Biblical Insights from Nonbelievers

The insight service day before yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Village Church was among the more thought-provoking I’ve heard (and I’ve heard some that inspired me to give serious thought to some pretty complex issues). The presentation, given by a man who served as a Methodist minister for seventeen years, contrasted the Ten Commandments with the Beatitudes.

The speaker noted that the majority of the ten commandments (from the old testament Book of Exodus) are prohibitions against actions deemed by whoever wrote them (right, Moses) to be immoral or against the laws of God. Those prohibitions form the basis, the speaker said, of the system of justice upon which the USA and many other countries base their laws.  They are, by and large, stipulations as to behaviors judged unsuited to a civilized world. They are meant to instill fear; breaking them makes one subject to the wrath of God. While avoiding the behaviors proscribed by the commandments and following those few prescriptive commandments get one on the good side of God, they use the stick, not the carrot, to encourage obedience.

By contrast, the Beatitudes (the “blessings”) from the new testament, Book of Matthew are teachings of Jesus that encourage mercy. For those not as familiar with them as they might like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I have never considered the Commandments and the Beatitudes juxtaposed one against the other. (Perhaps if I’d been a believer and a churchgoer I would have long since learned this…) But the speaker made the clear distinction. And he questioned why, if we have a system of justice based on the old testament, we do not also have a system of mercy based on the new testament? Good question. As I listened to the speaker discuss the justice system and the lack of embedded exhortations for mercy, I thought how obvious it ought to be to everyone that both justice and mercy should provide equally powerful drivers to our social institutions. But they don’t. And in the same sense, both Republican and Democratic parties (and the rest), ought to embrace both justice and mercy as common objectives. But it seems, in today’s environment, justice in the punitive sense is the province of Republicans and mercy in the sometimes overly forgiving, and blind, sense is the province of Democrats. While I’m not a believer and, therefore, one might think I would bristle at a social structure being informed by religious principles, I have to acknowledge the religious foundations upon which much of our laws are based. And I have to say there is not only room for both justice and mercy in our systems, but an absolute requirement for a balanced mix.

“An eye for an eye” from Exodus in the old testament seems to me a harsh, bloodthirsty adage, but an admonition from the new testament offers an alternate approach that, I wish, would form at least part of the basis of our system of “merciful justice:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

These thought-provoking presentations have not and will not give me reason to change my lack of belief in supernatural beings, but they have the potential for making me think about the positive attributes of religions. Religion has so much history for which to be ashamed, yet sacred teachings from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., etc. share so many commonalities that I have to think humankind, in general, has fundamental goodness at its core. By the same token, the ongoing battles between “good” and “evil” suggests humankind’s worst flaws, too, are inherent in the beast.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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