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Our Moral Code

One of the most remarkable documents I’ve ever come across is the so-called “Jefferson Bible.”  As Brooke Allen has shown in her book on the religious tenets of such founding fathers as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton as well as Jefferson, none can be thought of as an orthodox Christian, and most were deists—believers in a higher power which may have created the universe, but not believers in an anthropomorphic god nor in Jesus as his son. In constructing his version of the New Testament, Thomas Jefferson made this clear. His book, eventually titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, was cut and pasted from an actual bible (actually from 4 bibles, since he pasted equivalent passages side by side in 4 languages). Jefferson considered Jesus as an exemplar of "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But he did not regard Jesus as divine, nor as having produced miracles, including being born from a virgin and being resurrected after death. Accordingly, his cut and paste bible consisted of the first four books of the New Testament, leaving out the miracles and signs of divinity, but including all the rest of Jesus’ sayings and actions. His focus was on the moral lessons involved: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,”  “love your enemies,”  “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” “He that is without sin, cast the first stone,” “if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” These are only a few. 

What is the moral lesson of these words and actions of Jesus? It seems abundantly clear that they are to practice love, not hate, to value peace and those who try to achieve it, to value the poor, to avoid being judgmental, and to be generous, even at your own expense. Jesus put no limit on exercising these beliefs. His message to "turn the other cheek" is prefaced with the sentence, “I tell you not to resist an evil person.” He did not limit his message to converts to his faith or to members of the Jewish faith (which he was), or to anyone. His example of the “good Samaritan” illustrates that someone from outside the mainstream faith (in this case, orthodox Jewish), who acts in a moral manner, is more blessed than one who follows the faith, but doesn’t practice its moral tenets

 Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but he believed that he was a moral person who preached a moral code. Jefferson was reputed to have read his version of the bible every night before going to bed.

I’m not a Christian, but I grew up as one. I learned the same moral lessons that Jesus taught as Jefferson did. I was equally impressed, and I always thought that it meant something good about humans that so many of them affirmed these moral teachings as their guide to living. But today I see Christians and non-Christians alike preaching a moral code that is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and I learned to value. Defense is more honorable than trying to love one’s enemies, judgmentalism is not only the tenor of the times, but those who resist judging others are deemed weak and cowardly. Those who preach peace with our neighbors and our enemies are termed traitors. Those in society who are most celebrated are our warriors. The poor are despised and those who ask us for asylum from persecution and poverty are considered invaders, as people who want to take away what we have, despite Jesus’ urging to also give them one’s coat as well as one’s shirt. Being “hard” is considered a virtue. Being loving and kind to even those who are different and who challenge us is considered being soft and weak.

One doesn’t have to be a Christian to see that our society has accepted a new moral code that is diametrically opposed to that offered by Jesus. For a Christian, this may equal hypocrisy, and for the rest of us, it signals a move away from the vision of humanity that some of those who founded this nation, such as Thomas Jefferson, thought was a noble one and a moral code toward which each of us should strive. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not ashamed to affirm the rightness of many of Jesus’ moral teachings and to feel that it is a person’s responsibility to try to live up to them. Other religions have similar teachings and a similar failure to take them seriously, instead favoring hatred, distrust and prejudice over love and understanding. It makes me worried about the moral health of our society.




Reader Comments (3)

Wonderful essay Casey. I hope you carry it the next step...how do we create a moral universe...for ourselves and our society?....and most importantly how do we do that very quickly?...as frankly we are ending the life sustaining characteristics of our planet rapidly

November 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

I admire this essay, Casey. I very much wish that we could rise to the challenge of becoming what we were, at times, as a nation, as when many of us gathered on election night, 2008, and wept with joy to have lived long enough to see a man of African descent on his father side, whose middle name is Hussein, be elected President of these here United States. There was such a moment for many women of child-bearing age, as I was in 1973, when the Supreme Court declared that abortion was a decision made by a woman and performed legally by a physician. What shackles of fear and horror fell from us on that day! There were the passages through Congress, shepherded by Lyndon Johnson, of civil-rights bills. There was the legalization, state by liberal state, of the right of same-sex people to have their unions recognized. There was President Clinton's Foreign Orphans' act of 2000 that allowed my newly adopted daughter to become a citizen just by being adopted by two American citizens. Perhaps we can see ourselves reaching again for those moments of harmony, peace, and love.

November 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Anca, why are you using racist rhetoric to describe a presidential election? Why would you leave out the fact that President Obama was also of European descent on his mother’s side? That fact is an equally important part of his story. President Obama represented all Americans, not just ones who predominantly shared his skin color. The same idea is true for President Trump. His skin color is also irrelevant. He represents all Americans.

I’m always surprised at the glee in which people point to the Roe v. Wade decision. The amount of celebration surrounding that poorly-rationalized legal decision which gave permission to kill ones child is simply breathtaking. It is undoubtedly the nadir of morality in all of US history, and I knowingly include the human chattel laws in that assessment.

November 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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