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Chapter 13 Feminism, Political Philosophy, and the Narrative Ethics of Jean Bethke Elshtain Mark Thiessen Nation Editor's Introduction One purpose of Nation's essay is to commend to Christians the work of femi­ nist ethicist and political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. A second purpose is to show how Elshtain's position could be strengthened by greater attention to the church as a community and an institution. Nation's essay nicely serves the pur­ poses of the present volume in that both his analysis of Elshtain's work and his recommendation to her manifest the value of a Maclntyrean understanding of ethics. Nation points out that Elshtain rightly takes Maclntyre's point that a social ethic can be understood only in light of sociology - an account of its actual or potential social embodiment. Thus, her work is replete with richly textured histor­ ical or sociological detail when she addresses herself to questions of politics or ethics. For example, Elshtain rejects blanket accounts of women's lives as power­ less victimization, and in their place tells stories of the everyday lives of women, reflecting both power and powerlessness. Nation highlights Elshtain's claim that Christianity represented a revolution in ancient concepts of the public and the private and in what it meant to lead a virtuous life. Not only were women welcomed into the new social and politi­ cal entity called the church, but the virtues and qualities once associated with women's roles - gentleness, concern for the helpless -were celebrated as ideals for the whole community in both public and private spheres. Elshtain agrees with Macintyre in criticizing the hyperindividualism of modern political liberalism. She calls for attention to the "mediating institutions" of civil society - families, communities, voluntary associations and movements. Why, then, Nation asks, does she pay so little attention to the church? It would make sense to tie her concern for mediating institutions to her recognition of the revo­ lutionary role of Christianity and argue for the church's potential for transforming the current social order. Elshtain's reason seems to be her judgment that the church has failed to pro­ mote the revolution it began in the early centuries. Nation uses Elshtain's own 289 290 Mark Thiessen Nation strategy of storytelling - recounting incidents from organized Christian resistance to the Nazis - to show the church's ongoing potential for social transformation. Macintyre himself is wary of institutions, believing that they inevitably corrupt practices. Nation's focus on the church as community (rather than institution) is quite helpful here. We could add that it is only when a community is truly embodying its own narrative that it avoids the corruption against which Macintyre warns. NANCEY MURPHY Introduction: On Living between Heaven and Hell Jean Bethke Elshtain, a longtime feminist, has written six books, edited several others, and written more than two hundred articles. For most of her writing and teaching career she has focused on political philosophy. Her first book dealt with the way in which the public and private realms have defined men's and women's lives throughout the history of politics in the Western world.1 But it was in the wake of her 1995 book, Democracy on Trial, that she was invited to the White House to be a consultant on the challenges to contemporary American democ­ racy, was dubbed a "public intellectual," and joined the Utne Reader magazine's list of 100 visionaries for the next century.2 Jean Bethke Elshtain has much to teach us, on many subjects. However, in this essay I want to focus on what her writings in political philosophy have to teach us about Christian social ethics. Christian ethics is not a subject on which she has written much directly. Only fairly recently has she switched from teaching political philosophy and become the first Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Likewise only recently has she become a member of the Ameri­ can Academy of Religion.3 At this transitional point in her career I would like to suggest ways in which her writings have implications for Christian social ethics. Because this essay is intended to focus on some constructive insights from Elshtain's work, it is important to put those ins�ghts into a context. This is im1 . Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private W oman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). 2. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (New York...


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