In the academy and in congregations, ethics has become a matter of believing the right things about God or sin, having the right position on this or that “issue,” or about wielding principles like love, obedience, justice, or liberation as weapons to silence those whose morality is, to us, suspect.
So “doing ethics” translates into taking a stand––sometimes as public or social media protest––and asserting our own rightness. In an ironic enactment of Jesus’s parable, we sometimes weave our righteousness into liturgy, thanking God that we are not like those Pharisees (i.e., whoever the “they” is that stands on the opposite side of the issue du jour from “us”). In the West, ethics as a field of inquiry shifted from considerations of the good or true into arguments about what to do when rights or claims conflict. (You know the ways this plays out: my right to die vs. the state’s right to keep me from killing myself, a woman’s right to choose vs. a fetus’s right to life, my claim to a spot at this college based on my personal merit vs. another’s right to that spot in efforts to undo systemic racialization or sexism, etc.). But in the larger society we often practice what ethicists call “emotivism”: I don’t have to bother to argue why you are wrong; I simply assert that you and your views are offensive to me, repugnant, and I don’t need to justify by what measure they are so. I am thus free to humiliate, verbally filet, or otherwise insult you. Peruse talk radio, TV, or your social media feed for examples of this.
What I want you to hold on to is this: My society and some of our churches are sickened with a disease masquerading as moral uprightness. In a form of hell reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, we sever ties with others because we cannot bear to be with someone who holds “that” view or articulates themselves so insensitively or ignorantly. (Of course what counts as insensitive or ignorant depends on ideological commitments and their particular moral lines in the sand about sex, economics, diversity, doctrine. I presume hell is an equal-opportunity society, full of conservatives, liberals, or whatever.) We are choking on our own platitudes. Worse, we are strangling others with them––yes, other Christians but, even more distressingly, unbelievers who amidst the sludge of public discourse and the slog of consumerism seek good news, something so wondrous and surprising that it can drag them out of the current pit of divisiveness. Ethics as posturing makes us ugly; it malforms us as humans. But Christ offers us an antidote to this virus. He invites us to lose ourselves in acts of beauty, acts that are “moral” because they join our bodies to his own, because we offer our actions and efforts as an investment in the inevitable victory of beauty over the grotesqueness of injustice and death.
Now before we go any further, I have an important disclosure. Sometimes I am asked why I chose to go into ethics. There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One version talks about how as a child, I dove under school desks during the atomic bomb drills and, even then, thought, “Who are we kidding? We are toast.” I returned home to good people who wanted to care, but who were disconnected, sometimes violent, and, often, deeply depressed. Questions about the possibility of peace and justice loomed large for me even then; evil too often seemed to win, and my faith––including my theological pursuits––were and are ways to work out how to be whole and how to hope to be holy in such a world as this.
But there’s another side to my being an ethicist and in sum it is this: I like being right. I also enjoy telling other people what is right and, further, what they should do about it. Glen Stassen, a colleague now fallen asleep, once tongue-in-cheek remarked of the ethics department that we are a passionate crew––and, I would add about myself, prone to self-righteousness. This last lecture may then be about my own failings or about lessons I sometimes worry I have learned too late. I am my own audience here. I am the one choking on my moral rectitude; I am the one who longs for good news that draws me into a good that is worth every scrap of whatever time is left for me.
A Look at the Woman Who Anoints Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
I want us to slowly read together this text from Mark’s Gospel, pausing to picture it as we move through it. Importantly, consider how Mark sets this up: The anointing (the anointing as Messiah?) is sandwiched between a crisis––a problem of how to capture Jesus by stealth in order to kill him. It is bracketed by the impulse to eliminate, wipe out, the good that is this Christ.
Mark 14:1–2 [The set up]
It was now two days before the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread. And the ruling priests and the scribes were seeking how to seize him by deceit and put him to death, but they were saying, “Not during the festival, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
These guys have a problem. Like many leaders, they want to manage “peaceableness,” so that it masks the violence which they will wreak upon Jesus.
And while he was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper [presumably, “the former leper”!], as he reclined at table, there came a woman with an alabaster flask of very costly ointment of pure nard; and breaking the flask, she poured it over his head. But some were indignant, and began saying to themselves, “For what purpose was this waste of ointment? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.”
Picture all that is going on in this short scene: Men are resting, eating together as a group as they were wont to do then, gathered around Jesus who has dramatically entered Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna!” (ch. 11) and who exudes power and confidence in his interactions there. In comes a woman, first of all, who weaves her way through these men to get to the now-famous teacher-healer. As is obvious to them when they see the alabaster flask, she intends to shatter a precious container (likely imported from India or other distant land) and pour out a viscous oil usually reserved for the dead. We know this in part because we have discovered such alabaster flasks, with their narrow neck, in tombs. If we doubt the expense, these men make it explicit. This is worth more than 300 or so days of work! Take your salary and calculate what about 82% would be; that’s the cost of this extravagance.
