Atheist Society Talk - December 2017
Tonight, I want to put the ethics of Jesus under the critical microscope.
The inspiration for this talk comes from a recently released book written by the atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos: "The Bad Jesus: the ethics of New Testament Ethics" which I highly recommend. In this book, Avalos shows that the assumption that Jesus was morally benign, is not restricted to practicing Christians. He shows that this is the overwhelming assumption of mainstream New Testament scholarship, even those scholars with a secular outlook. Within biblical scholarship there is a wide variety of views about who Jesus was – from an apocalyptic prophet, a cynic sage, or a revolutionary to name just a few – but, most scholars, with rare exceptions, seem to proceed on the assumption that Jesus is above moral criticism. It’s as if they really hold to the Christian doctrine that Jesus was divine and therefore perfect.
This is a bit strange because Jesus himself was under no illusions that he was morally without fault. When a local ruler asked him "Good Teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:8). But, as Avalos shows, modern scholarship tends to ignore Jesus on this point. For them Jesus is basically morally faultless.
Following Avalos, I want to the contrary that "the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today" (Avalos, Vridar) – standards such as those outlined in the UN declaration of human rights.
I am going to talk about five key problematic areas of Jesus ethics.
Some Ground Rules:
Before I get into the meaty discussion a few upfront qualifications and clarifications are needed:
Many scholars summarise the essence of Jesus ethics in terms of commandments to love others – not just God, and your neighbour, but famously, even your enemy. But Jesus did not always preach a gospel of universal Love. Those who claim this are forgetting about what Jesus said according to Luke 14:26 about how his followers should think about their family’s:
Most scholars reject this literal translation of the passage, suggesting Luke was merely being hyperbolic, and that the intended meaning of the passage is comparative i.e. that Christians should love Jesus more than their own families, which is what one reads in a similar passage found in the Gospel of Matthew (10:37). But there are no good reasons to read the passage in Luke through the lens of Matthew – the harsh fact is, in Luke, Jesus clearly uses hate speech.
Avalos suggest that the inspiration for this teaching may well come from the book of Deuteronomy, where followers of Yahweh are commanded to kill members of their family who serve other Gods. In an analogous way, it is possible that Jesus may have encouraged his followers to adopt an attitude of hatred towards family members who do not agree with Jesus.
But even if we base ourselves on Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is clearly no fan of the family. According to Matthew 19:29, Jesus said:
In the context of the time, this is a very destructive teaching. 1st century Palestine, like most ancient societies, was a patriarchal culture in which women and children were highly dependent on the male breadwinner. For Jesus to encourage his followers to abandon their families, is to risk leaving their dependants being left highly vulnerable to poverty.
And this is not just rhetoric. We see an example of this in the gospels
when Jesus calls his disciples, James and John to be disciples:
Of course, Jesus calls his followers to join the new Christian family, where they are encouraged to live lives of self-denial for the sake of the Kingdom (see i.e Matthew 16:25; Mark 9:35; Luke 14:27). Is this not a noble goal?
Well I don’t think so. To my mind, a good life is one in which a healthy balance is struck between looking after one’s own interests, as well as serving the interests of the wider community of which one is a part. This more balanced approach was recognised by the Israeli philosopher Bar Hillel who observed: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I."
I don’t think a life of Christian self-denial forms a realistic or indeed healthy basis for an ethical life.
The Violent Jesus
It might seem odd to talk about the violent Jesus given many of his statements make him sound like a hardcore pacifist. He famously taught not to resist the evil doer, and turn the other cheek and proclaimed blessed are the peacemakers. On the other hand, sometimes Jesus sounds like he could have been Donald Trump’s speech writer. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). So, it’s quite hard to know exactly what Jesus thought about war and peace, at least here on earth.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus was not opposed to the use of violence. In fact, far from it. Because, as Avalos point out, Jesus believed in ‘deferred violence’. This is violence that will be inflicted on one’s enemies in the future, rather than in the present, usually for reasons of expediency. In the case of Jesus, he believed that violence would be inflicted on the enemies of God, not here on earth, but at the coming judgement of God. This teaching is especially prominent in Matthew’s gospel, but it is alluded to in all the gospels.
