This issue is Part 3 of a series,
There are lots of ways to define “morality”. Philosophers and others have been debating it for millenia. By far the most common standard is based on the ethic of reciprocity. This has often, since sometime around the 17th Century, been called the “golden law” or “golden rule” among Europeans and those in America whose culture is primarily European (think “Americans” and their ilk). Although it can be justified on many and varied religious, philosophical, biological, evolutionary, and other grounds, the scope of the defense is far to broad for this paper. Moreover, at least nominally, taught by most major religions and philosophies, so I’m going to rely on that near-ubiquitous acceptance as a starting point.
Importantly, the golden rule is a key tenet of Christian teaching, and thus – since Christians dominate the Empire, a basic component of imperial culture. At least, it is widely given lip service. However, I will show that, by their own standards, most Christians and the rest of their Empire are going to Hell.
Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings were the starting point for the evolution of Christianity, gave the ethic of reciprocity prime importance.
One of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40)
Now, I’ve already pointed out one of the loopholes the lawyers created, allowing circumvention of that first commandment, justifying service to two masters. Most imperial subjects have a strange and illogical concept of God, anyway – certainly one at odds with Jesus’s teachings, so I’m going to set the “God” part, the first commandment, away for awhile until later, and focus on the second commandment, the one to love your neighbour.
The word “moral” comes from Latin, meaning conduct, habit, or way of life. The implication is that a moral person adheres to certain standards of conduct regarding others. The word “ethical” comes from Greek, with a similar meaning. When a person is fiscally bankrupt, then there is no reasonable way for him to pay his financial obligations. When a person, or in this case the Imperium, is morally bankrupt, then there is no reasonable way for the people to meet their moral obligations.
At this point, the Empire is morally bankrupt, which reflects the net state of personal ethics of its citizens.
To use Jesus’ terminology, we owe debts to our neighbours which we have no way of paying.
He noted that “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments”. Commonly, among Christians, if they think about this at all, they pretend that these laws have some special significance, greater than the others. They might agree that they are to the other laws what the Constitution should be (but no longer is) to the rest of state civil and criminal law is. In other words, if a law contradicts the Constitution, it should be regarded as unconstitutional, and thus invalid. (In this post-Constitutional age, this is, sadly, no longer true. More on that, later.)
However, that would be a poor analogy. A better one would be that the these two basic laws are more like the axioms of, say, geometry: the other laws can be derived from them. Unlike the many state laws which do not have origins in the Constitution – while not contradicting it – the laws of God, the moral and ethical laws, can all be derived from the basic laws. Those moral laws which cannot be derived from the basic laws are relative and contextual.
Most of us don’t want to be killed, so killing is not treating someone the same way we want to be treated ourselves. Most of us do not want to be deceived, so lying to someone is not treating them the way we want to be treated. On the first pass, all of the laws against lying, killing, adultery, and so on, are fairly obviously derived directly from the ethic of reciprocity.
In practice, however, things become more complex. What about self-defense, for example, or the defense of others?
Suppose someone were to come to your door, looking for your children, so they might be taken away and tortured. Suppose, further, that you you were to know that your children had acted righteously, and had not hurt anyone themselves. Would it be moral to lie to the visitor, and tell him or her that you didn’t know where your children might be found? Dictators and tyrants of most stripes – at least if the visitor represented, officially or otherwise, the views of the government – might feel otherwise, but almost anyone else would say that the morally proper thing to do would be to lie, to deny knowledge of your children’s whereabouts.
This leads to a peculiar insight. In self-defense, or in the defense of others, one normally thinks of force being used against force. It is generally taken that the defensive force ought to be proportional to the hazard, although there are a great many subtleties possible regarding what is suitably “proportional”, especially in a critical situation. In the case of lying to prevent physical harm, what is going on? Clearly, lying can be used against physical force, as other actions (ranging from non-violent resistance all the way up to killing). The pattern is that these actions are possible and against the will of the attacker, just as the initial aggression was against the first intended victim. All of the sins against others are violations of the victims will, even when (as with deception) the victim isn’t even aware that he ought to resist. The violation is against what the victim would will, if the victim were fully informed and aware of the circumstances. In fact, concealing the circumstances of a transaction is, itself, a sin, because it prevents the victim from making an informed decision.