We are not to miss the “walk of shame” this woman endures, filing past these men and the miasma of their open disdain. In this, she mirrors Christ’s own upcoming humiliation, ways he will be publicly disgraced and dishonored.
But we also should catch that the disciples have a good point. Earlier we have heard Jesus’s lauding of giving (and a hint of frustration at the pillaging of the poor by leadership; ch.12:41ff.). He loved the rich man by telling him to give all he had to the needy, and the disciples realized that they were actually on target for once by investing everything in following him (ch. 10). Surely, despite all the ways they have recently proven clueless in Mark’s Gospel, surely this time they have it right! They confidently and without question have come to the correct moral judgment, adopt the correct ethical position, and thus make it known:
And they rebuked [also, “scolded, warned”] her harshly. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you causing her trouble? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you will always have the poor with you, and whenever you want you can do something good for them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Note that this woman is the only one whom Jesus credits with “getting” his predictions of death. Does she turn to him in surprise when he says, “She has anointed me for my burial”? Perhaps Jesus is not as interested in a merely heady comprehension of the concept of his dying (or a theological assertion of it). In Mark, she alone performs her own life in concert with his death; her action recognizes that joining with his death means she, too, must open herself to disgrace, to mockery. But like Jesus, she does so willingly, compelled not by self-hate but rather by love, obedience, and admiration for someone she sees and perceives as worth her extravagant display.
Mark 14:10–11 [And now back to those who want to kill him; here is the other slice of bread for the sandwich of this story]
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the ruling priests so he might hand Jesus over to them. And when they heard it, they were pleased and promised to give him money. So Judas was seeking how he might hand him over at a convenient moment.
We will discuss Judas a bit later; for now, notice how his response answers the problem of the religious leadership introduced just before this tale.
I wish I could say that I have been the disciples in this story only once or twice, or that I really have to dig into my memory banks to find examples. The truth is that I am these disciples, standing at the sideline snarking about what other people are doing wrong, or worse––given my outspokenness and personality––rebuking others with little awareness or sensitivity. I have done this in private, dressing down friends or pastors whose actions I thought immoral; I have done this in public, writing on Facebook or challenging people in meetings. To be clear, this is a part of my role in the body of Christ, God help me; I am a passionate extrovert made to press the envelope by asking questions and pushing boundaries. These gifts are meant to be just that: gifts for the upbuilding of others for our common life. But they must always be offered through my devotion to Christ, a risky act of loving Christ by speaking truthfully (or with truth as I perceive it). Though Jesus went vulnerable and unarmed to the cross (something I affirm fully in theory as an Anabaptist), I come out with verbal guns ablazin’, energized by the cocksureness of my ethical position.
Like the disciples here, I have skipped over the question of how to connect my life to Jesus in this particular moment. Instead I have grasped principles like “always speak the truth to power” without asking, “How do I this, so I trust in the force of Jesus’ reign and rightness and not in my own? How can I do this in a way that points others to see that ethics is always about the God of Israel, that I am also called to woo people by pointing to the wonder of God’s goodness? How do I resist the temptation to make this an exercise in Erin’s cleverness or proclamation of my own courageous stance?” I can even make hostility to my truth telling into a badge of pride; I sometimes chew on these rebukes as evidence of my prophetic voice––a poor diet that leaves me and I suspect many others bitter and disdainful.
What gets this woman through the door, what motivates her to keep moving past the contempt of these men, is not a desire to prove herself––really, it is not about her at all. Her passionate desire is to join her life––to invest her resources––in Jesus’s risky move to the cross. She does a sensual and seemingly insignificant act in a world full of opportunity for truly effective action. Guided by her longing to join herself to Jesus, vulnerable adoration determines what she does with this expensive gift. She is not guided by the quite solid principle of caring for the poor. And she does not expect the promise she receives of being immortalized as the only one to really “get” Jesus’s statements about his death. But I have received my reward when either the accolades of the like-minded or the rebukes from the disdainful become evidence of my righteousness, rather than fixing my eyes on Christ, on figuring out what I need to do in this moment to join my life, to invest my all, in the goodness of the Way of Jesus.
