For nearly 2,000 years, Christian adherents have adamantly insisted that Christian morality is the best moral code to adopt in order to lead the most virtuous, upright, and ethical life. Do such lofty claims live up to even the most basic scrutiny? Let’s consider the track record.
The moral teachings of Jesus entered the world in first century Palestine at a time of great injustice and widespread cruelty. The Romans were the latest in a string of empires that had established its dominance through warfare, conquest, and brutal suppression. Cities who resisted saw their populations slaughtered, raped, or carted off in chains. Slaves, whether children or adults, had no legal personhood and could be subject to beatings, sexual exploitation, torture, and summary execution. Poverty was rampant. Women were barred from voting or holding political office. Humans and animals were pitted against each other in fights to the death as popular entertainment. Cruel and unusual judicial punishments included whipping, burning at the stake, and crucifixion.
In Palestine itself, theocratic Jewish law held sway, decreeing that those who violate the Sabbath, blaspheme, commit idolatry, disobey a parent, practice “witchcraft”, commit adultery, apostatize from Judaism, or have male homosexual sex should be stoned to death. Women could be compelled to marry a man who raped them. And the Jewish scriptures presented God as having commanded the Jews to commit multiple acts of genocide.
Clearly there was much room for moral improvement in many areas. How many of these areas did Jesus’s teachings address and what did they say?
Let’s begin with what is arguably the greatest of these injustices, the enslaving of other human beings. By the first century, slavery had already been widely committed for as far back as there are human records, destroying the lives of untold numbers of people. For the vast majority of us today, the extreme moral grotesqueness of slavery feels so obvious it’s hard to believe people of the past could have seen things otherwise, but we must confront the truth that they did. Surely if there was one simple thing Jesus’s teachings could have done to greatly improve people’s morality and prevent the future misery of millions, it would have been to make 100% clear in no uncertain terms that slavery is a moral abomination, that it should never ever be committed, that it should be harshly punished when it is committed, and that anyone currently enslaved should immediately and unequivocally be made free and receive recompense.
But what do we find when we look through the New Testament gospels? Alas, Jesus’s teachings never address the matter of slavery at all. While slaves serve as characters in two of Jesus’s parables (in Matthew 18 and 25), in neither case is it stated or implied that such slavery is in any way morally wrong. To the contrary, both parables end with a slave being punished by their master with torture, and Jesus either implies or states clearly that this mirrors how God will torture certain people in the afterlife.
What about the other two main components of Christian morality, the Old Testament and the Epistles section of the New Testament? Jews of the first century enslaved their fellow human beings in complete accordance with their religious scriptures which, despite their great length and many prohibitions, never describe slavery as being morally problematic or something to avoid. Similarly, the Epistles are uniform in their failure to prohibit or even discourage the practice. To the contrary, slaves are instructed to be entirely obedient to their masters, even when they are cruel.
This failure of Christian morality has been absolutely catastrophic in its effects. Instead of slavery being outlawed in 380 AD when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, slavery continued right on as before, destroying millions upon millions of lives over the centuries. As recently as 160 years ago nearly 4 million people were held in slavery in the United States. The refusal of the southern states to end slavery resulted in a war in which 750,000 were killed. The South firmly believed Christian morality supported their cause:
[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.
— Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America
… the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.
— Richard Furman, President, South Carolina Baptist Convention
By any reasonable accounting, getting wrong the issue of the morality of slavery should be more than enough to disqualify any moral code from further consideration as “the best” or even “good”. It’s a deal-breaker. One strike and you’re out. It’s like if someone were to put forward a moral code that comes down on the wrong side of history about murder. That’s all you really need to know about it, before you dismiss it and move on. So it’s entirely reasonable to stop reading here, but for the sake of thoroughness this appraisal will continue.
Violence and Warfare
As noted above, not only was the first century a violent time, the Jewish scriptures present God as commanding various acts of genocidal warfare—the mass slaughter of non-combatants including pregnant women, children, the elderly, and babies. Furthermore, Jewish religious laws prescribed several brutal forms of judicial retribution and capital punishment. So the teachings of Jesus in these areas would have to be presented over and against the prevailing morality of the day.
This is, in fact, what we find in the gospels. Matthew 5 explicitly undoes the Old Testament’s law concerning vengeance (Exodus’s “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”) by stating clearly and in no uncertain terms: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus also revises the Ten Commandment’s prohibition of murder, radically widening it to be a prohibition on insults and even the feeling of anger toward another. A few chapters later, as Jesus is warning his disciples of the persecutions they will face, he teaches, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Thusly, Jesus affirms his earlier teaching that one should offer no physical resistance when hurt by others, even if it results in one’s death at the hands of an evildoer. While Jesus gives no clear instruction forbidding capital punishment outright, his sparing of the prostitute from being stoned to death (as called for in the Jewish scriptures), in the gospel of John demonstrates an extreme leniency in the application of judicial punishments.
