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Ethics and social teaching

RIGHT CONDUCT*

 

THE CHRISTIAN IDEAL

The Christian Church does not have any organized system of universal law for right conduct. Although sometimes in Christian history some groups have tried to make a systematic law for conduct, this has never been acceptable to the Church as a whole. The reason Christians do not rely on a system of law to regulate their conduct is threefold:

 

(1) Jesus the Messiah taught, 'You shall love the Lord your God with an your heart, and with your soul, and with an your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets' (Matthew 22:37-40). Love is the key to all Christian morality. True love for one's neighbour can only come from the heart. It cannot be reduced to a set of rules. It is the inner attitude which is significant. That is the basis of Christian conduct j love for our fellowmen.

(2) The Holy Spirit is present within us to guide us in the way of righteousness. Before Jesus was crucified, He promised that after He is received into heaven, God will send the Holy Spirit Who '. . . will guide you into all the truth ; . . .' (John 16:13). Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit will '... convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgement; . . .' (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit is the personal presence of God within the experience of the Christian believer and the Church. The Holy Spirit guides the believer and the Church in truth and righteousness. It is impossible to reduce into a formal ethical code this kind of personal encounter with God Who is the altogether righteous One. Christian righteousness springs from a fellowship relationship with God. It cannot be codified. It is too personal for that.

(3) The presence of the Holy Spirit In the life of the Christian recreates the image of God which was spoiled when man turned away from God. It is the recreation in righteousness of the person that God is interested in. Slavish obedience to laws does not recreate the person. He can still think evil thoughts even though outwardly he might look like a righteous person. Jesus was supremely concerned about the inner man because that is where righteousness or evil origin¬ate. It is for this reason that Jesus berated the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day saying:

‘Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! First clean se the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean’ (Matthew 23:25,26).

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Throughout the New Testament there is a tremendous emphasis on the need to be transformed, to be recreated, to become like Christ within the inner person. The Apostle Paul has written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

‘Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteous¬ness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The recreated person, who is living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, does need principles which help him to measure whether he is indeed living in 'the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.' What are the principles of righteousness which the Holy Spirit has revealed through the prophets in the past? What are the principles of righteousness which Jesus the Messiah has taught? What are the characteristics of the truth which the Holy Spirit reveals to the people of the covenant today? We shall examine the answers to those questions by looking briefly at some of the basic moral teachings which have been revealed to us through both the Prophet Moses and the life and teachings of Jesus the Messiah.

Much of the Torah consists of teachings on right conduct and worship, which God revealed to the Prophet Moses. All of these principles for right conduct are summarized in the Ten Commandments which God revealed to the People of the Covenant at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20: 1-1 7).

A summary of these commandments is as follows:

1. You shall have no other gods except the one true God.

2. You shall not make for yourself an image.

3. You shall not use the name of the Lord your God in a

careless manner.

4. Remember the seventh day of the week, and keep it holy. 5. Honour your father and your mother.

6. You shall not kill.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not tell a lie against your neighbour.

10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Christians everywhere recognize that these Ten Commandments are right. All Christians should abide by principles revealed in the Ten Commandments. They are based on the principle of love of God and one's fellowman.

Elsewhere in the Torah, God revealed that we should love God and our neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:4, Leviticus 19:18). When Jesus the Messiah appeared, He pointed out that the command¬ment to love is the greatest commandment of all, and that all the other commandments in the Bible are summarized in the law of love. Jesus said that on these commandments to love '. . . depend all the law and the prophets' (Matthew 22:40). It is for this reason that Jesus commanded his disciples, '... love one another...' (John 15:12). Through His life and teachings, Jesus the Messiah taught people the meaning of love. In the previous chapter, we have already mentioned how Jesus served people by healing them and caring for their needs.

He welcomed and forgave sinners. The forgiveness He expressed at His crucifixion is the supreme revelation of love. However, it is not only His deeds which reveal love. His teachings are also helpful.

On one occasion Jesus took His disciples onto a mountain near the Sea of Galilee, and taught them moral principles based on love. He explained to them that true righteousness depends on an inner spiritual commitment to God. These teachings are called the Sermon on the Mount, and they are recorded in Matthew chapters 5, 6, 7.