Note that this does not allow us to make decisions on behalf of others, in cases where it is practical for the others to decide for themselves. As with the ethic of reciprocity, this principle is also widely held. Jesus told his students that if someone were not to listen when they went to teach, then they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. Christians tend to ignore this, trying to pass all sorts of state laws against real and imagined sins which offend but do not materially affect them. Muslims also have a hard time complying with this, ignoring Mohammed’s rule that there should be no compulsion in religion. (A community or people may righteously pass truly defensive laws, such as against murder or driving automobiles while chemically impaired, without violating these principles, because the deterrent effect may prevent real injury to the members of the community, if the damage to the potential perpetrator is proportional. People who want to drink can avoid driving, so the damage the their freedom caused by the law is usually a proportional response. Again, there are subtle considerations, to be taken up later.)
This principle, of shaking the dust off one’s feet when the audience won’t listen, or the proscription against compulsion in religion, forbids compelling someone else’s behaviour. As Jesus explained, saving our souls outweighs any other goal: it outweighs gaining the entire world. If forcing someone to adhere to some behavioural standard “for his own good” is forbidden in the most important matter of all, is it not also forbidden in lesser matters?
The partial fungibility and equivalence of sins can be used to reason about one sin, by using another sin as an example. The idea that lying to the CIA or FBI agent or cop at your door might sometimes be morally justified, probably brings to mind other obviously analogous possibilities. However, the analogies aren’t always so obvious. For instance, the prophets have generally taught that usury – charging interest on loans – is immoral. That means charging any interest: the Christians went through a period of prohibiting “too much” or excessive interest, before dropping the usury sin altogether from their doctrines. The sin of usury is no longer considered a sin by most Christians, even by those various denominations which pretend to restore their churches to the conditions of Jesus’s era. Jesus himself mentioned the prohibition in the parable of the talents. Muslims still count usury as a sin, but a lot of Islamic lawyers work out dubious ways to circumvent the prohibition. The basis for usury being a sin is similar to the idea of physical aggression: if a strong man beats up a weaker man, until the weaker man consents to give up something to the stronger, then we call the stronger man a bully. In the case of usury, the stronger man is financially rather than physically stronger, which does not give him the right to take from the weaker man. Other sins may also be analogous; for instance, a deceiver has superior knowledge, being knowledgeably stronger than the one who is deceived (otherwise, the deception couldn’t happen), which does not give him any right to take advantage of his strength of knowledge.
Moreover, the stronger have an obligation, not only to avoid hurting the weaker, but to help them actively. In the Empire, this is hardly taught anymore, even as an abstract principle to be ignored.
Jesus taught it. After telling his students of the “love your neighbour” rule, one asked him who was a neighbour. Jesus then told the parable of the good Samaritan, wherein two Jews didn’t help a man who had been beaten and robbed, but finally a Samaritan came along and gave him aid. There are several implications to the story, one of which was that the one who did right, did so actively, whereas the two who did wrong were merely passive. We are thus instructed to love our neighbours actively, and not merely passively. The man who was beaten was clearly a weaker man helped by a stronger, more able one.
The good Samaritan parable contains another nugget of insight which is relevant here: after telling it, Jesus explained that the Samaritan was the neighbour. It is important to note that Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along well; some describe the relationship as mutual hatred. However, to an audience of Jews, Jesus explained that the Samaritan was the good guy. This has been compared to what it would be like if a white preacher in the Old South, the South of plantations and slavery, were to tell his audience that the white guys in the story were the bad guys, and the Negro was the good guy. That comparison isn’t exactly right, because the Samaritans weren’t slaves to the Jews, but the point is nevertheless valid. Jesus instructed us to love even those of other races, tribes, or people who didn’t share our views or culture.