So did the widespread adoption of Christian morality in the late stages of the Roman Empire bring with it a dramatic reduction in violence and warfare? Hardly so. Christian emperors continued calling for civil and foreign wars at the same rate as their pagan predecessors, and Christian adherents continued fighting in them. Christian medieval Europe was a relentless bloodbath of infighting such as the Hundred Years’ War, punctuated by collaborative holy wars against Muslims and pogroms against Jews. The teachings of Jesus on extreme pacifism failed to prevent the genocidal conquest of the Americas by Christian Europeans, and more recently failed to stop Christian Germans from carrying out the Holocaust.
Gender and Orientation Equality
As in the case of slavery, the teachings of Jesus provide only a deafening silence in place of moral instruction on matters of gender and orientation equality. This, despite the fact that first century Palestine was a woefully unequal place for women and homosexuals thanks to Roman law that treated women as inferiors and Jewish religious law that was deeply misogynistic and prescribed the death penalty for men engaging in gay sex.
From the very start, the impossibility of living anything more than a very brief and painful life by practicing Jesus’s extreme pacifism teachings has been obvious, and Christians have roundly ignored these instructions or have been forced to argue that other bits of scripture somehow override Jesus’s own clearly-stated words here. The result has been that, in the desperately important matter of when, if ever, violence or warfare is morally acceptable, Christian morality has failed to offer any practical guidance whatsoever, and the widespread adoption of Christian morality has produced no corresponding reduction in violence or warfare.
What about Jesus’s actions? While the gospels do not portray Jesus as particularly disdainful of women, it is notable that when he chooses his special group of closest disciples, exactly zero of them are women. The early Christians who wrote the Epistles carried on the Jewish practice of barring women from positions of religious authority and demanding their quiet submission to males: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Elsewhere in the Epistles, male and female homosexuals are condemned alongside thieves, robbers, idolaters, father-killers, mother-killers, and murderers in general.
The failure of the teachings of Jesus to offer any new instruction or update any old teachings on these matters has been disastrous for the lives of billions of women and tens of millions of homosexuals throughout the ages. Not until very recent times has significant moral progress been made in terms of gender and orientation equality, and every step toward that progress has been fought against by Christians who, finding no teachings from Jesus on this matter, revert to the brutal laws of the Old Testament and the writings of the Epistles.
Religious Toleration and Race Equality
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” says Jesus in the gospel of John. Clearly Jesus taught that only one form of religion was the true path to God, but what were his teachings about whether or not to tolerate other religions? The Jewish scriptures of the time were explicit in calling for the wholesale slaughter of the entire population of towns that chose to worship other gods. Yet Jesus offers no update to such teachings.
What about how to treat other races? Though no general instruction is provided, the gospel of Mark reports a story in which Jesus encounters a Syro-Phoenician woman and refers to her and her fellow Syro-Phoenicians as “dogs”.
Once again, lack of clear instruction from Jesus on these matters has had devastating repercussions through the centuries. Unrestrained by any teachings about religious tolerance, as soon as Christianity became the state religion of Roman Empire, a war against all forms of non-Christian worship was launched, temples were looted and destroyed, rituals outlawed, and even variant forms of Christianity persecuted. Lack of a teaching in favor of religious tolerance has been at the root of relentless vile acts of anti-semitism over the centuries, it allowed for the perpetration of the crusades and the destruction of indigenous cultures of the Americas.
The failure to provide a clear teaching on race equality has likewise wreaked havoc, allowing for the African slave trade, Jim Crow segregation, the KKK, lynchings and other forms of race-based terrorism, ghettoization, mass incarceration, prison slavery, and Trumpism.
Child Molestation and Rape
We have already mentioned the Jewish religious law that could compel a woman to marry the man who raped her. The law also decreed that if a woman was raped in a town rather than in the countryside, the rape victim is to be stoned to death along with her rapist. Furthermore, women taken as prisoners of war are explicitly stated to be fair game for non-consensual sex, and The Old Testament relates the story of Moses divvying up 32,000 virgin girls as war booty among the soldiers and priests. And in another story, King David discovers that his virgin daughter Tamar has been raped by her half-brother Amnon, but David decides not to punish Amnon because he loves him.
In what has become a disturbing but familiar pattern, here again on a yet another matter of serious moral gravity, the teachings of Jesus are deadly silent. Women and children have paid the price for that silence innumerable times over the past 2,000 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. “Don’t rape.” Two words that could have prevented unimaginable amounts of human suffering and misery.
“And don’t molest children.” Four more words unsaid. It is galling to contemplate the fact that for centuries, right on up to the present day Christian priests have been raping and molesting young boys and girls trusted into their care by the thousands. Considering the fact that the gospels relate a story in which Jesus encourages people to bring little children to him so that he may put his hands on them to bless them, it’s unnerving that Jesus’s teachings fail to provide any prohibitions concerning touching children inappropriately. Or raping them, for that matter.
So far we’ve noted several areas of vital moral import on which the silences in the teachings of Jesus have had ruinous effects over the ages and greatly impugn Christian morality as a whole. But now let’s shift our attention to those matters Jesus did discuss. Besides instructing an extreme form of pacifism, what other moral matters do the teachings of Jesus focus on, and what do they have to say?
