Friday, February 15, 2013

Cherry-Picking Morality

Charlie Fuqua was a Republican candidate for the Arkansas legislature in November 2012.  In a book he had written prior to the campaign, he called for parents to put their rebellious children to death as punishment, thereby serving notice to all children to “give proper respect to their parents.”  Fuqua based his proposal on Deuteronomy 21:18-21 / Leviticus 20:9 in the Old Testament which in fact specifies such punishment.  Even in today’s conservative Republican Arkansas, this was deemed over-the-top rhetoric.  Fuqua lost handily to his Democratic opponent, garnering only 30% of the vote.

As incomprehensible as Mr. Fuqua’s story may be on its face, it nevertheless highlights one of the larger problems we have in today’s political and religious debate in America.  Deuteronomy is the last of the first five books of the Old Testament which comprise the Jewish Torah – its most sacred text.  The Torah enumerates the Laws (Instructions) of human conduct, stated as being given from God through Moses.  In the 12th Century, the Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides extracted an authoritative list of 613 such commandments covering a vast range of topics ranging from one’s relationship with God, rituals and observances, and managing the circumstances of one’s daily life.  These 613 Commandments can be exhausting in their scope and detail.  But the larger question highlighted by Mr. Fuqua’s pronouncement is the relevancy of these religious laws written 3000 years ago to our lives in the 21st Century, and how these particular laws apply to the Jewish and Christian religions of today.

Some of the Commandments are clearly not applicable today because they focus on situations which no longer exist.  But what of the remainder covering many situations implicitly condoned by having rules to govern them but rejected by our social norms today?  Do we really choose to execute people for the numerous situations specified in many of these commandments?  Many Americans are highly opposed to what they understand about the strict cruelty of Shari’ah Law practiced in some Islamic-based countries or tribes.  But do those same Americans understand that many of these Shari’ah Laws have their precedence 1500 years earlier in the Old Testament – rules carried from Leviticus into the Qur’an reflective of Muhammad’s admiration for the Jewish religion?

A number of books, articles, and theses attempt to grapple with how the Mosaic Laws apply or not to Judaism today.  Similarly, there are volumes of torturously and numbingly convoluted arguments about how Christians are or are not bound by these laws, reflecting Christianity’s continuing 2000 year struggle with its Jewish heritage.  Most of this intellectual argument centers around the idea of a “New Covenant” from God through Jesus to replace the Old Covenant of Abraham and Moses – even though Jesus never claimed an intention to replace the existing law but only to “fulfill” it – i.e. fulfilling it by embodying the old law and demonstrating the heart of it by his own words and actions.

This is the slippery slope we cascade down when we try to have it both ways: to pick and choose what articles of our religious dogma we elect to adhere to, YET claim that our choices are still “God’s Law.”  Questioning and working through a set of spiritual beliefs is an expected obligation in Buddhist practice to ensure that one’s beliefs are truly one’s own, not simply an imposed imprint of parental or cultural teachings.  In the Catholic Church, decrees from the Pope are considered theologically to be final, unarguable, and beyond selectivity.  Yet in America (and increasingly in Europe) devout congregants are making many self-selected decisions about religious and secular moral obligations.  In Protestantism, the very existence of its numerous denominations reflects a need to discern selected beliefs from a body of teachings or the myriad interpretations as to the applicability of those teachings.

Once we remove the first brick from the walls of our dogma – whether from the Torah, the New Testament, or the Qur’an – then we also lay waste to the claim that what remains is “mandated by God.”  Freedom of choice in religious dogma means the selected dogma must then be justified by reason, by conscience, or by faith.  Any of these justifications can be spiritually and morally acceptable.  But arguing that what remains is “God’s will” is hypocritical and untrue.

When our preachers stand in the pulpit and spread hatred and hurtfulness towards others and claim that it is God’s will and laws, I unhesitatingly reject their arrogant claims of authority to determine God’s mandate.  I choose to believe that Leviticus 18:22 written 3000 years ago saying, “A man will not lie with mankind as with a woman” is trumped 1000 years later by Jesus’ message of love towards one another.  (No prohibition is stated in the Torah regarding female homosexuality, and Jesus never spoke about homosexuality at all.)  I choose to accept polygamous relationships (assuming all involved voluntarily seek it) which is governed by biblical law and thereby implicitly condoned, and see no basis for government intervention in such relationships.  I choose to reject any form of slavery, in spite of it being condoned biblically, as being abhorrent to my rational mind and the laws of this Nation for which individual freedom is an ethical and spiritual necessity.

Furthermore, I choose not to execute my rebellious children, no matter how difficult they may prove to be – or what Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says for me to do.  And when someone says that our concept of punishment and justice should be “an eye for an eye” because God said so through Moses (Exodus 21:24), I will point to Rule # 196 in the Hammurabi Code written on a rock tablet in Babylonia @500 years before Moses that says, “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”  Are Hammurabi’s 282 laws also from God, and are they too still applicable today as “God’s Will?”

If one picks and chooses only the Laws of God that one personally likes, but still uses “God’s Will” as the justification for those selected laws, then I ask that person to thereby honor ALL of the laws.  If not, then let us go in peace with each other, living the best moral life as we can best determine, drawn from the best teachings of those most admirable teachers who have gone before us.  The teachings that best bring us into peaceful being with all that is around us.

(For a free digital copy of my summary of Maimonides’ 613 Commandments from the Torah that underlie this posting, email your request to