Jesus the Messiah began the Sermon on the Mount by saying, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 5:3). Christians believe that the Kingdom is '... righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14:17). Jesus said that the 'poor' in spirit enter or inherit this Kingdom. It is only those who recognize that they are sinful, who recognize that they are not living in right fellowship with God who seek forgiveness; it is only these 'poor' people who experience God's saving grace. I t is the 'poor in spirit', who are willing to receive salvation through Jesus the Messiah. It is these needy people who open their lives to the recreating power of the Holy Spirit. It is they who enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

These 'poor in spirit' people experience an inner recreation of attitudes which affects all their relationships. Jesus gave specific examples of the change of attitude which people should experience who have entered the Kingdom of Heaven. Here are several examples of what He said:

Peace (Matthew 5:21-26).

In the Ten Commandments we read, 'You shall not kill.' But Jesus the Messiah taught that hate is also wrong. It is hate which drives people to kill. We need to become free of evil attitudes towards other people. Jesus said, 'I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be (in danger of) judgement. . .' (Matthew 5:22).

Marriage (Matthew 5 :27-32),

One of the Ten Commandments says, 'You shall not commit adultery' (Exodus 20:14). But Jesus the Messiah said that any desire for a woman who is not one's wife is sin. He said, 'I say unto you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart' (Matthew 5:28). Adultery destroys marriage and it also destroys the person. It is a terrible evil. For this reason Jesus said that if any part of our body such as the eye tempts us into sin, it is better to have the eye plucked out than to yie1d to the temptation. 'It is better that you lose one of your members, than that your whole body go into hell' (Matthew 5:29).

Jesus also taught that divorce is wrong. 'I say to you that every-one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery' (Matthew 5:32). Divorce is evil because it breaks the marriage unity which God has planned. When God created Adam and Eve we read that they became 'one flesh' (Genesis 2:24). The one flesh unity of marriage is a miracle of God's grace. Divorce spoils and destroys the sacred gift of 'one flesh' unity in marriage. Jesus commanded, 'What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate' (Matthew 19:6). Jesus said that, although it is true that in the old covenant people were permitted to divorce, this was only permitted because the 'hardness' of people's hearts (Matthew 19:8). Divorce should never take place among new covenant people, where the Holy Spirit is present in the life of the believer and the Church creating true righteousness (Matthew 5:33-37).

Although the Bible never specifically prohibits polygamy, nevertheless, most Christian churches do not permit the practise of polygamy among their members. Although some men of God in the Old Testament had more than one wife, none of those polygamous marriages is ever described in the Bible as ideal; in fact, most are described as being sadly unhappy. Polygamy spoils the 'one flesh' union of marriage. One flesh unity demands total loyalty to one's marriage partner. For a woman to have several husbands, or a man to have several wives, spoils that deep inner meaning of marriage as one flesh union, in which the husband is called to love his wife as his own body, and the wife is called to respect her husband deeply. In fact the Bible commands the husband to give himself in suffering sacrificial love for his wife just as Christ has given Himself in suffering sacrificial love for the, Church (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Truthfulness (Matthew 5:33-37).

The ninth commandment says, 'You shall not bear false witness' (Exodus 20:16). Jesus the Messiah pointed out that the inner meaning of this command is that we should not even swear, because the person who swears seems to be saying that sometimes he can tell a lie; he is really truthful only when he swears. The truthful person never has to swear, because his word is always true. The truthful man only needs to say 'yes' or 'no' and his associates will know that he has told the truth.

Forgiveness (Matthew 5:38-48).

We have mentioned several times that Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest is to love one's neighbour as oneself. Jesus the Messiah taught that the law of love demands that we forgive our enemy. Although, some teachers have said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; Jesus taught, '. . .love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,. . .' (Matthew 5:28, 44). He was very specific, saying that if someone takes our coats, we should give him our shirts as well, and if someone slaps us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek. If our enemy deserves punishment, that is up to God; it is not our responsibility to do evil to our enemy. (Romans 12: 19).

Hate and violence creates more hate and violence. Taking revenge against our enemy does not erase the hate between us. Only forgiveness can heal the violence. Only love can destroy the hate. If our enemy knows that we love him, he might become our friend, but if we use violence, we shall both be hurt and the hate between us will increase.

