Spring 2010: Of Note

Moral Meaning and Social Change

A former student reflects on the career of Candler ethics professor Jon Gunnemann, who retired this year

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. 90PhD

One hour prior to our scheduled baccalaureate service, members of my graduating class at Duke University staged a protest vigil, urging the University to divest from some of the morally questionable aspects of its portfolio. South African apartheid was in the news and university divestment was in the air. Our baccalaureate speaker, the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin, came out to visit with the protestors shortly before the procession began. He assured us that his heart was with us, and that he wanted to stand symbolically “by the banners.”

As he turned to leave, and just before putting on his academic regalia, Coffin smiled, offering a final, pithy observation. “Just remember this,” he opined, “even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Chuckling softly, he trotted back inside the Duke Chapel.

I left Duke University that summer and enrolled in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion in the fall, with those words still ringing in my ears. I had become uncertain about the moral status of the university as an institution, and about my own sense of vocation as a teacher-in-training. I had opted to pursue a PhD, as much as anything else, in order to figure out my own sense of vocation, and to better discern the moral contours of the modern university.

Emory was destined to change my perspective on both matters, as normally happens at a thriving research university, by introducing me to people and to ideas I had not known would be there when I matriculated.

The first of these influences came from the late William Arrowsmith, the larger-than-life translator of Classical Greek drama with whom I translated for several years as a doctoral student. Bill left a lasting imprint on the way I inhabit language, the way I hear words, the way I try to sense the dramatic and moral potential of literature and of the college classroom alike. He was a teacher who inspired transformation through ritual gestures, large and small.

The second of these influences was Jon P. Gunnemann. Jon was destined to exert a far longer reach on my life and subsequent career. What I had not realized while standing in front of the Duke Chapel prior to my graduation was that calls for divestment were part of a far larger trend—the interest in “ethical investing”—a trend that Jon himself was instrumental in inspiring. “Ethical investing” is a commonplace today, and probably seems like a fairly obvious cause to which modern universities should be committed and for which they should express their clearest concern. It was not so in the early 1970s; it is not too much to say that Jon Gunnemann helped make these matters seem obvious, and hence to matter, to many people within the modern university and those beyond her hallowed borders.

A book Gunnemann co-authored (with John G. Simon and Charles Powers), The Ethical Investor (Yale University Press, 1972), offered an uncannily early and prescient analysis of the university as a corporation, but a corporation arguably with unique ethical responsibilities. He returned to these issues on a more global scale in an important volume he edited, after organizing several international conferences with the assistance of the Carnegie Foundation, a book entitled The Nation-State and Transnational Corporations in Conflict (Praegar Publications, 1975).

The dates of these two books bear further attention. Jon Gunnemann was attempting to articulate a new way of looking at the university—as a corporation, and as one with global reach and singular international responsibilities. Education was not a business, he insisted, but the institutions in which higher education takes place are businesses. Universities manage enormous endowments, they invest, they weigh costs and benefits, they scale back in times of economic duress. Having made this case so compellingly, Jon was invited by then-President Laney to serve on an advisory committee intended to sort out the ethical implications of Emory’s own portfolio, not long before I arrived on campus.

In all of this, Jon Gunnemann patiently insisted that there were special ethical responsibilities the corporate university bore, especially as international investors, and he called the modern university back to a higher sense of its own ethical calling. In so doing, Jon also helped me to recall my own. I shifted my scholarly concentration to social ethics, and completed my dissertation—on tragedy, of all things—under his direction. The fact that his literary and aesthetic sensibilities actually inspired many of his finest and sharpest ethical insights is amply attested by the quality and the topics of the dissertations Jon Gunnemann directed throughout his career at Emory, and in this sense, his influence on my life and career deepened and enhanced the Classical resonances I learned to appreciate from Bill Arrowsmith. Under his tutelage, Emory became a place where literary pursuits enhanced the moral work of the broader moral community that any exceptional university works hard to create.

That idea left a very lasting imprint on my thinking, and on my life.

The truly radical implications of what Jon Gunnemann had proposed to the university in the early 1970s became clearer only at decade’s end, when he published his landmark study, The Moral Meaning of Revolution (Yale University Press, 1979). If it seemed jarring to link the words ‘ethical’ and ‘investment’ in the early 1970s, then imagine the shock of hearing ‘moral’ linked to ‘revolution’ at the outset of the Reagan Era’s demonization of the Soviet experiment in revolutionary social engineering.

