Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What is Christian morality? Part 11

roadsign for the soul - words words words

5:44-48 ....I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. [God] causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, don’t they? To sum up, you are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting [see also Luke 6:27-28, Luke 6:34-35].

I’ve always liked the maxim that we should be judged not on how we treat our friends but on how we treat our enemies, but I never associated it with Jesus, I thought it was La Rochefoucauld or someone. The point being that it’s common sense – of course we treat our friends well, of course it’s therefore a good idea to work on our treatment of our enemies, or strangers. To work on your generosity is always good advice, and many ‘sages’ throughout history have given it.

Of course there’s a paradox here. If you really managed to love your enemies they wouldn’t be your enemies – or would they? The renowned antitheist Christopher Hitchens has a real go at the ‘love your enemies’ injunction, calling it suicidal, amongst other choice epithets, and he certainly has a point, but, looking at the phrase in context, we can find a more sympathetic interpretation. Jesus really does seem to be trying to get people to extend the range of their generosity, to consider whether there are good, or good enough reasons to consider certain people our enemies. Often when we make a decision that person x is our enemy, or is a ‘bad’ person, we shut down on them, refusing to listen, referring to our earlier decision. Jesus is arguably saying nothing more than this, that we shouldn’t be too hasty in our judgements, and that we shouldn’t revile people for being different.

On the other hand, if we look at the actual language used, Jesus does seem pretty decisive himself about good people and evil people. This heightens the paradox. Should we really love evil people?

The phrase ‘love your enemies’ has a somewhat similar logical form to the paradoxical phrase coined by the French anarchist Proudhon, ‘Property is theft’. Such phrases have a momentary cleverness, but are soon shown to chase their own tails or to disappear up their own arseholes. To say that property is theft is to legitimise theft and to illegitimise property – both sides of the equation are diminished to the point of meaninglessness. There’s a similar problem with ‘love your enemies’, for if you love your enemies equally with your friends – if you love everyone equally, then the term ‘love’ ceases to have any real meaning, not to mention the terms ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. So why would Jesus have said this? Well, why did Proudhon say property is theft? My favoured response is a rather boring one. They were both only human, they sometimes preferred the flashy to the deep, they didn’t think things through.

Returning to Hitchens’ comment that this philosophy is ‘suicidal’ – this is based on an entrenched attitude about enemies. Our enemies will always be our enemies, they cannot be otherwise. It reflects a kind of evolutionary perspective, where the word ‘enemy’ is synonymous with ‘predator’, someone who threatens our very existence, someone we must either avoid or overcome. It doesn’t seem very useful to love your predator. Indeed it seems suicidal, as Hitchens claims. Better to know your predators, to work out their weaknesses, and to build on your own strengths in combating them.

We humans are inordinately good at that of course, to the point that we have no predators, outside of our own species, to be afraid of. We ourselves have become the most deadly and efficient predators on the planet. Our realisation of this is causing us to rethink notions of predator and prey, and even enemies and friends. A subtle Christian might try to convince us that Jesus anticipated all this with ‘love your enemies’. He was a god, after all. But this would just be another example of seeking other-worldly sources for our own ever-changing and increasingly nuanced view of ourselves. We invest ancient moral statements with all the subtleties that we have gleaned from the intervening years. We do this all the time.

6:3-4 ...when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden. And your Father, who has an eye for the hidden, will applaud you.

Of course it’s impossible to keep your charitable or any other acts hidden from yourself, but the Jesus Seminar has a collective view that Jesus loved such paradoxical remarks. The idea, clearly, is that you shouldn’t do good works for the applause of others, but this is completely undermined by the claim that God will applaud you – thus assuming we still need applause to be charitable. Perhaps, though this is the moral message of Christianity in a nutshell. God will reward you for your good works. Is this the moral foundation of western civilization?

This sort of advice – don’t pray in public but in private, where God, who sees all that’s hidden, will applaud you, and forgive the failings of others because then God will forgive your failings – continues for several more verses. It of course captures the essence of all religious morality, that there are spirits or deities who are consumingly interested in human moral activities, who see clearly the good and bad in everyone and are able to dispense a proper and absolute justice at the end of things. It’s what you might call the ‘constant surveillance’ approach to morality. God’s cctv cameras are everywhere, get used to it and act accordingly.



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