Jesus had a distinctive ethical view, significantly different from the ethics propounded and followed by most people in his world. And, well, by most people in ours. Even some (many? most?) who claim to be Jesus’ followers. Or so it appears to me when I look at what Jesus actually teaches and observe what some (many?) modern Christians both do and say.
I’ve spent the past five posts summarizing what I plan to cover in my book The Origins of Altruism: How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West. If history holds the publisher will be giving it a different title, and at this point for me the title’s not the main thing. Writing it is!
The foci are Jesus’ teachings on love, charitable giving, and forgiveness, how these teachings contrasted with those commonly followed in the Roman world at the time, how they were modified and softened by his own followers after his death, and how they nonetheless came to play an oversized role in the understanding of “how should we live” throughout the Western world till today.
At the end of the book I plan to have a conclusion, probably (possibly?) something like this:
To wrap up the book I will discuss these Christian discourses and practices in the modern world, asking, basically, “How we doin’ with all that?”
As to love: We live in a world where many Christians quite happily and with surprising vigor engage in hate-speech and action directed to the “other”: with Christian racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred of immigrants, the homeless, anyone of different sexual or gender identity, and … on and on. I don’t even wonder what Jesus would make of that. Some evangelical (!) Christian leaders have started to argue that the teachings of Jesus, for example in the Sermon on the Mount, were too soft. Good grief.
As to charity: we live in a world where many Christians consider wealth a gift from God, where, in an ever-increasingly popular manifestation, the oxymoronic “Prosperity Gospel” continues to thrive, where fabulously wealthy televangelists and mega-church pastors thrive on the donations of their well-endowed followers and, far worse, the poor hopeful they convince to give all they can for a divine gift in return. Possibly a Mercedes.
As to forgiveness: we live in a world far more interested in payback and revenge rather than peace and reconciliation, with many Christians outspokenly obsessed with retributive justice instead of reconciliation and reform, pursuing a socio-political agenda they wrongly claim is biblical (e.g. abolition of abortion and gay rights) while ignoring sins the Bible quite explicitly condemns — social injustice, opposition to immigrants, and oppression the “undeserving other.”
STILL, that’s the way of the world. Ours is not the only time when Christians have engaged in acts of violence and hatred in the name of God.
But we also need to think of the positive sides of modern life that would not be possible without Jesus and his followers, whose ethical teachings took over the world. The children’s hospitals; the homeless shelters; the food banks; the literacy centers, the millions and millions of people in the world who sacrifice something of themselves, their time, their resources, for the sake of others, to help those in need, to care for those who are sick, or displaced, or hungry, or homeless. Those who send their hard-earned money to victims of famine, war, natural disaster.
I am not a Christian myself, but I respect and admire the Christians of today who continue to do their best to follow the actual teachings of Jesus, caring for those who are in need, even strangers, even foreigners, even aliens. These are teachings that can make our world a better place and can transform the people who try to follow them, whether Christian or not, into better human beings.
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