As mentioned in an earlier section, Jesus especially used examples regarding wealth and poverty. He pointed out that the wealthy most probably not going to enter “heaven”, and told a wealthy man to give his wealth to the poor. The unfortunate had a special role in his ethics: they are the weak whom the strong are to help.
The most striking and vivid explanation he gave was the parable of the sheep and the goats.
But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then the King will tell those on his right hand, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?”
The King will answer them, “Most assuredly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Then he will say also to those on the left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”
Then they will also answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?”
Then he will answer them, saying, “Most assuredly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.” These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)
The Christians have buried this parable as just another story, as one among many, but it resolves their debates about who is “saved” and who is not. It’s not about having faith, or being baptized, or taking communion, or any other ritual. It’s about helping the downtrodden, the poor, the unfortunate. It is the most important aspect of the ethic of reciprocity.
Where do these other things – faith, baptism, communion, prayer, and so on – fit into “salvation”?
Jesus taught especially to the poor, many of whom were illiterate. Speech, not writing, was his tool of communication. How do you give simple, poor people the means to remember a few basic truths across generations? He used parables and rituals.
Parables are easy to remember, they can be passed down from parents to children, as they are by rich and poor alike, sometimes for centuries without substantial change. Because they often contain mysteries and riddles, they encourage the listener to wake up, to think for himself or herself. Rituals do the same: they emphasize the most important points of the lesson. Each time we perform the rituals, we are reminded to ponder the meaning, to derive the lessons from the words and motions. The rituals also convey more subtle, deeper lessons which don’t lend themselves well to words. The rituals are not the main point, although we are advised to practice them. The main point is that of which the rituals remind us, not the rituals themselves.
Christianity is mostly a system for bureaucrats, for those who follow rules without bothering to consider what is behind them. It is mostly a system which discourages enlightenment. Such institutions are ideal for lawyers. They are the tools of imperial domination and control. What Jesus taught was different: it was a living organism, where each day not weighted down by the decisions of the lawyers brought life, life in abundance. The lawyers killed the prophets and their messages, just as Christianity killed Jesus. But the inner secret is out in the open, if viewed the right way. Morality is a living thing, not to be captured by rules and court decisions.
I’d like to add a parable of my own.
When a man decides to build a fence from one point to another point, he puts a fence pole down at the beginning, and uses some marker in the direction of the second point, maybe a tree or a large rock or a distant mountaintop, to set the course of the fence. A poor workman will put in the second pole, then sight from the first pole to the second to place the third pole, and so on: his fence will likely wander off to one side or another, because no one’s sight is perfect, and each man has his own biases. A good workman will sight each time to the destination marker, so that, no matter what his error in setting one pole, it will be corrected when the next pole is placed. By sighting to the destination pole, by always having the goal in mind, the line of the fence may not be perfectly straight, but it won’t wander off in a big curve, and it will eventually reach its destination.
A few years ago, a certain Federal judge was confronted with a case questioning the legality of conducting searches without warrants. This was an electronic search, but the case law wasn’t exactly on point, and mostly covered physical searches. She lamented that, although she thought it wrong, she couldn’t find a law or precedent prohibiting the warrantless search, so she had to allow it. She had forgotten to sight to the destination, which was the plain language of the Constitution. Maybe she didn’t know, with her lawyer training, that the Constitution any longer existed. She relied on precedent, on what other lawyers and judges had decided, instead of going back to basics.
Similarly, the Christians long ago ceased to use the ethic of reciprocity, the golden rule, as a guide to the ultimate destination, despite the clarity of the message from Jesus, whom they pretend to follow. Rather than following Jesus, and becoming moral and ethical models, the Christian peoples chose to become leaders in the development of oppression, torture, genocide, theft, fear, deception, and general disregard for the feelings and rights of others. Rather than “love your neighbour”, their rule is, “use and abuse and hate your neighbour”.
Subsequent instalments will show this in more detail.
(This essay will continue, with Part 4 of the series, in a subsequent issue.)
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