[Disclaimer: In what follows is an examination of the immoral teachings of an imperfect, or perhaps I should say all too human, Jesus Christ.]
Critics of organized religion often point out the problems behind faith, namely that faith based thinking is always directly tied to faith based acts. This means, quite simply, that the more intolerant one’s verses of scripture and tenets found in holy books are, the more these doctrines can breed ill will and contempt and have a negative influence on the thinking of the individual who subscribes to that particular brand of faith. Sure enough, Christians are defining themselves by way of their faith. So it is their faith based actions, behavior, and professions that we can properly scrutinize their conduct and determine whether or not it is virtuous.
Are Christians Moral or Simply Morally Confused?
Christians like to cite that Christ taught, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and will remind us that this shows that not all Christians are intolerant. And that may be true, but Christ also taught, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).
I feel this shows that all Christians are genuinely conflicted, for they can be good or bad depending on what variety of Christian they are and what quality of scripture they put their faith into.
Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies as oneself is, as the atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens reminds us, a sinister injunction. Hitchens points out that it would be absurd to love our enemies, and cites the shocking Austrian rape case in 2008 and the horrible events surrounding Elizabeth Fritzl’s enslavement to her rapist father who sexually assaulted, abused, and relentlessly raped her for 24 agonizing years. As far as a “moral” teachings go, I think anyone with a little bit of human decency would agree, it would be outrageously absurd for a woman being raped (or who has been raped) to simply pause for a moment to reflect on Jesus’ words to “love thine enemy”—while that enemy is violently assaulting and violating her.
The American theologian Albert Barnes claimed that “loving one’s enemies” meant benevolence toward the person, not love of the conduct of an immoral person. Barnes states:
The love we are to bear toward our enemies is the love of benevolence. It is impossible to love the conduct of a person who curses and reviles us, who injures our person or property, or who violates all the laws of God; but, though we may hate his conduct, and suffer keenly when we are affected by it, yet we may still pity his madness and folly, and we may aid him to see his sin. This is… probably the most difficult of all [Christian] duties to be performed.
Indeed, I agree with Barnes that this form of benevolence, perhaps cautious benevolence I might add, is how we probably should think about our enemies. But that is Barnes interpretation of a passage which doesn’t clarify what is meant by loving one’s enemies. So Barnes is merely interpreting the verse according to his own moral reasoning to make better sense of the strange call to love ones enemies. Barnes quote shows an advanced moral reasoning which Jesus seemed to lack. All I can say is I agree with Barnes and not the original text.
As far as the Matthew 5:44 goes–it is too vaguely stated to claim that benevolence is the intended meaning–and the danger of legalism and fundamentalist thought, of which the majority of Protestant Christians are inclined, would give the verse a sinister implication–which is what Hitchens is admonishing.
Simply put, if all that Barnes claims was explicit in the text to start with, then Barnes’ theological interpretation would be redundant. But since Jesus doesn’t say what is meant by “loving one’s enemies” quite clearly enough we have to guess at the implicit or hidden meaning. To complicate matters, Jesus does subscribe to the apathetic view when he commands his followers to turn the other cheek.
Jesus himself could have meant a myriad of different things, and Barnes interpretation is agreeable, but my criticism is of the moral implications as the teaching stands according to the gospel. Whether or not Jesus meant “benevolence” or “apathy” we are unable to discern since we don’t actually have Jesus’ original sayings. We can only go by what the Greek translators wrote, which is an altogether different problem. Because we don’t know if the Greek authors are representing the genuine attitudes and teachings of the historical Christ accurately, or whether they are merely applying their own apologetic spin on the text, we will never know what Jesus actually meant and said because he never actually wrote down anything himself–and the Synoptic tradition came already fully formed in Greek script much later.
“Loving one’s enemy” sounds fine on paper, but to actually preach it as a dictum, to teach it in the Beatitudes, often championed by Christians as one of Jesus’ finest speeches, is apathetic pacifism in its strictly immoral sense. Like Hitchens, and to the contrary of what Christians think, I firmly feel that it’s immoral for anyone to say not to resist evil. Therefore, Christ’s call to “love our enemies” is an immoral teaching in the strictest sense.
On Jesus and Slavery
Other teachings of Jesus bother me as well. Two teachings of Jesus Christ which spoil his divinity and love, and stain his image proving him to be a narrow-minded bronzed age patriarch, are where he neglects to publicly condemn slavery (something a compassionate and loving person filled with righteousness could not feel free to be remiss about) and where he talks about hell. I will address the former teaching first.