Here are a couple of examples:
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; Matthew 25:41.
There is no way, of course, to ethically justify the notion of eternal divine punishment. Jesus never suggests that it has anything to do with, justice for the victims, let alone rehabilitation for the perpetrator. As far as we can tell from what Jesus says, its all about divine revenge against the self-selected enemies of God.
Some people argue that Jesus was a moral innovator with teaching such as ‘love your enemies’. Avalos, however, shows that Jesus was at his most innovative in regard to teachings about eternal hell-fire. "It is Jesus", he points out, "who emphasises more than anyone else before him, the idea that those who displease him should suffer eternal torture" (p.104). In this sense, one can argue that Jesus was innovative in extending and intensifying violence.
In so far as Jesus views entail the mass torture and killing of people, his views contradict article 3 and 5 of the universal declaration which talk about the right to life and freedom from torture.
As an aside, the fact that Jesus believed in eternal punishment, reveals another fundamental problem with his entire ethical framework – namely that it is heavily based on appeals to extrinsic rewards and punishments, in form of punishments and rewards in the afterlife, as incentive for doing to the right thing. But there is now a vast literature demonstrating that extrinsic rewards and punishments is a highly ineffective strategy in helping people develop a lasting commitment to promoting the welfare of others. The focus should be on helping people develop their innate sense of empathy towards by thinking through and reflecting on, the impact of their actions on other people. Jesus never does any of this. His moral framework is founded heavily on a command-obedience model, backed up with the promise of reward, and threat of horribly violent punishment for those who disobey.
Even the more pacifist sounding aphorism of Jesus may actually help to perpetuate violence in practice. Many people think Jesus advocated non-violent resistance, but in the following famous passage in Matthew Jesus actually advocates ‘complete non-resistance, regardless of brutality.
Jesus also wasn’t above acting violently himself. Listen to John’s (2:14) account of Jesus in the temple.
The Imperialist Jesus
Today, there is a small cottage industry of biblical scholars trying to convince us that Jesus was a left-wing anti-imperialist, stirring up revolt against the Roman Empire. The problem is they cannot point to a single text in which Jesus explicitly condemns the Roman Empire – indeed he famously told his disciples to "Render under to Caesar's that which is Caesars’s (Matthew 22:21 -KJV). Such scholars are left to infer an anti-imperial Jesus from the bare fact of his crucifixion, implying, they argue, that he must have run afoul of the Roman authorities somehow.
But even if Jesus opposed Rome it would not follow that he was an anti-imperialist. An authentic anti-imperialist opposes all empires, without exception, on principle. But Jesus simply wanted to replace the Roman Empire with another empire, which he called the Kingdom of God.
You may think it’s a bit rich to label the Kingdom of God an empire, but is it really? Like all empires, the Kingdom of God is based on obedience to the emperor – in this case the divine emperor in heaven. Jesus is very clear about this when he says:
Still you may think, unlike other empires, surely the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned would be based on noble values, such as justice for the poor, healing for the sick, forgiveness for the sinner, and service towards others? The problem is, it’s hard to be sure this isn’t anything more than another example of imperial propaganda. Across history, all empires have cloaked their deeds in benign rhetoric. In school, I remember learning about the myth of Venice, which referred to the way the Venetian Empire proclaimed that their republic was based on liberty, prosperity, piety, political stability and social harmony. One of our tasks as students, was to show how the reality was often very different from rhetoric. What’s to say the Kingdom of God would be any different?
Empires, especially, in the ancient world invariably relied on slavery. Would this barbaric institution be ruled out in the Kingdom of God? From the words of Jesus, we cannot be sure, as Jesus never says a critical word about slavery, and in several of his parables, appears to approve of it. One particularly disturbing example come from Luke 14:43-46. The context for this parable is that Jesus is teaching about how his followers must be on alert for the future arrival of the son of man. To illustrate the point Jesus then tells this parable:
It is no excuse to say that Jesus, by approving of slavery, was simply reflecting the values of his day. We know from the Jewish writing of Philo that the Essenes – a contemporary Jewish sect - condemned slavery on principle as inconsistent with the state of nature in which, they believed, all men were equal (p176). If Jesus was such a radical anti-imperialist – let alone the all righteous divine saviour – he could have done so as well. But he didn’t.
