Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The first Christians were Jewish, and were brought up to obey The Torah.
In the Old Testament, God gives the Hebrew people the Torah (the Law). Obeying the Torah demonstrates love for God. The Torah was based on the principle of protecting people from . For example:
- Farmers were to harvest their fields leaving the outer edges unharvested so that the poor could scavenge what they could.
- Sexual contact with women was forbidden during their period. Women were proclaimed “ritually unclean”. Some scholars have interpreted this rule as protecting women from the unwanted advances of their husbands when these advances would be at their most unwelcome!
- Leprosy was feared across the ancient world. The Torah includes rules about the diagnosis of leprosy so that suspected cases could be diagnosed easily, and there was less danger of a person being excluded from society with a bad case of acne.
- The Shabbat Law protected not only the religious Jew, but his family and guests, and even his animals, from overwork. It guaranteed one day out of seven that was sacrosanct.
Obeying the Law not only demonstrated love for one’s neighbour, it showed love for God.
Jesus and the Torah
After 1000 years of following the Torah, religious officials had developed a system of obeying the law that made the law more important than the people it was intended to protect.
- The Sabbath Law was applied to its extreme
- Dragging a chair across an earthen floor and leaving a groove was deemed to be ploughing and therefore wrong.
- Even eating an egg laid on Shabbat was seen as sinful by some commentators.
Jesus railed against these extremes
- The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath
Jesus claimed to have come “not to replace the Law, but to fulfil it”. His approach was one of compassion, not of legal prescriptivism.
Jesus and Ethics
Many of the stories included in the Gospels involve Jesus demonstrating his approach to Ethics.
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus,
"Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." John 8:1-11
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as non-judgemental except where He encounters injustice. In the Passion Narratives Jesus is shown visiting the Temple. He finds stalls set out to provide the sacrificial animals, but engaged in cheating the worshipping public. In particular, the poor were being “ripped off” by the money lenders who converted their roman currency into temple coinage fit for making donations to the temple coffers. His anger drives him to throw the traders from the Temple, and to overturn the stalls.
The Temple was the centre of Jewish Religious Life. Every Jew visited the Temple at least once, offering a live sacrifice of either a turtle-dove or a lamb.
Following Jesus’ Example
Christians aim to follow Jesus’ example:
Their behaviour will reflect the example of compassion to others set by Jesus. They will seek to help the poor and vulnerable, and will aim to support charities that further that cause.
Some Christians have devoted their lives to the protection of the vulnerable.
They will react (possibly violently) against injustice. Christians have fought in the Armed Forces, and have accepted the arguments offered to support a “Just War”.
For example, Robert Runcie, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, was awarded the Military Cross for bravery while a Tank Commander.
Christianity and Rules
The Christian Bible includes the Old Testament.
The Torah (the first five books) includes the Decalogue (10 Commandments)
The Nevi’im (Prophets) includes stories of the consequences when God’s law is broken, as explained by God’s messengers.
The Ketuvim (Writings) includes poems, stories and sayings that encourage the “right” way of life.
In its infancy, Christianity continued to follow the rules of the Torah, until discussion and debate persuaded them to adopt a less legal approach.
In the New Testament, Jesus is questioned about correct behaviour. His answer is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For the purpose of these notes, the parable itself is less relevant than the dialogue that precedes it:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.
"Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
“What is written in the Law?" he replied.
"How do you read it?"
He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"
“You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus,
"And who is my neighbour?"
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'. "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
The key point Jesus appears to be making is that the Law is best fulfilled by behaving with compassion towards the needy. In other passages, Jesus is quoted as saying that the Law is subject to Humanity – it is there for the service of Human Beings.
Jesus replaced the entire body of the Torah with a single maxim, arguing thatit summed up the Law. This has become known as The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
Christianity in Action
1. Christians will try to do as much as they can to support the more
vulnerable in the community. This might include:
- Working within the community to provide for the less well off
- For example : Visiting the elderly, running a free taxi service for the housebound, running mums’n’toddler groups, visiting schools and hospitals &c.
2. Christians will try to manage their affairs in an equally compassionate manner. They might:
- Ensure that their business and domestic lives cause the
- For example : Banking and Investment management in an ethical manner, appropriate employment (perhaps not in Pornography or the Tobacco Industry), minimum of damage to the planet and to other people.
3. Christians will “fight” against injustice wherever they find it. They might:
- Object to injustice, both locally and globally.
- For example : Campaign against the ill-treatment of asylum seekers, object to the siting of environmentally hazardous industries, speak out against the arms trade,
Many Christians have adopted a non-violent direct action approach to such injustices – an excellent example is Desmond Tutu, formerly Archbishop of Capetown and implacable (and non-violent) campaigner against aparthied.
4. Sometimes Christians feel forced to adopt more violent responses to perceived evil. They might
- Enlist in the Armed Forces to meet a perceived threat, or adopt
- For example : Fighting against Hitler, joining rebel groups fighting fascist dictators in South America, some other way to fight injustice. Camillo Torres was a Roman Catholic Priest in South America, who found the oppression of poor people in his country so objectionable that he became a guerilla leader.