Riches (Matthew 6:19-34).

The last of the Ten Commandments says that we should not covet anything which our neighbour has. Coveteousness is the evil desire to take that which someone else possesses. It is our desire for riches and things which is the root of coveteousness. Jesus taught us to avoid putting 'any trust in riches or possessions. The Christian is to seek for righteousness; he is to seek first for the Kingdom of God. When we love God most of all, He will take care of all our other needs. Jesus said,

‘Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we wear?' .... But seek first his kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well’ (Matthew 6:31, 33).

Jesus has much more to say about the way of righteousness which we cannot comment on in this short chapter. Probably the most astonishing part of His sermon was when He said, 'You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48)! How can we live as righteously as God? Certainly that kind of righteousness is only possible as the Holy Spirit recreates our lives into the true image and likeness of God. And as Jesus said, we can only experience that kind of recreation when we become poor in spirit, when we confess our failure, our sin, our need for salvation.

'And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were greatly surprised at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes' (Matthew 7:28-29).

Christian people are those who recognize the authority of Jesus the Messiah. They submit to God's will by acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They are disciples (followers) of Jesus. The first Christians said that those who confessed 'Jesus is Lord’, were walking in 'The Way' (Acts 18:26). Even today those who follow Jesus do walk in 'The Way'. This is 'The Way' of love, 'The Way' which Jesus the Messiah lived.

 

A MUSLIM RESPONSE

The Christian Church, unlike the Muslim Umma, has no system of universal law for right conduct. It is the Christians' confessed view that love, which is central to their teaching, cannot be reduced to a set of rules. However, Muslims, who have both a universal Divine law, and a permanent scheme of revealed moral values, are of the view that man being imperfect, and having limited knowledge, must be guided at all times by this law and moral values. Although man is commanded to practise justice, he does not know how to go about it. So, the Divine law gives him every detail on how to practise justice and mercy at every instance.

On the other hand, the scheme of moral values on which Christian conduct is based is somewhat similar to that of Muslims, although love is made to supersede every other moral value in Christianity. This overstressing of 'love' in all aspects of the Christian life has at times, in Muslim eyes, rendered the Christian ideal of conduct more theoretical than practical.

One practical issue on which Christians and Muslims painfully differ is marriage and divorce. Marriage in Islam is a contract between a man and a woman which is concluded in God's name, and is therefore a sacred institution. Everything should be done to uphold this sacred contract.

However, if there are severe obstacles in marriage which cannot be overcome through reconciliation, then Islam, in its practical teachings, has permitted divorce (talaq). Divorce should only be a last resort. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: 'That of all things permitted by law, divorce is the most hateful in sight of God.' (Reported by Son of Omar, Abu Dawd and Hakim, Fikqi Sunnah, Vol. 11, Beirut, by Sayid Sabiq, Daarul-Kitab-l-Ataby, p. 241.) Again the Qur'an advises: 'If women obey you, then do not seek a way against them,' (Qur'an 4:34). Islam would not tolerate un¬happy, faithless, loveless, stagnant marriages. It is for this practical reason that divorce is permitted.

In the same way, forgiveness is recommended as a high moral virtue of Islam, but it must be given in a practical manner. In Islam a wronged or oppressed person has the freedom to resist and retaliate by bringing the offender to book or dealing some punishment to him. He has also the right to forgive the offender, entrusting Allah with the results of his actions. The Qur'an states:

‘The recompense of an evil deed is punishment proportionate to it, but whoever forgives (the injury caused him thereby) and makes reconciliation, he shall have his reward from Allah. Surely God does not love the wrong doer’ (Qur'an 42:40).

Another verse says: 'Praised are they who restrain their anger and pardon the faults of others; and God loves those who do good to others' (Qur'an 3:134).

Practically in Islam, there is neither the extreme of an eye for an eye, nor the opposite one of turning the left cheek when the right is smitten. There is no giving away the trousers to the brother who has taken away the shirt!

(*This is the text of chapter 23 of Badru D. Kataregga and David W. Shenk, Islam and Christianity. A Muslim and a Christian in dialogue. Nairobi (Kenya: The Uzima Press, 1980), pp. 155-162).)

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