Although Jesus does admonish violence in the NT, he doesn’t go far enough to admonish the practice of slavery. When it comes to his thoughts on slavery he merely adds the nicety that one should not beat their slaves brutally but according to what they deserve (Luke 12:45-48).
A Christian Minister once pointed out to me that Luke 12:42-49 is a parable—and that it was meant to be read metaphorically not literally—and asserted that my taking it out of context was causing me to miss the point Jesus was getting at. I am sorry, but I was retaining the historical context–whereas the minister was forgetting all about it and supplanting it with an invented theological context. Such an objection is only a form of apologetics. My criticism here is directed at the fact that Jesus, as a moral teacher, seems to accept slavery as a cultural facet.
Slavery was, as you we are well aware, part of the historical context of his day and a long held custom in most of the world at that time. My point about his attitude toward slavery in the parable isn’t that Jesus endorses slavery–because he doesn’t–but in that he nowhere denounces the practice.
So Jesus was aware of it–but didn’t feel the urge to teach others that it was an immoral and dehumanizing practice.
The example which comes to mind is, if I said there are evolutionary reasons for why rape happens, then someone could interpret my quote as me being apathetic about rape. But luckily, I have it on record, that I detest the act of rape–so my own testimony adds clarity to what I actually meant in the previous quote, which was merely misrepresented.
Now, the problem that bothers me with the slavery parable, is that one can interpret it to mean Jesus was apathetic about the practice of slavery. Unlike my later testimony which decries rape, however, Jesus nowhere decries slavery.
Since his attitudes fit the beliefs and practices of his day, we cannot assume he had any radically dissenting views–otherwise he would have decried slavery as immoral. Therefore it stems to reason, historically speaking, that Jesus was fine with slavery in the social and historical context of his day.
And of course Jesus felt it was wrong to beat slaves–as he frequently admonishes physical violence, but other than realizing he showed a bit of compassion towards those who may have been slaves, he doesn’t speak out against slavery.
Therefore, if we read into the historical context of the parable, and momentarily ignore the theological message, we can gain a better idea of what the historical Jesus (or at least the Gospel authors) believed with regard to slavery.
That’s the analysis under all my rhetoric. Of course, I realize I pile on the rhetoric and many of my essays become polemics–but the criticism underneath is still–I feel–a valid one.
I recognize that not all of Jesus teachings are bad. I am only citing this example to show that Jesus was not the perfect moral teacher that so many Christians claim he was.
Because Jesus never denounce slavery, however, it lead to the Christian world being largely apathetic about the practice.
Christians have over the centuries used the Bible to make excuses for all kinds of impropriety–from the Inquisitions to the witch hunts to the present day legislation which seek to strip gays of their civil liberties.
Once, not so long ago, Christianity justified slavery as a God-given right. In fact, that’s why the American Civil War was fought! Pious Christian Americans, most of them southern Baptists, believed the Bible sanctioned slavery and felt the religious teaching of the Bible (i.e., God’s word) superseded basic human rights. Jesus–or God for that matter–could have simply put in the Bible somewhere that he decries slavery–problem solved. But because Christians believed Jesus–and so too God–were okay with it–then it was okay for them to keep slaves.
Enlightened thinkers of the North disagreed, and challenged the South’s attitudes toward slavery. If there hadn’t been any Biblical support for the idea of slavery, Christians would have likely been less keen on maintaining the deplorable practice of slavery.
Religion’s monopoly on slavery is not a new notion as it has been a common practice of the Church throughout the ages. Even the famed Mark Twain was a harsh critic of the Church’s propensity for slavery. In a rather scathing quote, Twain made his disgust perfectly felt, stating:
In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers. If any could know, to absolute certainty, that all this was right, and according to God’s will and desire, surely it was she, since she was God’s specially appointed representative in the earth and sole authorized and infallible expounder of his Bible. There were the texts; there was no mistaking their meaning; she was right, she was doing in this thing what the bible had mapped out for her to do. So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery.[iii]
Willingly, this unassailable position has recently been challenged by the secular and free thinking moralist writers of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Most recently, in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris states the obvious farce that is the Biblical objection in regards to slavery:
The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). It should go without saying that is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States.[iv]
Quick to point out that Jesus never made any objection or condemning remarks on slavery, something he should have done if we are to consider him a source of morality and the Son of an all loving omniscient God, Harris reaches out to our human decency by adding:
The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany—and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known.[v]
As I stated earlier, if Jesus was a moral teacher, he would condemn slavery, not invoke it as a means to demonstrate God’s authority. Moreover, equating God’s authority over us with the human bondage, as we saw in Luke 12:45-49, is also in bad taste. I understand the theological bent—Jesus is explaining the path toward righteousness—but he does it in such a way that shows, in his mind, slavery was perfectly acceptable. There are better analogies that I, or anyone else for that matter, can think of to explain the same parable—without invoking slavery. The question is why couldn’t Jesus have thought of a better parable? Nor does Jesus at any time amend the parable with a disclaimer explicitly admonishing the practice of slavery—or follow it up with a reflection on why slavery is unethical—which he should have done if we are to suppose he was the ultimate moral teacher.
