Monday, March 14, 2016

Laws, Manners, and Morals

Laws help us to know right and wrong in our public and private conduct, manners help us to know what to do in our social relations with others, and moral principles help us to do the good in our public and private lives. - Stephen Holmgren¹

Another day, another round of news, Facebook postings, emails, phone calls. and the like. The days seem to blur into a repeat of the day before and a herald of the day after. If it isn't the latest political hammerings from one side and then the other, it's something Kardashian, the rise (and downfall) of some sports or entertainment hero, or some other notable figure. It's hard to remain upbeat when just about around seems to be falling into a state of fear, agitation, anger, rudeness, and behavior so mean and ruthless that it's almost unbearable. If someone were depressed, the best thing might be to turn off the TV, cable, Wi-Fi, and radio, cancel the newspaper and magazines, and head for a monastery in the mountains or desert until November-- or later.

We are a nation of laws, manners, and principles. Each one has a role to play in our lives, beliefs, and behaviors. We inherit some of them from our parents, absorb some of them from our environment, and learn about some in our schools, churches, and groups to which we belong. All of them together help to make us who we are, individuals with differences and similarities, but above all, human beings with rights, obligations, freedoms, and choices. That's where the problems come in.

Those of us who claim Christianity see laws as coming from two sources: the governing bodies of the country, state, county, or community, and our religious texts and clergy. We claim the Bible as our source of wisdom, ethics and conduct, and proclaim that we are followers of Jesus. We steep ourselves in the laws (some of them, anyway) of ancient nomadic people who were learning to live with one God instead of a number of gods who governed various parts of life and who had a bunch of children who had to begin learning the basics of life through numerous laws. We proclaim that "Jesus loves me" but beyond the personal, we have prejudices and dislikes and sometimes use the Bible to bolster our beliefs that God loves what we love and dislikes (or worse), and we use the words of Jesus as proof.

Listening to the political slugfests and verbal barrages, I hear derogatory statements about various ethnic and cultural groups, homophobia, sexism, ageism, and disrespect for our president and for the very soldiers the political pundits in Congress sent into war and who have come back maimed in body and soul. How do any of those fit in with "Love your neighbor"?  Or is it just a catch phrase for loving the people just like me and no others?

Laws designating right and wrong seem to be applicable in the eye of the beholder. There are a number of issues where one person feels his or her rights permit something that makes the next-door neighbor feel his/her rights are being violated. Good manners might dictate that each person tries to respect the rights of others whether or not that respect is reciprocated. Moral principles are based on beliefs which dictate how we react to those around us, hopefully with love and respect, but too often it becomes a reason for argument, finger-pointing, name-calling, shouting, and can escalate to violence.

What has happened to us? Where is the Christianity we proclaim we practice? What would Jesus say? Scripture spends a lot of time talking about offering hospitality to strangers, treating the aliens the same as native-born, caring for the less fortunate, feeding those who are hungry, etc. Unfortunately, Scripture is also full of acts of violence, some of them horrific enough that we seldom hear of them in Sunday School, Bible study or sermons.

When was the last time you read the story of the unnamed concubine in Judges 19?  Or Jephtha's daughter in Judges 11? How about the slaughter of every Amalekite man, woman, child, infant, sheep, and ox in 1 Samuel? Instead we hear gospel stories and see pictures of Jesus talking to little children, healing people, and lots of parables reflecting positive outcomes and new ways of doing things. There's nothing wrong with that, but we have to remember there is another side, even in scripture.

So what is our reaction to law, manners and morals? Is it something we pay attention to when it is convenient, or when it suits us, or is it something we live even when we don't really want to? What about what Jesus told us to do?  What about loving one's neighbors and taking care of them? Or would we rather pick and choose which ones we will obey like we do speed limit signs and those telling us not to walk on the grass?

Jesus encouraged us to use manners and moral principles and gave us laws that promoted equality, justice and fair treatment. Can we just do what Jesus asked and encouraged us to do? Can we turn off the hate, anger, and fear, and live in peace?

I wish we could.

¹ Holmgren, Stephen, Ethics After Easter, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), 93.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 12, 2016.

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