It’s Christmas time! The season for all humanity to follow Jesus’ example and show love, compassion and charity to each other, all in some sort of collective effort to pull a fast one on God and pretend all the nastiness we from the last 364 days never happened.
He’s an omnipotent deity from beyond our universe, people. He knows.
But while we all run around singing songs, giving gifts and forcing our children to perform in reenactments of his life, there’s one thing about Jesus that most people tend to overlook: what he actually told us all to do. No, really, have a think about that for a second – what exactly were the rules that Jesus told us to live by? The guy is the son of god (of possibly God himself on a gap year, no one seems to be sure), descended from on high to ‘save humanity’ from our sins so we can go to heaven. If you’re going to save people, you’re saying that things as they stand are no good and need to change. This in turn implies a new set of rules about how we should live in order to improve things. So tell me humble reader, right off the top of your head; what were those rules that Jesus handed to us?
Yeah I had no idea either. Loving each other and something about letting people slap you was the best I could up with on the spot, and I dare say if you asked your average Christmas reveler the same question, you’d get a similarly vague answer.
Given the majority of Australians consider themselves some form of Christian, and that Christmas is such a massive event here, you’d think we’d be a bit clearer on what exactly it was that he wanted us to do.
And do his rules make any sense? Kinda an impious thing to be asking this time of year, but given the sheer number and diversity of people identifying as Christian, it’s an absolute guarantee that half of them disagree with the other half about how they should live – but they all ascribe to the message of Jesus. How does that work? Multiple groups of people that live very differently all claiming to be guided by the same set of rules? Smells fishy to me.
So, in celebration of the Big Man (or the Big Man’s kid, or his fleshy avatar, whatever) it’s time for a proper look at exactly what Jesus wants us to do, and whether any of it makes any god damn sense. And I’m just the egotistical, holiday-ruining bastard for the job!
A couple of points before we start; this is not going to be a comprehensive analysis of the Bible. I don’t have time or the attention-span to review and ethically analyse Jesus’ attitude to fig trees, so we’re sticking to the big points here.
Secondly, I’m skipping the salesmanship. You see, a fairly hefty chunk of Big J’s teachings basically boils down to ‘believe me’:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6.
And while I’m sure this is pretty gratifying to anyone who’s already on the J-train, it’s not so much a teaching as much as it is him encouraging you to take his word for it. Quite apart from the fact that every preacher of ever religion ever has said exactly the same thing, it’s ethically irrelevant – as we discussed last week, just because an idea is reasonable and compelling doesn’t mean it’s true. The only thing we should be concerned with at the end of the day is the evidence, and given Jesus is the son/embodiment/avatar of the creator of the friggin’ universe, I’d be a bit worried if they couldn’t drum up some supporting facts.
Yeah you could argue that as divine beings, they’re both above such earthly concepts as ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’, but here’s the thing: you aren’t. Even the most devout zealot has had to be convinced about their beliefs at least once, and if they weren’t convinced with objective evidence (as opposed to far less reliable sources of information like old books, their parent’s opinions, or personal experiences) then we have a bit of a problem, don’t we?
So without further ado, let’s get our blaspheme on.
Let people slap you and take your stuff – Matt 5:38–41
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
On the face of it, this comes across as Jesus telling us to roll over and let bad people screw us over, but note the first part of the teaching – a rejection of the old lesson “an eye for an eye”. In ethics this is known as the ‘might makes right’ theory, which basically argues that what is right and wrong is up to whoever has the strength to impose those rules on others. It’s a philosophy of thugs who get their way because everyone is too scared to stand up to them. And given that people who are comfortable using violence to impose their will aren’t the nicest, smartest or most organised of people, these sorts of systems tend to lead to pretty terrible outcomes for everyone compared to other, more collaborative systems.
Sure, Jesus’ alternative that you just let bad people walk all over you is kinda naïve to say the least, as it will just hand power to bad people. That said, Jesus was above all about the individual rather than the group, and since vengeance has a tendency to just make every problem hugely worse this is a fairly solid lesson for any individual to be going on with.
Keep your eyes to yourself – Matt 5:27–30
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
Holy crap, Jesus went a bit overboard there. Bodily dismemberment aside (which I’m going to be generous and assume is a graphic metaphor) the message hear is pretty straight forward – wanting to sleep with someone’s wife is just as bad as actually doing it. Wanting to sin is just as bad as actually sinning.
Here me and Mr J and going to have to disagree. Saying that it’s just as bad to kill someone as it is to actually kill them is obviously a load of bull – not only is the harm massively less when you just think about doing something bad, I’ve argued strongly before that the only possible way to overcome evil is to understand it, and that requires being able to think evil thoughts. Saying that you should hack off any bit of you that strays from perfect displays a pretty bad appreciation of human psychology and physiology in general.
On the other hand this teaching keeps up a strong theme of personal accountability; it’s not enough to keep your behaviour in check, you should be striving not to want to do bad things in the first place. This I can get behind, though it is a pretty wide interpretation of the teaching.
Mind your own business – Matt 7:1–5
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Speaking of wide interpretations, this quote tends to be thrown about as just ‘don’t judge’, when in practice it’s a bit more complicated than that. If the Bible makes one thing extremely clear, it’s that Jesus has a problem with hypocrites. Whether it’s people stoning a woman for adultery despite being sinners themselves, those that try to buy holiness, and especially anyone using the church for profit, he has a serious issue with it and he’s not above getting the pimp hand out.