Many of you are not like me. At your best, you bring other sorts of gifts by personality and temperament. In this scenario your temptation may not be moving too quickly or speaking too loudly. Yours may be to fret the possible rebuke. You listened to this woman’s story and you identified with the shame, the humiliation, and you wonder if you could have stepped over the threshold into that roomful of men, let alone made it past the mockery to Jesus to shatter that obscenely expensive flask of oil. In your eagerness to explain your reticence, you may articulate a morality of standing above the fray, an ethics of peaceableness that doesn’t trouble the waters. Better to blend in––but this, too, closes us off from acts of surprising beauty, movements that cause rage, yes, but that also move some to wonder.
Ruth Vuong’s Just and Beautiful Life
Whatever does it mean to “enact the beautiful”? When I think of this story, I think of my friend Ruth Vuong. When she died unexpectedly and too soon, she was serving as dean of students here at Fuller. I worked for her and with her for several years, and while she was my boss at times, she became a friend and mentor. On one hand, you could view Ruth’s life as one of integrity and dogged determination to do the right thing. She was sometimes a thorn in the side of the administration and a regular at Los Angeles City Council meetings. She adopted her daughter from a Cambodian refugee camp––a story of encounter with Christ that I can’t begin to tell eloquently. I could list all her qualities or recount for you her mantra regarding the pursuit of God’s just peace: “Follow the money.” I could go on and on, because she lived her life as consistent enactment of Christ’s reign and reminded us that we best get started learning to enjoy the oddities of this kingdom by, say, learning to eat with friends and enemies.
While technically this is an accurate recounting of Ruth’s life, it doesn’t capture the quality of her life or, more importantly, the ways her life witnessed to the unexpected loveliness of the gospel in ordinary time. She lived as one drawn to the beauty of Christ and, in that singleness of mind, she drew others to him, many of us riding the long train of the garment of her wonder at his presence in a fractured and brutal world. That is how I came to visit Central Juvenile Hall with her and several other friends, following her in her devotion to Christ. Ruth kept a crucifix in her office and in her home, and it reminded her of the posture of Christ’s love for others and thus of her own. Ruth knew that Christ was still being crucified––that the weak continued to be strung up by the strong.
As is true of all the saints, you could also say of Ruth that she wasted her life. She was an extraordinary preacher; Ian Pitt-Watson, a famed preaching professor at Fuller at the time, said she was the best preacher he had ever heard. An admirer of Flannery O’Connor, her writing tingled with power, her calls for the disruption of business-as-usual sneaking up on the audience as she wooed each us with her poetry or prose. She made little money (I accidentally saw her salary once and was appalled). But instead of adjusting her life in measure to others’ praise or reproach as I often do, she tuned her life by listening for God’s presence and figuring out how to live in concert with it, how to amplify it. Sure, this made her “ethical”––annoyingly so at times, to be honest. But it also made her lovely, a beauty beyond her warm smile and hospitality. Duty to neighbor, commitment to justice, or obedience to God summarizes morality for many, but doing the beautiful thing marks Christian love and thus all Christian ethics. Christian morality never fits on a bumper sticker; Christian ethics cannot be grasped apart from becoming fluent in the art of joining ourselves to Jesus and enacting his Way of life-through-dying.
But what might such loveliness look like, especially when by definition beauty is not predictable? An example of Ruth’s witness to beautiful wastefulness was how she and Thuan celebrated their marriage. We had all been going to Central Juvenile Hall for months, talking about these youths’ lives and how Jesus might be present in them. I don’t know how familiar you are with such spaces or the darkness typical of many such facilities; that is another talk altogether. We visited boys ages 14 to 17 who were being tried as adults because of their alleged crimes, many of them facing sentences of 25 years to life. It was one of the most oppressive places I have ever been, and that was not usually due to the youths themselves. It was a place with many shadows and a space sometimes given over to the viciousness of the powers that be.
For their wedding, Thuan and Ruth took a trip to Central in order to share their day with these young boys/men. And so on a day when most brides worried about the party favors and fussed over floral arrangements, Ruth and Thuan traipsed through the security at Central Juvenile Hall robed in festive traditional Vietnamese wedding garments. In their wake, they brought a small entourage, and we celebrated their vows “inside,” as we put it, with hundreds of young men and women, with any who wished to attend this service.
