Another practical reason people give for going to Church is the desire to find moral guidance. They believe religion provides a basis for ethics and send their children to learn right and wrong as they did. For most this means learning laws, such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and Jesus’ call to love God and others as yourself. However, making laws the basis for ethics has its limits and has caused all sorts of troubles in our time and place.
Nonetheless, a great deal of our public religion supports this perspective when it presents some supposed “laws of creation” as the heart of Christianity. One large group claims these are revealed by Jesus. He saves us by revealing a secret knowledge that guarantees we shall be healthy, wealthy, and wise– if, and only if, we observe these laws in every respect. A second large group claims these are natural laws on which all right- thinking men agree. They are woven into the creation and are as basic for societal health just as the law of gravity is for the cosmos.
Both groups claim their laws combat the self-serving positions of modernism. Yet both use them in what certainly looks like very self-serving ways. The first group applies its seed principle law primarily to guarantees that contributions to their ministries ensure automatic large returns. The second always seems to talk about right thinking “men” as it reduces ethics to abortion, contraception, and life style choices– issues most women hope would reflect the views of right thinking “women.” Both see feminism as the epitome of the unnatural, lawless life.
By making law the means by which God relates to his people, these groups pretty much ignore the New Testament covenant in which God relates to us through a person, Jesus Christ. As John proclaims, “the law comes through Moses, but grace and truth from Jesus Christ.”
In fact, Jesus responded to a society very similar to our own. Ours pretends justice can be achieved by juridification, making laws to cover every possible situation. The religious authorities in Jesus’ time practiced a type of casuisty that also tried to apply law to every conceivable circumstance. For instance, their efforts to specify exactly what working on the Sabbath involved led to criticizing Jesus for plucking grain and healing sick on that day.
In our day reducing ethics to laws ends up pretending justice is simply not breaking the law, and judgment is finding ways to get around as many of these as possible. People consider themselves moral according to what they think and say, rather than by what they do.
Jesus showed the limitations of this when he pointed to the hypocrisy of Pharisees who imposed on others what they did not demand of themselves. He responded in a quite different way when he reduced law to love that he described as its true spirit. Love is flexible enough to consider the singularity of all situations and the uniqueness of all people. The spirit of love recognizes justice is fairness and care for all, and judgment is the ability to discern what is really necessary in each situation. The bottom line becomes Jesus’ words that people are not made for the law, but rather the law is made to serve people.
The obsessive search for more and more law creates dis- ease rather than health in society. It diverts us from the basic thrust of the Old Testament law that identifies the major sickness of our society as its continual coveting, stealing, and false witnessing. The New Testament makes clear the basis of ethics is not law but a proper relationship with others and God. Next week we’ll look at the role community plays in providing this basis for ethics.