In the mid-nineteen fifties I presented myself on a fine October morning at the doors of a theological college to begin my first year of training for the ministry. There was much to be done that day and one of the most important duties was to receive the book list for the coming academic year. In due course this was translated into actual volumes by courtesy of the numerous local booksellers.
The largest volume to appear when all the books had been delivered was the set work on Christian Ethics. It was over seven hundred pages long as I recall, and pretty dry reading it turned out to be. After what the examining body called, somewhat optimistically, "One year of diligent study" I had come to the firm conclusion that there was a strong case to be made out for simplifying Christian ethics. I have not wavered from that opinion but slowly it has dawned upon me that there is really no need to simplify it at all. The task has already been done - by Jesus of Nazareth. The ethic which he presented was a masterpiece of simplicity, easy to understand aand interpret - but very, very hard to live by!
If someone took the trouble to sit down and remove from that frightening tome all references which did not relate to Christian morality at all but were "borrowed" from other faiths or lifted from the teachings of later Christians then the great book would diminish in size to little more than a pamphlet.
So let us in imagination take from those pages all references to the Jewish Law. This is not to imply that the Old Testament laws and morality are of no value, but simply that we want to get at the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene and separate them from other codes. In doing this we do not lose sight of the fact that Jesus was a Jew, but neither do we shrink from the unassailable case to be made out for the argument that he was a pragmatist and regarded the Law as being of value only where it made a contribution to human happiness and good. A typical example of this attitude can be found in the challenging and - to his hearers blasphemous -statement that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. This pragmatism is important and I shall argue that this was the central point of the ethic of Jesus.
When we, for our present purpose only, set aside the Law of Moses, we do so in the full realisation that Christianity has long applied a double standard to the rules set out in the Old Testament. If for "double standards" you read "hypocrisy" you will not be far from the mark. Christians have selected the rules which support their particular hobby horses and ignored the rest. As an example, many Christians have a deep-seated prejudice against homosexuality and quote the Old Testament admonitions against it, but they will not turn a hair at eating ham sandwiches at the church fete and then returning home to a house which does not have a verandah although the ancient law makes both of these actions sinful. Again, some of their clothes may be of mixed material, like polyester and cotton, although wearing garments of mixed fibres is forbidden under the same legal code.
In seeking to evaluate the ethics set forth by Jesus I am going to ignore completely the events and words of the Passion Week, that is the period from the time on what has become known as Palm Sunday when someone rode into Jerusalem on a donkey until the time when someone came out of the Garden of Gethsemane in the late evening of the following Thursday and ordered the disciples to sheath their swords. It is clear that the figure who occupied centre stage during those significant five days was not Jesus at all. For more detail on my argument concerning this point see the article "Duality in the Gospels" on this website.
One of the most striking things about the character of Jesus was that he was a pacifist. "Resist not evil" he said, and advised the disciples that when they met with hostility they were to turn the other cheek. In the political turmoil of those unstable days such a view would not have been popular, but Jesus was never slow to stand boldly for what he believed in. The popular view of "Gentle Jesus meek and mild" will just not hold water. He was a tough and courageous character if ever there was one.
The ethical beliefs of Jesus are revealed not only by his words but by his actions. Throughout the Gospel story we see his compassion and his conviction that happiness was the right of every person upon Earth. He healed the sick and they went away rejoicing. He required of his followers that they share their possessions with the needy. He called all who wished to follow him to a life of sacrifice - not a negative giving up of things for the sake of doing it but sacrifices which led to the greater benefit of those in need. In fact he gave to his followers a very difficult path to follow. It is perhaps not surprising that many found it easier to follow the doctrines of Paul than those of Jesus. Paul's way of life is much easier.
These two factors, pacifism and social justice, seem to me to form the two great nuclei of Christian ethics. There are other rules laid down such as the commandment that his followers should not make a big show of their religion but keep it under wraps (Matthew chapter 6, verses 1 to 6) but pacifism and social justice were the keynotes. As we read the words of the Master most of his sayings seem to fall naturally and easily under one or other of these categories, especially the latter. The concern of Jesus for the world, for the welfare and happiness of all its people, shines out like a brilliant beacon light. In this regard it is relevant to quote a story which I heard some time ago. There broke out in the "Letters to the Editor" section of a certain newspaper a heated debate between an avowed atheist and leading clergy. One day the atheist fired what he regarded as a particularly insulting shot. He wrote "Christianity is a very worldly religion, in fact it is the most worldly of all the worlds religions." He then sat back and waited for the response. When it came it was not what he had expected. The church leaders were delighted that their enemy had paid them such a compliment.
In vain did the unbeliever protest that he had intended the reference as an insult. As far as the religious leaders went it was a compliment, a recognition of the true values of Jesus the Nazarene. He had been a worldly man in the truest sense of the term, for he was ever concerned with the world.
