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Ethics » Ethics and religion » Introduction

How do we tell right from wrong? Christianity offers answers to this question, and so do most philosophers. But how much of the answer depends on faith? Can reason along provide a way forward? Or do we need a combination of the two?

It is quite clear that there is no single "Christian ethic" being practiced in the world today. People who call themselves Christians have a wide variety of opinions about the issues that face us and even the larger Churches disagree about what is right and what is wrong. Papers on "world issues" are among the most popular at GCSE in the UK and opportunities to study ethical issues appear on specifications around the world. Anybody who has tackled questions on abortion and euthanasia, marriage and divorce, war or the environment will know that there are Christians on both sides of each debate. Some are strongly "pro-life" and believe that being involved in any death is wrong, while others preach compassion and say that in some situations an early termination or assisted suicide may be the best option. Some believe that marriage is a sacrament and that divorce is impossible while others accept that marriages end and that divorce is sometimes better than living in misery. Some are pacifists while others support even pre-emptive strikes against nations suspected of having weapons of mass destruction or harbouring terrorists. Some believe that it is our responsibility to protect all forms of God's creation while others believe that animals and plants were given to human beings for our benefit.

How do Christians make moral decisions then? Why do they hold such diverse opinions and disagree so passionately about some issues?

Ethics in the Old Testament

Jesus was Jewish. Jewish ethics were founded on obeying the laws given to them by God in the Torah. The central commandments are absolute. "You shall have no other God before me", "you shall not make for yourself an idol", "you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God", "remember the Sabbath day", "honour your father and mother", "you shall not murder", "you shall not commit adultery", "you shall not steal", "you shall not bear false witness", "you shall not covet" ... There are no ifs or buts. However a number of the commandments are open to interpretation.

What is murder? Would it preclude the killing of an embryo or unborn child? Would it rule out suicide? Would it make all war impossible?

What does "you shall not bear false witness" mean? Lying about somebody in court is probably out, but what about white lies or withholding information, allowing somebody to believe something that isn't true?

 Even the early biblical community must have been confused. The commandments are repeated in a slightly modified form in the book of Deuteronomy and are expanded upon with more than 600 further laws throughout the Torah. If one followed all the laws in the first five books of the Bible literally (as Hasidic Jews try to do) then life would be very difficult. Everything would be affected - food (kosher food only, no meat and milk together etc.), clothes (no mixed fibres or immodest dress), work (none from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, no exploiting workers, no dubious financial practices), housing (if your house gets mildew you must disassemble it and turn the stones over in the sun until they are dry before rebuilding it) and so on.

The ethics of Jesus

The question of how literally to take the law was one which preoccupied Jesus. His attitude to the law was a constant cause of dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees (Jewish lawyers who tried to make sure that the whole community obeyed the law so that God would look favourably on them again, would restore the covenant and drive out Israel's enemies, the Romans). Jesus believed that they couldn't see the wood for the trees, that they were so obsessed with the minutiae of the laws that they had lost sight of the purpose of the law and its spirit. Jesus taught that "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart..." and "you shall love your neighbour as yourself". Human beings are not automatons; we are free and can make choices. The law exists to affirm human freedom - if we could not choose we would not need guidance on what to do. Human beings are not God's slaves; we can have a real relationship with him. One who loves God naturally chooses to act in the spirit of the law. Having said that, Jesus said most clearly that he had not come to alter "one jot or iota" (the two smallest letters in the Hebrew alphabet) of the law; to say that Jesus did not value the commandments, whether the 10 or the 613, would be wrong. For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbour would necessarily lead to following the law, but it would make the conflicts which beset most people in their everyday life null.

The spirit of the law vs the letter of the law

For example, Jesus was asked why he and his disciples had worked on the Sabbath, something prohibited by the fourth commandment. He healed a boy and the disciples picked ears of corn to chew on as they were walking from place to place. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees for focusing on the action without seeing the context. Yes it was right to observe the Sabbath - but not when doing so became so all-consuming and mechanistic as to detract from doing God's work or worshipping Him properly.

Bernard Hoose, one of my colleagues at Heythrop, uses a good example. A father is building a wall and sees his son trying to pull bricks from the bottom before the cement sets. The father, anxious to preserve his son's life, says sternly ‘never pull bricks out of the wall!' A short time later the wall collapses and buries someone. Should the son obey his Father or save the trapped person? It is a stupid question. Obviously saving the person would be in the spirit of the law and the son would be wrong to obsess about the letter.

Another question that was continually presented to Jesus was that of how to treat those who had broken the law. From the beginning Jesus associated with sinners. He said, "does a doctor come to minister to the sick or the healthy?" He saw himself as one giving others a second chance, a baptism, a rebirth into a new spiritual life. Jesus' message was always that there was a way back from sin, through repentance, positive redeeming action and grace, but this seemed to go against the teaching of the Torah.

Keeping the law as a community

For the Jewish people their relationship with God was corporate - the covenant was between the people as a whole and God, not between God and each individual. Because of this, the health of the relationship depended on everybody doing the right thing - you had to be your brother's keeper or else you along with everybody else would suffer from God's displeasure. As far as the Jewish teachers were concerned, the truth of this way of looking at God and ethics was borne out by the exile. Many people sinned so all people were punished, many people were righteous during the exile so all the people were restored. They saw it as everyone's responsibility to prevent the consequences of God's displeasure reoccurring - by demanding and enforcing justice. Only God could be merciful, and they hoped he would be, but human beings had to follow the law.

Forgiveness and godly love

Jesus turned things round. He observed that only God can know the inmost secrets of our hearts, only God can know what really happened and if we are truly sorry. If human beings pursue justice without forgiveness, we deny others the opportunity to atone for their sins and deny God his absolute right to judge. When Jesus taught forgiveness he did not give sinners a licence to reoffend - he commanded the woman caught in adultery to "go and do not sin again". He did not deny the punishments that God would mete out to sinners - just think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, with the rich man burning in the furnace, unable to get out to warn his family (Luke 16:19-31). For Jesus, forgiveness meant giving those who truly repent a chance to atone for sin through positive action.

One of the most misquoted and confusing passages in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13, a reading often used at weddings but describing a kind of love at odds with the sort associated with white dresses, red roses and Cupid's arrows. St Paul describes agape, pure non-preferential love, not eros (sexual love) or philios (brotherly affection). Jesus commanded his disciples "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34) and by this he meant not that the disciples should form a tight-knit exclusive "band of brothers" but that they should love and welcome all people, whether friend or enemy, as Jesus had. They should turn the other cheek to attackers, give their coats to thieves and forgive 70 times seven times. Agape, Christian love, is the true love of God. It does not think of self but puts God in the centre of life - therefore it rejoices in the right and rejects the wrong. Nobody who loves God could accept actions which offend His law. They would wish always to live in an honest relationship with God, acting freely in the spirit of his commandments.

Paul's explanation of Jesus' teaching on love has been misinterpreted to mean that Jesus taught that we should simply "love and do what you will". Some early Christian groups took and ran with this message when they started to like lives dominated by eating, drinking and casual sex saying "yes, we love, lots". For Jesus and Paul, one truly in a state of agape with God could not but love all humanity and could not will anything that would be against God's will and thus against the common good.