Does Morality come from the Teachings of Jesus Christ?
The other teaching of Jesus which really disturbs me is Jesus Christ’s tirade about torture, hellfire, and pain of death for not following him (for a list of Jesus’ intolerant sayings see: The Skeptics Annotated Bible). Jesus declared “I have come to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49) and promised the death and suffering, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the burning of flesh for anyone who was against him (Matt. 12:30, Matt. 13:4-42, 50, Luke 11:23).
Like Bertrand Russell, however, I do not agree a person with any sort of kindliness would ever say such things, let alone demand them. Bertrand Russell also points out in his essay “Why I am Not a Christian” that:
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching—an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation.
From early on Jesus was known to have back-talked to his mother (a crime punishable by death in Jewish law).[i] As Russell mentions, Jesus had a volatile temper, cursing fig trees and kicking over tables, and what not. Whatever his political or spiritual endeavors entailed, we know that the radical Jew also trampled all over rabbinical law by working his “God magic” on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 12:10, John 9:14–16). Although, this isn’t the only time that the person Jesus of Nazareth defied God’s law—as it turns out Jesus was a known repeat offender and a rebel who did not respect Jewish authority.[ii]
Upon returning to Jerusalem one day Jesus and the disciples were famished from their long walk back into town and decided to pick some wheat to eat during the Sabbath. However, when reported to the authorities and confronted and questioned by the Pharisees for picking and snacking on grains during a time of fasting (Mark 2:23, Luke 6:2), Jesus rebukes them, obviously forgetting that Jewish Law is quite clear on the matter (this also happens to be a contradiction because Jesus states elsewhere that he wants to see the law fulfilled but then violates that very same law). In fact, the importance of maintaining the Sabbath is so imperative that it made the Big Ten, from the lips of God almighty himself. If deliberately broken—as Jesus had done twice—there is but one punishment: death (Numbers 15:32-36). Strange that God should create an unbreakable law only to take human form in the visage of the divine Christ and then break his own unbreakable law upon pain of death, wouldn’t you agree?[iii]
In another one of his moods, after having been repeatedly rebuked by the Pharisees, Jesus exercises a not so rare moment of sarcasm and takes a personal jab at Herod of Antipas, calling him a “fox” using the feminine vulpi(nus) (in the Latin vulgate)[iv] to emasculate him (Luke 13:32).
Even though the term also equates to the complimentary definition of ‘cunning’ surely in its Biblical context this slight cannot be read as a compliment. Why would Jesus be complimenting Herod after he was informed that Herod was looking to murder him? By analyzing the content of the scriptures and juxtaposing it to the political climate of the time we can be sure that Jesus meant to insult Herod and not shower him with praise. Besides, considering the context, praise would come off sounding even more sarcastic and my argument would still hold.
This questionable speech may not be immoral in the same way that tolerating slavery would be (especially when you had the power to end it), but it is downright rude.[v] Defying your own people’s laws is one thing, but to go against the Tetrarch was to openly defy Rome, and to claim you were the messianic king hailing from the royal bloodline of King David was to openly defy Caesar, and this crime of high treason had but one exacting punishment: also death.
It seems that at every turn Jesus was striving relentlessly for the bad boy image. It’s almost as if he was doing everything in his power to get himself martyred. Which shows that even Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet, was certain the impending “Kingdom of God” would arrive in time for him to rule over it and it’s highly unlikely that Jesus Christ believed he would actually die before it happened; as evidence of his own teachings suggest (this ultimately makes the coming of “God’s Kingdom” on earth one of Jesus’ greatest failed prophecies—something critics of Christianity never get tired of bringing up).