Wealth and Poverty
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15) “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” (Matthew 6:19) “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30) “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22)
One of the clearest and most consistent moral messages in the teachings of Jesus is an extreme form of anti-materialism coupled with a devotion to total and unyielding charity. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus makes clear that those who enjoy personal wealth during their lives will be punished with the torments of Hell after they die, while those who suffered in poverty during in life will be rewarded in the afterlife.
As with the case of the complete pacifism instructed by Jesus, however, despite the clarity of the teachings, this extreme form of self-abnegation has been roundly ignored or rejected over the centuries by Christian individuals and institutions. Few and far between are those Christians willing to lead lives of voluntary destitution. So the question becomes: what good is a moral teaching so quixotic, impracticable, or objectionable that very close to no one in the past 2,000 years has been willing to follow it (even at the risk of eternal torture in the afterlife)?
Divorce and Adultery
Jewish religious law in first century Palestine allowed a husband to divorce a wife if “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her”, while offering no recourse at all to a wife who wished to divorce a husband. Adultery was entirely forbidden, and the penalty for both people involved in it was death.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus revises these laws, in each case making them far more strict: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus here radically broadens the scope of adultery, but at no point revises the decreed punishment; the result being that the death penalty is decreed for anyone who so much as looks at a woman with lust. This extreme teaching explains why Jesus immediately goes on to command that, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” and “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Better to go through life maimed than to die and then burn in hell.
Similarly, Jesus takes the law concerning divorce and makes it far more strict: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
While Christian churches dutifully refused to grant divorces to unhappy married couples for most of the past two millennia (divorce is still illegal in the Philippines and the Vatican City), most modern Christians have come to appreciate the freedom to marry and divorce who they choose. To the extent that divorce is still looked upon a moral issue at all, it is generally not in the act of divorce itself that there is moral judgement, but in how each of the parties involved goes about the act—whether it is done with kindness or cruelty, and whether the best options are taken for the health and safety of any children or other dependents involved.
Marriage and Family
“I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” proclaims Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Besides this statement about turning family members against one another, Jesus has little or nothing to say about marriage or family relations.
In Matthew 19:11-12, he even upholds men who castrate themselves (whether literally or figuratively is unclear) as moral exemplars: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Jesus himself neither married nor had children, and in the Epistles the apostle Paul similarly teaches that total sexual abstinence is the best way to live. For those who lack self-control, he grudgingly allows marriage as a morally acceptable backup option, but strongly recommends against it for people’s own good, and wishes all Christians could live in abstinence as he does.
For all the recent talk of “family values” from conservative Christians, one might naively assume that Jesus had something more substantial to say on the topic. But current day obsessions of evangelicals are not necessarily indicative of anything actually taught by Jesus. Consider the massive efforts being made to block women’s access to birth control and medically supervised pregnancy termination compared to the absolute lack of any biblical instruction on such matters.
As with Jesus’s teachings on extreme pacifism and voluntary destitution, the vast majority of Christians have generally shied away from living lives of total abstinence. A notable exception has been the priests of the Catholic church, though recent decades have brought to light the jaw-droppingly horrific extent to which abstinence in the realm of healthy adult sexual relations has seemingly channeled these men’s sexual urges in the most monstrous of ways. One wishes they’d have taken Matthew 19:11-12 more literally.
The Golden Rule
Perhaps the single most famous moral teaching of Jesus instructs “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” In saying this, Jesus paraphrased a far older teaching from the Jewish scriptures “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This “golden rule”, as it has come to be known, has been variously expressed in many ancient cultures and religions, and its universal popularity speaks to its utility as a maxim.
That utility has its limits, however. If a person would have others act toward them in a way that is immoral, that person will accordingly act immorally toward others. The golden rule by itself, therefore, is no guarantor of right behavior and must be attached to a solid moral foundation. This is to say: just having the sometimes-useful Golden Rule included among Christianity’s moral code is insufficient to make up for its many and glaring deficiencies noted above.
An examination of Christian morality and its track record in terms of changing human behavior for the better reveals it to be an abject failure. The widespread adoption of Christianity in the late stages of the Roman Empire saw no corresponding great leap forward in human moral relations. The terrible atrocities and injustices from the pre-Christian era continued right on through the next several centuries and are to some extent still with us today because of the failure of the teachings of Jesus to properly address them.
The moral progress that has been achieved since the rise of Christianity has been painfully slow and many of its greatest accomplishments did not come about until the period known as the Enlightenment saw a conscious move away from religious dogmatism. New ideas such as basic human rights and the equality of all mankind inspired the Abolitionist movement to finally bring an end to slavery, and the Suffragist movements to establish political representation for all, regardless of gender or race. Time and again these battles to end the injustices of the past have found the forces of conservative Christianity fighting on the wrong side of history.
As we enter the 21st century, let’s try something new. Let’s decouple morality from religion so that people from any or no faith tradition can join together to acknowledge and celebrate all the ways humankind has learned to treat each other better over the past many centuries. Let’s codify what it means to live on the right side of history so we can all share a common moral code that we can point to with pride. These are the aims of a project called The New Morality.