Jon Gunnemann was a scholar’s scholar. His graduate seminars were always tours de force, offering surveys of the “classics” of the western philosophical canon, but always concluding with a gesture to what was happening right now. Especially fluent in contemporary German thought, Gunnemann was reading the Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas long before he gained his subsequent cache; I learned his, and many other, names in Jon’s doctoral seminars for the first time.

The Moral Meaning of Revolution was a complex intervention, and once again it came at just the right time. Gunnemann wished to offer a new way of looking at social revolution, one which admitted that the lines between revolution, evolution and gradual reform were hard to draw with any sharpness. Even more remarkable, Jon insisted on reading Christian theology and Marxist theory together, insisting that both traditions offered distinctive perspectives on the morally meaningful activity of revolution. Jesus was a social revolutionary; Marx was a social revolutionary; both men left revolutionary traditions and practices in their wake.

The starting point for any meaningful revolution, Jon suggested, is the perception of an evil, what is traditionally referred to as the crisis of theodicy. To see a philosopher so unapologetic in his use of theological language was refreshing. Keep in mind that this was also a time when Catholic “Liberation Theologians,” in Central and South America especially, were trying to envision some sort of rapprochement between the radical social theories of orthodox Marxism, and their own strong sense that the Christian community needed to express its “preferential option” for the poor and the oppressed. If the Christian God were ever to take sides, they insisted, then this God must stand with the poor and the oppressed. Here was a virtual politics of theodicy.

Jon began his landmark study by accepting Max Weber’s famous dictum, that the problem of evil begins with the perception of “the incongruity between destiny and merit” (30). The world is unjust, and the righteous suffer at evil hands. So said the Psalmist, and so says the modern revolutionary. The main task of any revolutionary moral community is fundamentally the call to make a more just social order, one in which destiny and merit come more nearly into alignment.

Marxism offers one programmatic philosophy for doing so; Christianity offers another. Gunnemann attempted to learn from both traditions, and to bring them into creative conversation. Revolutions, if for no other reason than the enormous energy they harness and unleash, are grounded in a moral fervor and a “religious quality [that] easily takes on the language of a new creation” (223).

As a professor of Christian Ethics at the Candler School of Theology, Jon’s primary audience was often ecclesial. His book also offered one of the earlier English-language treatments of the important Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. And here, in a marvelous and unexpected gesture back toward his prior work, Gunnemann reminded Christians of a charge that was regularly leveled against Soviet Marxism, but rarely leveled against the Church: the revolution had become a corporation. The Church was also an enormous bureaucracy, in Rome’s case, it was a literal state-within-the-state.

The point is not to abandon God talk for political talk, or even to translate God talk into political talk, nor to discern the political and worldly implications of the Gospel. All of these assume the division between the Gospel and the political. The point is rather to find a form of discourse in which it is recognized that the society of Christ, like any society, has power relations and thus needs to ask what patterns of authority are just and what unjust. (257, italics mine)

Jon was always careful to insist on one point: “My purpose has not been to promote revolution or to make it predictable but to make it comprehensible” (255). Here he was being characteristically modest. Jon aspired to far more than this, I think. His ultimate purpose was to make revolutionaries of all types (including ethics professors at modern universities) more self-aware, and in so doing, to render their revolutionary practices more ethical.

Revolution, he gently invites us to recall, is a moral practice and a moral act.

Jon Gunnemann was always supremely generous with his private time. I spent countless hours with him chatting in his office, as all of his students did. He had a marvelous print in his office at the Candler School of Theology, Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1528 painting of “The Four Apostles.” The diptych boasts serene images of John and Matthew on the viewer’s left, with darker images of Paul and of Mark on the right. Mark’s face in particular stands out in this painting; he alone is depicted facing front and his face is bathed in eery light. He looks out past us at something dark that we cannot see. He looks terrified, and we are meant to recall that his gospel ends that way, with fear. Confronted with resurrection—surely a revolutionary moment, if ever there were one—Jesus’s friends are struck silent with fear. They tell no one anything, “for they were afraid.”

The beginning of the Gospel is a theodicy; the end of Mark’s version is fear. But the very fact that Mark wrote this story down means that the word got out, somehow, that human frailties were eventually sufficient unto the revolutionary moment. And so the virtue of the true social revolutionary is a particular kind of hopefulness, a hope that takes tragedy seriously, worries about oppression and pain, but refuses them the final word.

It is all a quiet reminder that the true end of any revolution, like that of any moral community, is justice. And it is that conception of quiet, revolutionary justice to which Jon Gunnemann devoted his entire professional career. It is a legacy for which any university can be thankful and justly proud.

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