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  • Prophetic Ethics:Rufus Burrow, Jr.'s, Personalist Contribution to Religious Ethics
  • Dwayne A. Tunstall

1. Introduction

Religious ethicists use a variety of conceptual tools from many disciplines—for example, psychology, sociology, anthropology, theology, philosophy, political science, cognitive science, and neuroscience—to study various religious traditions. They use these interdisciplinary tools to study how these traditions influence and are influenced by the cultural mores and societal norms of the societies in which these traditions are practiced. If William Schweiker's depiction of religious ethics in The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics is representative of the field's emerging self-conception, then religious ethics is primarily a hermeneutical and multidimensional field (See Schweiker 2-3). Schweiker thinks that this means religious ethicists have begun to think of their field as a series "of critical, comparative, and constructive tasks of moral inquiry into religious resources undertaken from a hermeneutical standpoint and with respect to interlocking dimensions of reflection" (Schweiker 3). These tasks include critically inquiring into how various religious traditions are related to cultural mores and moral practices, comparing different religious traditions and their moral codes, constructively using religious moral traditions to address societal problems and, when possible, resolving current societal problems (See Schweiker 3).

Given the comparative and normative tasks performed by religious ethicists, many forms of moral philosophy and moral theology have been well represented in the religious ethics literature. Yet, aside from religious ethicists mentioning Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, theologically-inspired social activism, ethical personalism of the Boston personalist variety has not been well represented in the field of religious ethics. This paper introduces those interested in religious ethics to ethical personalism of the Boston personalist variety. It [End Page 14] does this by introducing readers to the most prominent living representative of ethical personalism, Rufus Burrow, Jr. It also introduces readers to a contribution that Burrow's ethical personalism, or what he calls prophetic ethics, can make to religious ethics: It might remind religious ethicists that any ethics, religiously inspired or otherwise, is worthwhile to the extent that it denounces the injustices suffered daily by the poor, children, women, homosexual people, transgendered people, racial and cultural minorities, those with physical and cognitive disabilities, and anyone else who is unjustly discriminated against. It also reminds religious ethicists that ethics is primarily about promoting and maintaining communities in which the dignity of human lives is respected and protected.

I realize that the audience for this paper primarily consists of philosophers or scholars in related disciplines. So rather than jump straightaway into explaining Burrow's contributions to religious ethics, I would like to familiarize everyone with Burrow's prophetic ethics by comparing it to a prophetic philosophical position. That position is Cornel West's prophetic pragmatism. Accordingly, I will introduce Burrow's prophetic ethics by explaining the six essential characteristics of an ethical prophet. I think the most effective means of explaining these six essential characteristics is by comparing Burrow's ethical prophet with a Westian prophetic pragmatist. Once that is done, the concluding will explain how Burrow's prophetic ethics contributes to contemporary religious ethics.

2. Burrow's Ethical Prophet, West's Prophetic Pragmatist, and the Meaning of the Prophetic

I guess I should answer a couple of the questions on many readers' minds right now: Why should Burrow's prophetic ethics be compared to West's prophetic pragmatism? And why should Burrow's conception of the ethical prophet be compared with West's conception of the prophetic pragmatist? I think these two questions can be answered easily. First, Burrow's prophetic ethics and West's prophetic pragmatism both are intellectual descendents of liberal Protestant Christianity, especially the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century.1 Like Burrow's prophetic ethics, West's prophetic pragmatism also attempts to radicalize the progressivism of the Social Gospel movement by promoting social justice for the poor, women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, underemployed people, and anyone else who has been unjustly denied opportunities to fully participate as equal members of U.S. society. [End Page 15]

Moreover, Burrow's prophetic ethics and West's prophetic pragmatism both take the quest for social justice embodied in third-wave feminists, gay rights activists, liberationist theologians...