So I was in the break room reading the Bible when a coworker came in and saw me. “I read the Christian Bible once.”, he said (loosely paraphrasing), “the amazing thing about it to me was that for all the fuss about him being a great moral teacher, Jesus didn’t really teach anything that hadn’t been taught before.” I went back to my desk pondering if Jesus had been a moral innovator.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17)
As I thought about the question, I realized that not only was Jesus not a moral innovator, but if He had been Christianity would be untrue. He said that he came to fulfill the law and how could he have done that if his teaching on basic moral principles had been radically different from that found in the Old Testament? While I have discussed some ways in which Jesus was a moral visionary in a previous essay, I missed an obvious point in that previous effort. Jesus primary contribution was not as a teacher but as the one who fulfilled the law for us when we could not fulfill it ourselves. In his cross, he gave us righteousness and the hope of eternal life.
The coworker who I mentioned above read this post and corrected me in an email (see below). The funny thing is, he lists a number of aspects of the teachings of Christ that I have not mentioned.
I looked at another of your posts (“Was Jesus Christ a Moral Innovator”) – I assume the conversation in question is the one with me, in which case, you have significantly mischaracterized what I said.
I didn’t say Jesus didn’t teach anything that hadn’t been taught before. I said he taught nearly nothing that hadn’t been taught before. In fact, in the whole Christian bible, I find one idea that he teaches that hadn’t been taught before.
That one thing, however, I think is probably the single most important moral lessons of our civilization.
That one lesson is the one about turning the other cheek.
I think this lesson has several important ideas contributing to it. Some are more explicit in the text of the Gospels than others:
- The idea that one should lead by the ideal example. If someone does evil to you, and the proper response is not to do evil back, but to do good back, to show them how the world should work, rather than confirm their idea of how it does work.
- The idea that one forgives not for the sake of the person being forgiven, but for the sake of the person forgiving.
- The idea that love can overcome hate
- The idea that demonization is a sin in and of itself, irrespective of the actual resemblance to demons of the person being demonized.
All in all, if this one lesson of Jesus ever really catches on, it will be the one that saves civilization as we know it. Sadly, it’s probably the first of Jesus’ lessons that is forgotten in most of the Christian rhetoric I see. Not always – there are always a few who remember it, and that always gives me great hope – but it’s a very hard lesson for the general masses, not to punish evil, and to walk away from Hammurabi’s code towards something even nicer.
One thing that is generally lost in the discussion of Hammurabi’s code (‘an eye for an eye…’) is that, in context, it started out as a limitation. It didn’t mean, “If your neighbor plucked out your eye, you now have a right to pluck out his, because we have this nifty new code that lets you do so”. It meant, “If your neighbor plucked out your eye, the most you can do to him is pluck his out in return.” And Jesus’ statement limits this even farther, saying you shouldn’t in fact take retribution at all. Yet, today, in our supposedly Christian culture, we instead see a push in the opposite direction – a push to completely blind those who pluck out one of our eyes.
I count this as one of the great failings of Christianity as an institution that it tends to marginalize and ignore this, what I consider the most important of all Jesus’ teachings.