Mega-church evangelists please take note.
Ultimately this lesson isn’t about not judging – that’s physically impossible – but rather to pay more attention to your own behaviour than to others. Judge, but be aware that by doing so you will be judged in the same way (so you better be fair about it buddy). Overall a solid message, if a bit obscure.
Communists rule, Capitalism drools – Matt 19:23
Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Oh man I love this one. Not so much because I agree with it, but more because I love watching the ultra-rich ‘christians’ try to weasel their way around this extremely clear statement. Yeah, yeah you can go on about metaphors all you want, but until someone shows me how it’s in any way conceivable to get a camel through the eye of a needle, especially 2000 years ago, the message hear is pretty bloody clear: rich kids don’t go to heaven PERIOD.
Want to go to heaven? Ditch the bling. ALL of it:
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Matt 19:21
That’s all very well, but not really grounds for calling Jesus – the paragon of the liberal capitalist west – a communist. Well then, feast your eyes upon Luke 15:4-7.
“What man among you with 100 sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the 99 behind in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he has found it, he puts it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he gets home, he calls his friends and his neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous ones who have no need of repentance.
That’s right kids, screw the high achievers! One idiot sheep has gotten itself lost and we’re dropping everything until we find it. And then we’re throwing it a party. And it only gets worse with The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) wherein Jesus literally says that everyone should be paid the same, even though some people put in a lot more work than others. No I am not twisting that even a little.
‘But that’s not communism, that’s just compassion!’ I hear you cry. Oh really?
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – popularised by Karl Marx
Have a think about that the next time someone uses ‘Jesus’ and ‘Freedom’ in the same sentence.
But does it add up ethically? Bluntly put, no it does not. To gloss over a hundred years of complex political commentary, neither capitalism nor communism are perfect systems – they might appear so on paper, but the real world has a tendency to be a bit more complicated than that. Broadly speaking the wise nation finds the middle ground between sell-your-mother capitalism and queueing-for-potatoes communism, because that tends to lead to the best results for everyone. The philosophy of a guy who lived 2000 years ago under a theocratic monarchy is probably not going to add a lot to the issue, though it does reflect many of the more valid criticisms of capitalism – that it tends to leave the most needy to fend for themselves.
Be awesome to each other, even if you don’t want to – Matt 19:16-19 and pretty much everywhere else
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Finally some solid rules! And by and large they’re pretty solid; no murder, theft, lying or dishonouring parents, alright guys? Sure you could come up with exceptions for pretty much all of those (especially the honouring your parents part) but for the most part you’re not going to get much argument.
But it’s the last point that’s truly exceptional and forms the backbone of Jesus’ entire shtick – love everyone, all the time, without exception, even if – especially if – they’re being an arsehole. This is pretty new, even for a guy who said to let people slap you. Love everyone? That’s a tall order to say the least sunshine. But Big J is pretty adamant about it:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matt 5:43–45
On the face of it, this is nothing short of spectacular. Everyone, loving each other like themselves – how can any evil possibly persist if we all take this attitude? Who could raise a hand to another when they loved them so? Who could exploit another, steal from another or lie to another? If we were to all embrace this attitude, truly the world would be a paradise.
But it’s not. Despite 2000 years of Christianity, of which at least 1000 have had Christianity as the most powerful religion on earth, still we are not at peace. So why not?
Well to be blunt, this is a perfect example of an idea focussing on the principle at the expense of the practical. Yes, if we were all to adopt the attitude of Christ all the time (rather than just for Christmas) then the world would indeed be a perfect place – right up until someone snapped and everything descended into a bloodbath.
To state the obvious, human beings are not built for happiness. Every part of us, from our minds to our muscles is geared for one thing and one thing only – survival. Breeding, eating and killing, usually in that order. As such, expecting us all to adopt a Christ-like attitude to life is a little ambitious, especially when Christ himself kinda struggled with it:
Love is an extremely powerful thing and to be celebrated, nurtured and spread, but it’s also not the silver bullet to all the worlds many and varied woes. Trying to maintain love for everyone, even as some of them wreck themselves and everything around them requires a terrifying degree of patience, which in itself is so far outside normal human emotions that it upsets more people than it helps.
Jesus take the wheel, because I’m about to smack a motherfucker.
The grand verdict
Ultimately Jesus was a pretty decent guy with some fairly solid ideas. While a lot of the lessons lose something due to the 2000 year time gaps, a lot of the core messages hold strong:
- Getting revenge just makes things worse
- Hold yourself as or more accountable than those around you
- Judge others by the same measure you hold yourself to
- Don’t get caught up with wealth, because it ain’t going with you
- Definitely never sacrifice other people in the pursuit of wealth
And above all:
- Be nice to each other, even if they don’t deserve it, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t want to.
Jesus may well have been fairly naïve and unrealistic in some of his teachings, but for his time (and even for our time) his teachings were revolutionary in their peacefulness, compassion and justice. So while this Christmas we might all struggle to live up the impossible standard JC sets for us all, we lose nothing from trying , and could gain a lot in the process.
Merry Jesus to you!