I think of this moment when I listen to this Bible story. Some of the guards and perhaps a few of the guests found this event shocking and, I suspect, wasteful. It was wasteful on many counts. Ruth would not see the vast majority of these kids again––this place held them temporarily while they were on trial or otherwise negotiated their fate; often we could not track them in the system, or outside it if they were released. On this special day, it took a good bit of time and energy to manage a celebration among suspected criminals in an institutional setting that was––to the naked eye––dirty, ugly, and depressing. We got odd looks from staff; most of the youth were, I think, completely flummoxed and squirming in discomfort––in this, they joined several family and friends also in attendance, who stood out in a sea of orange jumpsuits. Would these kids even remember that they had been invited into this celebration, that they became invited guests to a wedding banquet? You can hear echoes of our Gospel story, can’t you? “What a waste! If you really want to be useful to these youth, advocate for a change in the system, for overturning gang enhancement laws, for quality representation for the poorest of the poor! Why spend a portion of your wedding here, among youth you mostly do not know and who could care less about you and your future happiness? Why make such a show of your devotion to God, especially among these gang members?”
But Ruth didn’t care as much about efficacy or efficiency in pursuing justice as she did about pointing to the Christ who offered his life in a shocking, spectacular overturning of the powers and principalities of this world. While many of us spent our time posturing about ethics, making sure others knew what we stood for or whose agenda we affirmed, Ruth wasn’t into posturing about correct moral positions. Instead of posturing, Ruth enacted postures that pointed to Christ. These postures joined her to Christ and required that she die to that close imposter of genuine morality: self-conscious and cocksure declarations about what is right. For those who have forgotten––or who never knew––that all morality is a costly investment in God’s inevitable future, her offerings did not seem only peculiar. Ways she lived appeared to squander her resources, gifts, and time. Sometimes enacting the beautiful is perceived as immoral and, indeed, as dangerous. As such, it must be stomped out, rejected, obliterated.
We come back, then, to our story and to the way Mark sets up the stark contrasts of reactions to the woman’s actions. The religious leaders––those serious about their own faith and committed to keeping others on the straight and narrow––have decided Jesus must be killed. (As a note, these characters are the most like me: they are professional religious people, deeply invested in faith and in guiding the faithful.) Jesus disrupted economics, religion, politics, seminary-as-usual. Remember that the leaders do not see their actions as going against the good of the people; like most leaders, they believe they are doing the best thing not only for themselves but for others. Sure, they are going to do this through “deceit,” but that’s only because they are concerned for maintaining the peace among the people. They need an inside man.
Judas and How to Squander a Life
Mark sandwiches this story between scenes about betrayal, and it turns us to a key character: Judas. I think Judas comprehends what is going on in this scene more than the other disciples. To this point, the disciples miss the significance of Jesus’s statements about his death. He has said that the way to life is through dying to our egos, a dying not driven by self-hate but rather a dying that is more like the happy self-forgetfulness that occurs when we fall in love with another. While the disciples are rather hapless in Mark, ignoring Jesus’s comments about his upcoming humiliation in crucifixion and flogging, this moment of beauty pierces through Judas’s reluctance to recognize the implications of what Jesus has been saying and doing. Disrupted by this woman and by Jesus’s reaction, Judas gets it: Jesus really is going to waste his life. Instead of the powerful and effective Messiah he had hoped for, instead of the leader who would make Judas’s investment of his time, treasure, and talent worthwhile, instead of effecting justice for Jews amidst oppression––Jesus will squander his life and drag along those who have given up everything for him.
Depending on where you stand, depending on how you understand ethics, Judas can be seen as a pragmatist, a “Christian realist,” who rejects delusions and salvages what he can out of a lost cause. Or he is a tragic figure who has embraced the seeming effectiveness of raw power rather than God’s ever surprising way of overturning injustice––from blasting walls via the breath of Gideon’s trumpet to breathing on a diverse and ragtag group who will come to be known as “little Christs.” But either way Judas does in some sense see clearly: he perceives that this woman is imitating Jesus and thus they are two peas in a pod. She has adopted his same posture of putting all that she has on the line for love; she and Jesus are like one another, both misusing and misappropriating their resources. Her actions help him––and all who read this Gospel––see Jesus more clearly. In this way, the story that is told in remembrance of her comes to us as a liturgy of communion––an invitation to join our lives to hers in wasteful acts of adoration of our crucified (and risen) King.
Judas’s response reminds us not to be romantic about acts of beauty. Beauty is dangerous: to the one who enacts it, to the ones drawn to it, to those who witness it. Beauty demands a response, and sometimes the response is the one we noted: people may seek to destroy it and, in the process, seek your humiliation.
Jesus also reminds us not to be flippant about taking a stand for the weak or desperate. After all, his retort that “you can do good to them whenever you wish” (one might also read this, “So what is stopping you from lovin’ on the poor yourself right now?”) affirms that they know the right position to take about the poor. The “wrong” part is they did not understand that laws alone do not heal, that rules about behavior or beliefs are insufficient, that principles alone finally choke out fidelity. Why do they do this? Because for Christians, ethics is always a way of embracing Christ and Christ’s way in an act of love, and love can never be completely systematized or routinized. Finally, love is sometimes (even often?) ineffective, insignificant, or inefficient––and, for those with eyes to see, it is often (if not always) beautiful.