In so far as Jesus affirms slavery, he of course contravenes article 4 of the declaration of Human Rights, which talks about the right to be free from slavery.
Another reason to doubt that the Kingdom of God would be any different from other empires, is that Jesus himself never once expresses moral outrage at the genocidal actions carried out by the followers of Yahweh, detailed at length in the Jewish scripture– scriptures which Jesus himself regularly cites knows very well. These texts describe the use of mass terror, including against innocents, in order to conquer and subjugate the land of Canaan. But Jesus says nothing about these texts, let alone condemns them. How can we be sure, the same kind of acts would not be endorsed for the establishment of his Kingdom? Especially given, as Avalos points out there are prophetic texts in books such as Isiah, which foresee a future Kingdom in which Israel will lord it over their current gentile oppressors. We cannot be sure, and indeed have reason to doubt, that Jesus did not have the same thing in mind.
Jesus as enemy of the poor:
Again, to talk of Jesus being the enemy of the poor seems controversial. After all, according to Luke, Jesus declared that his mission was to "bring good news to the poor" and to "let the oppressed go free". On another occasion he told his followers that "it is easier for the camel to go through the eye of needle, than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God." With words like these, Christians have claimed Jesus as the friend of the poor. But once again we have to ask whether the rhetoric really matched the practical reality. And, following Avalos, I think there is reason to argue that in practical terms Jesus was not just unhelpful but in some ways positively harmful towards the poor
I have already mentioned that by encouraging people to abandon their families, Jesus potentially left economically dependent women and children vulnerable to poverty. But Jesus is unhelpful in other ways
Take the story of the rich man. In this episode, Jesus commands the rich man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. While it’s a noble sentiment, we must ask whether such a command will have beneficial outcomes for the poor. After all, just like the rich man, Christians across the centuries have found it nearly impossible to give up even part of their wealth, let alone all of it. Contemporary ethical philosopher Peter Singer, is far more realistic when he tries to persuade ordinary Australian’s to give just 1% of their income to charitable organisations. As he says "better, to start low and have more people giving than to insist on a standard so high that almost everyone will reject it" (see here). By setting an impossibly high bar, Jesus ultimately does a disservice to the poor who depend on charitable assistance.
In any case, an approach to poverty alleviation based entirely on charity, is likely to be highly ineffective. Merely giving charitable aid does nothing to challenge the power relations, and the economic structures, that reproduce poverty in the first place. We see this, very starkly, today. Economist Jason Hickel points out that poor countries receive about 1 trillion in aid from rich countries each year. However, about three times this amount of money is effectively siphoned out of poor countries via mechanisms such as interest payments on debt, capital flight, corporate tax evasion, and profit repatriation. In effect, he concludes, "Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones." This is, of course, morally horrific.
The same was true in Jesus day. In the Roman Empire, the ownership and control of agricultural land was highly concentrated among a relatively small amount of wealthy elite landlords, leaving the mass of poor peasant highly vulnerable to exploitation. Jesus never commented on such structural inequalities, let alone proposed political action that might eradicate them.
On one occasion Jesus also appears to place his own well-being above the interest of the poor. The episode I have in mind is the anointment at Bethany. This is the story whereby a woman volunteers to use expensive oil to anoint Jesus body in preparation for his death and burial. Some onlooker’s challenger this women by pointing out that she could have, instead, sold the oil and given the proceeds to the poor. This is surely a very persuasive utilitarian argument, as the money from the sale of the ointment could have meet the vital needs of many poor people – perhaps about 750 people for an entire day – as compared to the surely rather trivial needs of Jesus to have his diseased body smell nice.