Not All Bad—But Bad Enough
Although Christianity has no inherent claims on morality as a whole,[vi] it is true that it’s not all bad. Indeed, Jesus also taught admirable things too. The problem is that most Christians feel that Jesus Christ’s moral statements are considered perfect examples of morality. But are they really? As we have seen, many of Jesus teachings, words, and behavior do not encapsulate the level headed wisdom of sage mentality that Russell spoke about earlier. Perhaps as controversial as this, many of Jesus’ sayings can be attributed to others having come first.
Actually, to get an idea of how intellectually, socially, and morally well advanced the rest of the world was, it is worth noting just a few examples. India modernized mathematics with the concept of zero, the Greeks were infamous for their deep thinking and philosophical inquiry, while China perfected ethical living, society, and science.
Even the Chinese philosopher Confucius came up with the Golden Axiom five-hundred plus years before Jesus did! Confucius offered the axiomatic wisdom: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”[vii] Confucius likely got his moral basis from ancient Zen parables centuries earlier, one which reads, “When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.”[viii] Compare his statement to Jesus Christ’s later version: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them…”[ix] and additionally, “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”[x] Jesus of Nazareth also offered, “Love your neighbors as yourself.”[xi]
All of these teachings can be comprehensively found in the Analects, the Tao Te Ching, various Zen parables and within the early traditions of early Chinese culture. In their book The Masks of Christ, the biblical scholars and myth debunkers Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince direct our attention to this very problem of the legitimacy of Jesus’ sayings by informing:
Many of the ethical injunctions attributed to Jesus in the Gospels did not originate with him anyway, even the much-loved line in Mathew: ‘in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets’. The second-century BCE Book of Tobit has ‘Do to no-one what you would not want done to you’, and the Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder, approximately a generation before Jesus, rendered this as, ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man. That is the whole Law.’ Similarly, Jesus’ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from Leviticus, having underpinned Jewish ethics for centuries.[xii]
With such strands of philosophies of men existing centuries prior to Jesus teachings, we cannot be sure Jesus did not develop his own philosophy from their pre-existing model. All we can be certain of is that specific ideas about morality and how to go about treating one another ethically have existed for longer than we can remember, and that Jesus was not the beginning or end of any set of universal moral axioms. He was just another one of the thoughtful wise moral philosophers who happened to speak about an already commonly accepted human concept of moral conduct. Indeed, if Christianity (following the teachings of Christ) was a source for morality, then it is not a particularly good source. And to paraphrase Sam Harris, anybody who thinks the Bible is the best guide we have on the question of morality has some very peculiar ideas about either guidance or morality.[vi]
If there is such a thing as the practically perfect ethical teachings uttered by the mouth of man, then clearly, these are not them.
Notes and References
[i] In Luke 2:41-52 Jesus runs away from home one early morning only to be found at the Jewish temple listening to the Pharisees. When Mary, his respected mother, worriedly asks him where he’s been, the young Jesus replies as a matter of fact and without regard to her feelings that he’s been in the house of his Father. Mary seems confused by Jesus implication that his parents aren’t his real parents, since Joseph is Jesus’ step-father and legal guardian. This obvious back talk should startle well versed Bible scholars, since traditionally such back talk was punishable by death in Jewish culture. See: Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7. Even if Jesus was speaking metaphorically about God his tact was lacking and his statement rings of defiance rather than as an apologetic explanation for his running away.
[ii] Christians often argue that Christ was correcting the teachings of the power corrupted Pharisees who had run wild with rabbinical law and were distorting God’s word until their hypocrisy was all that was left. The scribes among the Pharisees created and transmitted the Pharisaic rabbinical traditions. The body of traditional law that they formulated was called the Halakah (preserved in the Mishnah), and is extra-biblical. Although an authoritative text for Jews who follow Pharisaic tradition, much of the Halakah is not directly supported by scripture, but is intended more along the lines as a set of rules to enhance and distill the true meaning of traditional Mosaic Law. But because these extra set of rules and guidelines were all manmade, it allowed the Pharisees to overstep their bounds with dictating these rules in holy terms. This is the crux of Jesus’ complaint, being that Pharisaic law did not align with traditional Jewish law and tradition. The rabbis were so law happy that they were changing and adding stipulations to God’s laws to the point of it losing its “holy” meaning. Jesus’ complaint might be valid in his time, as he was a Jew, but for Christians the cultural and historical reasoning behind this dispute is irrelevant. To suggest that Jesus was perhaps doing more than complaining, such as re-establishing God’s true Law for the next generation of Christians is a rather far-fetched assumption which is not based on any real historical evidence.