It will be seen from the drift of this argument that you do not have to be religious to be a Christian. Indeed many unbelievers follow the teachings of Jesus not out of religious fervour but because they recognise them as a good way to proceed if one wishes to achieve social justice, peace and happiness on Earth. In the article "Thoughts on the Atonement" on this website I have cited the story of the atheist Martin. Martin did not believe in God, would have repudiated any idea that he was at all religious, but the life he lived was closer to the way of life lived and proclaimed by Jesus that that of most Christians. This must surely be what Jesus had in mind when he said that many who considered themselves saved would be way back in the queue at the gates of the heavenly Kingdom behind those who did not acknowledge Jesus but lived according to his philosophy. To Jesus works were what mattered, faith did not necessarily come into the equation at all. When the self-appointed "Apostle" Paul took over the church and placed an emphasis on faith rather than deeds he offered to Christians a much easier way than that of following the Master's path. However, by drawing large numbers away from the Jerusalem Church, which appears to have remained true to the teaching of Jesus, and by thus preventing the more widespread proclamation of its Jesus-based philosophy, Paul robbed the world of a great opportunity to follow a path of hope for the future. On this issue I refer the reader to the article "The Triumph of Paulianity" on this website.
Under these tenets we can produce a firm measure against which to evaluate any action we propose in order to see if it will fit in with Christian living. It is simply this. Will the proposed action bring happiness to the world? If it will then we can be confident that Jesus would have approved of it. On that basis of judgement I have stated in another article on this site that I believe voluntary euthanasia to be in line with Christian principles. The test is quite a simple one, for Christianity is a simple religion as far as its teaching goes, but an extremely difficult religion to follow. The narrowing of the basis of faith from concern for the world to an obsession with personal salvation was carried out by Paul, as we have seen in the last paragraph, and it was a disaster for the Church. It became popular, possibly because it was easy, but by his emphasis Paul robbed the world of a potentially redeeming philosophy.
As I write these words in March 2003 the world is hovering on the brink of a possible Third World War. Some of us may have a strong feeling that we have been here before. What does the present situation tell us? Surely it calls out loudly that we have not learned from the mistakes of the past. We still place too little value on the great quest of human happiness, too little stock on the welfare of the world. We are not yet ready to measure all our actions against the acid test of the welfare of our planet and its occupamts. Pride still takes precedence over happiness, and self-seeking over service..Where, with a wiser handling of the affairs of life there might have grown a state of happy peace there is war.
As we are speaking of war let me put my cards on the table and say that I cannot share the philosophy of Jesus as regards pacifism. Sometimes in this world it is necessary to take the sword against those who would deprive human beings of freedom and happiness, the case of Saddam Hussein being a striking example. If we had not given our support to the present military action we would have left millions of repressed people in misery and danger. Those who loudly protest against the present war are voting for the captivity and suffering of the people of a whole nation. They are supporting the barbaric executions of that regime. So when I test the call to arms against the "happiness" test then it becomes a duty to support military action. The question may be asked "How can you dissent from what you have identified as a major part of the philosophy of the Nazarene and yet consider yourself a follower of him?" The fact is that I see such power in the gospel of social concern that I am attracted to Christianity more than to any other religion or philosophy because of the immense power for good which it would release - even after setting aside the pacifist element. But I must set aside entirely the doctrine of non-resistance of evil. This philosophy is a bullies charter, a tyrants justification. Non resistance such as that advocated by Jesus is not only ineffective but actually lets evil prevail. Turn the other cheek to the bully and he will take advantage of the situation and wreak even greater suffering on your head - and on the heads of others. No, Jesus, you got it wrong there.
Yet even with this proviso I can relate to the feelings of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge when, at a time that England was fearing an imminent invasion he sat in a quiet hollow not far from the English Channel coast and considered how different things would have been if people had accepted more fully the philosophy of Jesus. Under such a way of life there would be no invasions to fear, people would live for one another in a spirit of peace and helpfulness. We have not followed that path, however, and I confess to a considerable pessimism at times about a world which has tried many a philosophy and taken many a path the outcome of which have not been successful, when they might have lived with what Coleridge called "The sweet words of Christian promise." Yet hope ever overcomes pessimism, for the jewel of great price is still there waiting to be picked up.
It was once remarked that Christianity could not be said to have failed because it had never been tried. I heartily concur with that attitude. We are like the worshippers in Samuel Butler's classic work "The Way of all Flesh" of whom the author commented that they would have been as horrified at seeing the Christian faith reviled as they would have been at seeing it practiced.
Selfishness still rules, cruelty and indifference reign almost supreme. Sacrifices of happiness are laid on the altar of pride. The way of salvation offered by Jesus has been stored away in the attic of life in favour of an easier but more barren way. Those who have struggled before us for a better world must be very disappointed if from their dwelling places in the Afterlife they behold the world as it is. Perhaps when the present troubles are over we will be shocked into looking again at Jesus of Nazareth. Our world has become, in the wrong sense of the word, too worldly. Material things have assumed a terrifying inportance, we have built with bricks and mortar and ignored the building up of spiritual values. The words of one of our poets come to mind, words which he addressed to a comrade poet a thousand years hence.
"I care not if you bridge the seas
But have you wine and music still
I append, with permission, a poem by the Post War poet and artist from Pembrokeshire in South Wales, Margaret Ware. It focuses on our failures as a race but those of us who are priviliged to know Margaret cannot but be conscious that she believes as I do, that better things can come, and will come if we change our attitude to the world and to each other. May both of us live to see that day from this side of the Veil.
1939 to 1989. They'd never believe us.
If - stretching back to infinity
We might begin with "wonders" though,
"Yes, we have Peace - well anyway
"We've got atomic bombs you see, or somesuch,
"By the way, we're not the "Big Cheese"
We could try to tempt them back with goodies.
"It's possible" we might tell them,
"And there's another spectre: this poor world
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