Jesus replies to this challenge as follows:
In fact, using the same logic, the rich man – who as noted earlier, Jesus commanded to give up all his wealth– could have replied by saying: while we will always have the poor, you will not always have me, so I will hold onto my wealth thank you very much! In short, rhetoric aside, it looks as if what Jesus really preached is that giving away your possessions to the poor is fine…unless Jesus need them!
The Eco-Hostile Jesus
As we all know, today humanity faces a very profound and intensifying ecological crisis. I am convinced that unless humanity ceases the pursuit of capitalist economic growth and ever higher affluence, it will result in a catastrophic and violent 21st century. Do the ethics of Jesus, as found in the gospels provide us with any assistance in helping us live in harmony with nature, and within the limits of a finite planet? The answer is clearly, no. There is nothing in the teaching of Jesus – not even broad principles – that offer any relevant guidance. But perhaps it would be unfair to expect this, given ecological issues were not nearly so pressing back them. My concern, however, is that some of Jesus teaching may be counter-productive for meeting today’s environmental challenges.
The concern here is the eschatological teaching of Jesus – that is, the teaching about the coming end times. An event, by the way, that Jesus wrongly predicted would occur within the lifetime of his followers.
In this text, which comes from Mark 13, Jesus outlines a pretty scary apocalyptic vision, (Mark 13: 19-20)
In any case, my main concern is not so much with the violence, and ecological destruction that appears to be implied by Jesus apocalyptic teaching. It is rather the more general idea that God will powerfully intervene, sometime in the future, to save humanity. This is, still today, a very common belief held among Christians, even if they differ wildly on how exactly they think God will act. Here is a quote from Christian evangelical and host of the excellent Unbelievable podcast, Justin Brieley:
Maybe I should not be that concerned. Many Christians today, of course, are genuinely concerned about the ecological crisis, and appear willing to get active to address it, not wait for some future action of God. They tend to emphasise texts which talk of God’s injunctions to humans to act as stewards of creation, and place relatively little emphasis on the implications of end-time eschatology. But even for these Christians, I still wonder if beliefs about God’s end time salvation might - even subconsciously – reduce the sense of urgency that can surely only come from the atheist realisation that only we humans can get ourselves out of the ecological mess we are creating.
Certainly my concern does have some empirical foundation, at least in relation to certain Christian sects such as Pentecostal and evangelical forms of Christianity, where literal end time belief is often very strong. Several American based studies have shown that these beliefs are part of the reason why such sects have had little involvement with modern environmentalism, and indeed have often been hostile to it. As one study put it.
To conclude, while the four portraits of Jesus in the gospels are quite diverse, we do get a general kind of picture, which is in many ways like the modern-day cult leader. Like a cult leader, Jesus encourages his followers to abandon their biological families – without any concern for the impact that might have – and join his self-appointed religious mission. In this new ‘family’ followers are offered ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ in the form of an imagined after-life, as incentive for doing the right thing. The right thing, is defined as living a life of self-sacrifice for the Kingdom, as well as unquestioning obedience to the will of God – as defined by Jesus – irrespective of what impact it might have on others.
The utopian kingdom he preachers, far from being egalitarian, is drenched in imperial assumptions. And rhetoric aside, offers very little practical hope for the real-world poor. Today, beliefs about a coming Kingdom brought about by some kind dramatic earth-shaking action by God, is not only delusional, but risks giving modern Christians a false sense of security, in the face of the actual real looming ecological threats to civilization as we know it.
I think judging by the standards of his own day, the morality of Jesus was highly questionable and problematic. But of course, that is even more true for us today, where Jesus is either irrelevant or far too simplistic to be of any assistance in meeting the big and often complex 21st century ethical challenges we face.
Finally, aside from the content of Jesus
ethics, I would like to point out that the very idea of basing our ethics
on any individual, especially one based on ancient religious texts, is
highly problematic. As Avalos rightly says: "ethics should be based on
scientifically verifiable phenomena and empathy is at the core of all ethics.
Empathy is a biological constituent of humanity, as it is of many other
species." In short: Science and empathy should be the wellspring of modern
ethics, not the ideas and actions of mythologised ancient religious figures
such as Jesus.
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