In a world torn asunder by assertions about our own particular “rightness,” in a society trying to force you into predictable ideological boxes, in an outrage culture set on shaming our enemies through social media: What might it mean for you to live your life as a beautiful waste? How might you surprise others by taking on humiliation rather than placing it on others? How might you be invited to shatter your alabaster flask––your own version of something you have held aside, protected, or seen as your security––as a way of losing your self-consciousness in exchange for self-forgetful love of Christ?
I know many of you have done just this. Some of you left secure and good jobs to “do ministry” in ways that provoked some people to think you a fool and others to ask you, “Why this wastefulness? Who could inspire such lavish affection?” Some of you are engaging in beautiful acts, joining Christ in loving those whom others do not. Others of you offer extravagant mercy to family or friends or even enemies, inviting them to your tables at home, at churches, at your workplaces. Others of you invest in youth who seem remarkably unaware of the demands they place on you. Some of you love people you aren’t supposed to, and befriend across party lines: the racist, the Democrat, the Bernie-lover and the Hilary-despiser, the Trump supporter, the gay, or the sexually unenlightened. In these and so many other ways, you provoke frustration and reap humiliation. But you also cause some to look on in wonder: “Who is this Christ who inspires creative kindnesses, rejects politics-as-usual, and frees you to be so wastefully extravagant in your hospitality?”
Whatever you do, resist the temptation to be confident that moral uprightness consists in taking the right position. Too often we stand with arms akimbo, confident of our platitudes, or we point our finger, sometimes shaming the saints. Instead, proclaim the gospel as this woman tells it, and posture your life as a lavish, beautiful, even wasteful investment in the Way of Christ.
But we need to be cautious and notice something else that Judas teaches us: There is another sort of wastefulness that is not beautiful at all––it is squandering, full-stop. Judas’s actions seem prudent, making a small bit of money on an investment of his time and energy that will soon be rendered worthless by Jesus’s determined movement toward the cross. In other Gospels, we see Judas overcome by his betrayal. Judas cannot imagine the beauty of God’s morality, that like Peter, he could have betrayed Jesus and been forgiven, restored. Perhaps such restorations may be what will make heaven so repulsive to some, so compellingly lovely to others. But as the story is preserved for us in the Gospels, Judas reminds us that it is possible to waste our lives on petty concerns for short-term gain or on saving face with our seeming industriousness or busy-ness. Unwilling to link his destiny to the dream that a crucified Messiah could overthrow the powers of darkness, Judas’s tale becomes tragedy, and pragmatism unravels into depression, despair, and death. Even at the end, Judas cannot perceive the “beautiful thing” that lies within the crucifixion and thus eventually sees only his own failure in it, unable to receive the surprising beauty offered him in the deep good of Good Friday.
In closing, we cannot speak about ethics without resort to principles or rules, just as we cannot do without affection for and passion about them. But it is hard to get from reasoned discourse or shrill accusations to the laying down of our lives for others, including our enemies. Alone, they cannot coach us to love and embody beauty, and more to the point they cannot inspire us to postures of wasteful love of Christ. It has never been an ability to keep the moral law or hold the correct views on social issues that drew people to Christ and his church. Rather, it has always been the creative, lovely way saints live that invites curiosity––and also disdain, accusations of ineffectiveness, and sometimes, viciousness. Like we noted in the beginning, beauty is dangerous. But “being right” about morality is never enough for Christians and, as the disciples remind us, it can even be wrong. Sureness about our moral rectitude can keep us from joining with Jesus. So lean into the wonder of Christ by wasting your own nard, your precious resources. Let what is said in memory of you be like that which is said of Ruth: She was not merely just, and did not only work for justice for the poor and excluded. People were drawn to her because she lavishly, wastefully poured her time, treasure, and talent into a life that was not merely righteous but also beautiful.
 Is this what beauty is––one definition is that which invites us to bask in its loveliness? Is this the sense in which “with my body, I thee worship” was meant to be taken? It is a sort of self-forgetfulness, dangerous because beauty disarms us, catches us up into something or someone else.
 Most people would here say, “Love.” And obviously that is right. But the problem is that love (and of course beauty, too) is prone to misperception and projection of our own definition. So stories such as this woman in Mark and indeed the women who anoint Jesus in all four Gospels offer images of what it means to be a disciple, to die to ourselves in love for God’s son and his reign. To divorce beauty, love, or whatever from story leaves it more vulnerable to our manipulation.