The Ethic of Jesus
Rodney Eivers revisits a 2002 article and provides his latest response.
Grace is one of those beautiful words of the English language which has long had a special theological connotation. My dictionary defines grace (theologically) as “the free, unmerited favour and love of God.” By extension this has come to mean the spirit of God working in human beings when they show free unmerited favour towards other human beings.
The topic is linked to an experience which provided a mental jolt to me a couple of years ago. Is unconditional love, incorporating a strong thread of forgiveness (unmerited favour, to use the foregoing expression), really the ideal for human relationships? Christians and non-Christians alike, in Western society at least, have tended to assume that it is.
Over and over again when Christians are criticised one finds that they are not being criticised for being lovers in the Jesus sense, but because they do not live up to the ideal they preach. They are being hypocritical. In these instances, the secular critic seems to be conceding that although Christians may not live up to it, unconditional love is still the ideal above all.
That has certainly been my own position. I may find myself out of step with the vast apparatus of structure, tradition and belief which has grown up around two thousand years of Christian history; I may dismiss the supernatural stuff as plainly incredible in this scientific age. Nevertheless, in seeking to provide some security and purpose in life I have always consoled myself with the thought, “Well at least, no thinking and compassionate person can challenge the ethic of Jesus.”
Two years ago, however, I did meet such a challenge in a way that had not previously occurred in my adult life.
It arose when I read a report in the British Sea of Faith Magazine (May 2000) of an address by Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok at a Christian-Jewish Sea of Faith service in Manchester Cathedral, England.
Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok had been asked to speak his mind as truly as he could and despite some trepidation on his part he appears to have done so. The bulk of his talk challenged the uniqueness of Jesus in history, especially claims to the nature of Christ as the second person of the Trinity. He expected, probably correctly, that this would not cause much of a ripple among the people at that gathering because many of them would also have re-thought these issues. But then the Rabbi went on to say:
Possibly some of you, perhaps even the majority, find in Jesus’ message about human relationships a source of spiritual truth. Jesus does not have to be the Messiah or God incarnate for him to be a great teacher of wisdom. But does he have something of great significance to say to all of us? Are Jesus’ words meaningful to me?
Was Jesus right to think that we should love unconditionally, that we should help everyone no matter what the cost to ourselves? Was he correct to tell us that we should love our enemies? Or that we should forgive no matter what the circumstances? For nearly twenty centuries, Christians have taught that they should live up to these religious ideals. But can we? And have Christians themselves done so?
Cohn-Sherbok went on to relate his experience that Christians, much the same as any other people, have not lived up to these ideals.
This, of course, does not prove that there is anything inherently mistaken in Jesus’ teaching. But it does illustrate that the Christian community has not and does not live up to its moral principles. And to my mind, it is not surprising that this is so. I believe Jesus was mistaken in encouraging his followers to lead lives of self-sacrifice. This is a moral error. It is unrealistic to think that human beings will ever be able to live selflessly. Humans are not designed to live in this way. The vast majority cannot. And history illustrates that most Christians do not.
But not only are Jesus’ moral precepts unrealistic, they actually distort human relationships. In the gospels, Jesus tells his followers that they should love all human beings, even their enemies, and that they should forgive seventy times seven. In other words, we are to be active participants, whereas others are to be the object of our concern. Paradoxically, in this way we actually diminish human beings. They become faceless, two-dimensional.
The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber … cautioned against turning other people into objects … Yet this is precisely what Jesus encourages us to do. Let me put the matter in a different way. All of us wish to be treated as adults, and we want others to behave in an adult fashion. But if we follow Jesus’ teaching we infantilise other human beings. If we are to love others unconditionally, and forgive them for whatever they do, then these agents have ceased to be autonomous, responsible moral agents.
In my view we should abandon Jesus’ ethical prescriptions and substitute instead a more mature framework. In place of selfless giving we should act on the principle of reciprocity. In other words, human relationships should be guided by mutual concern, give and take. All giving should be balanced by the desire to receive. We should act so that in every relationship there is an equal rate of exchange. Parents should expect their children to give as well as receive. Husband and wives should act similarly towards one another. One partner should not do all the giving, and the other all the taking.
I am suggesting therefore that Jesus’ teaching about selflessness be replaced by the principle of give and take. If we give, we should expect to take. And if we take, we should expect to give.
Why should this have shaken me so much? It happened, I think, because I have every reason to respect what Dan Cohn-Sherbok has to say. Although I may not often succeed in doing so, I do seek to be aware of my own biases. What the Rabbi says seems to make a lot of sense. While at times stumbling along and having to work my way around the practical difficulties, I have still kept the Jesus ideal at least as a principle with which to direct life’s journey. Here is someone, not antagonistic to a spiritual view of life, who says I have got it all wrong.
I have pondered a lot on this over the past two years but, for now, have come back to my original position.
These are some of the thoughts which have led me back to the conclusion that ultimately the Jesus ideal is the one worth pursuing rather than the principle of reciprocity, or tit-for-tat, which Dan Cohn-Sherbok advocates:
The biggest problem in give and take in actual relationships is the different perception by each party as to what is fair or just. That is, as to the point at which the giving stops and the taking begins. I see this at the level of international relations as well as those of an intimate nature. Internationally, for instance, it seems ludicrous that a country as economically and politically dominant as the United States should expect reciprocity in giving and taking with countries as poor and weak as Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps this principle of give and take is at the heart of the problem of establishing peace between Israel and Palestine. This sort of attitude can lead to the sort of victim mentality on the part of the relatively weak which can bedevil relationships.
In the intimacy of marriage, too, so much strife is caused because the partners have different understandings of what is fair. Between countries there are cultural differences which exacerbate these misunderstandings. In marriage there are the inherent differences between men and women to complicate matters.
Who makes the first move? Who is going to be first to give? Once the process of reciprocal exchange has begun at what point do the parties agree that the giving stops and the taking begins?
Regrettably, not all human beings (or countries for that matter) are fortunate enough to be physically or mentally able to be treated as mature adults and maintain a relationship of equals. There is a tremendous range of expressions of the transition between our being fully mentally capable and (at the extreme) the various stages of dementia and eventual complete bodily helplessness.
Far from wanting always to be treated in an adult fashion I am happy to be treated as the object of someone else’s concern and sympathy from time to time, and to be at peace with it. To be always on guard for reciprocity in my relationships can become very wearing.
Loving, as against being loved, has therapeutic value in itself. Even for the weaker party in a relationship, an act of love (such as forgiveness) makes that person the initiator. This gives him or her a sense of power, or at least control’ over their own life, compared with seeing themselves as the disadvantaged victim.
So the love ideal turns out to be not so impracticable after all. At the extreme it means dying for someone else, and there have been, of course, inspiring, classic cases of this occurring. And at the day to day level there are common sense responses to the sticky problems that can arise when adopting this philosophy.
For example one has to care for one’s body and mental condition to some degree if one is to be of any use to anyone else. Even in marriage, to the extent that it is a self-centred condition, I have argued to myself that I could not be a ’complete person’ without the satisfaction that marriage and family bring. And if I am not a complete person I am less able to give to others.
The agape love which Jesus stands for is, at one level, simplicity itself. At other levels, as many have found down through the ages, it has a complexity which adds tremendously to the spice of life.
As for me, until something better comes along, I’ll choose love.