[iii] To get around this dilemma Christians offer a Biblical defense which states that Jesus becomes the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). They quote Christ’s retooling of the law saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), thus equivocating that Jesus was restating the principle that the Sabbath rest was instituted to relieve man of his necessary labors, just as he came to relieve us of our attempting to achieve salvation by our works and goat sacrifices. Suddenly Christians have confused labors of work with duties or obligations to God (the original meaning of the Sabbath according to Mosaic Law—obey God even if it means putting to death a person who picked up sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)). Conveniently ignoring the consequences of breaking the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15), the Christian view becomes one which, given enough wiggle room, (questionably) redefines the meaning of the Sabbath.
Thus resting a day after tirelessly trying to appease God, as mandated, is reinterpreted to be symbolic rest from our constant obligation to maintain God’s law(s). Through Christ the Law of the Sabbath is “amended” so that Christians might cease their endless laboring to attain an Old Testament God’s favor. Although this scriptural sleight of hand can do away with a lazy Christian gentile’s dread of being bound to Old Covenant Law, including the consequences of having to be stoned to death for not upholding it, this in no way reconciles the transgressions of the Law when made by believing Jews who still hold the original Covenant, men such as Jesus. Jesus was specifically forbidden upon pain of death from doing any such labor—even as trivial as picking up sticks. Even though he could have brought attention to the issue another way, Jesus chose to defy the Pharisaic rules regarding the Sabbath on, peculiarly enough, the Sabbath. Thus his intention was a deliberate show of defiance, in which Jesus added: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6–8).
Jesus usurped the Pharisees rules, deliberately broke the Sabbath, reinstituted a more subjective interpretation of the fourth commandment, and provoked the established religious leaders of his day, and eventually offends most of his disciples with his enigmatic teachings, again making himself the radical point of contention. Jesus constant attack and opposition towards Jewish authority was so severe, in fact, it eventually lost him most of his own loyal followers. Such abrasive actions have led the biblical historian Hugh J. Schonfield, author of The Passover Plot, to shrewdly state, “Jesus was a pathological egoist.” Jesus’ radicalism depicts a rather human characteristic which is susceptible to criticism, as he was well aware of even in his day. The fact remains, Jesus Christ’s actions were so abrasive that they rubbed nearly everyone, Greek gentile and Jew alike, the wrong way and eventually got himself killed for the crime of high treason against Imperial Rome—a direct consequence of his stubborn headed defiance and lack of tact.
[v] God has been known to kill for less. See II Kings 2:23-24 when the Lord of the Jews massacred 42 children for the “crime” of teasing. If Christ is God incarnate, or the Son of God, then why wouldn’t he kill himself for the same crime? Obviously Christ has committed the same crime as the children by openly insulting Herod the Great and the Pharisees, calling them a brewed of vipers. And once again, the Son of Man has gone against the divine authority of God—which calls for the murder of loud mouthed types like that of smart-alecky children (something Jesus would have been aware of, making his own smart ass comments that much more controversial).
[vi] A good study which shows that morality and the notions of good and evil among believers and unbelievers is commonly the same, if not universal among humans is, Ethics Without God, by Kai Nielson.
[vii] Analects XV.24, circa 551 B.C.
[viii] A collection of ancient Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 88
[x] Luke 6:27-28 and Matt. 5:43
[xi] Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, James 2:8
[xii] Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince , The Masks of Christ, p.188
[xiii] God created both evil and hell (Isaiah 45:7). It’s no secret; Jesus was highly in support of hell. So at least God and Jesus Christ share an unhealthy fondness of torture, violence, and the suffering inflicted upon others.
[xiv] Leviticus 26:14-38 depicts in vivid horror what God will do to people who do not diligently maintain the Sabbath—thus making it quite clear that what Jesus was doing, bending the rules of the Sabbath or else ignoring them completely, was entirely controversial and totally unacceptable. Not by the Pharisees standards, mind you, but by God’s own decree.
The only way to fix these numerous problems has been to *assume that Christ as the Son of God shares co-authority with the Lord so that he may be excused, and praised for amending the harsh laws and making them less demanding (although the empathy behind such an act is just an illusion). Subsequently, this brings up the question: why a co-eternal being did not just write the law the proper way to begin with, and moreover, is the father & son deity hypocritical for not holding himself to the same “laws” as everyone else? The Bible says God cannot break his own laws, yet even if we could make the exception on behalf of his omnipotence, then we have the problem of a bad example. How can we consider such a deity a loving or benevolent one when he defies his own rules yet punishes his children for following suit?