Ethic of Jesus
Rodney Eivers (an edited version of a 2002 paper)
Grace is one of those beautiful words of the English language which has
long had a special theological connotation. My dictionary defines grace
(theologically) as "the free, unmerited favour and love of God." By
extension this has come to mean the spirit of God working in human
beings when they show free unmerited favour towards other human beings.
The topic is linked to an experience which provided a mental jolt to me
a couple of years ago. Is unconditional love, incorporating a strong
thread of forgiveness (unmerited favour, to use the foregoing
expression), really the ideal for human relationships? Christians and
non-Christians alike, in Western society at least, have tended to assume
that it is.
Over and over again when Christians are criticised one finds that they
are not being criticised for being lovers in the Jesus sense, but
because they do not live up to the ideal they preach. They are being
hypocritical. In these instances, the secular critic seems to be
conceding that although Christians may not live up to it, unconditional
love is still the ideal above all.
That has certainly been my own position. I may find myself out of step
with the vast apparatus of structure, tradition and belief which has
grown up around two thousand years of Christian history. I may dismiss
the supernatural stuff as plainly incredible in this scientific age. In
seeking, nevertheless, to provide some security and purpose in life I
have always consoled myself with the thought,
"Well at least, no
thinking and compassionate person can challenge the ethic of Jesus".
Two years ago, however, I did meet such a challenge in a way which has
not previously occurred in my adult life.
It arose through reading an article in the British Sea of Faith Magazine
of May 2000 and was the report of an address by Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok
at a Christian-Jewish Sea of Faith service in Manchester Cathedral,
Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok had been asked to speak his mind as truly as he could
and despite some trepidation on his part he appears to have done so. The
bulk of his talk challenged the uniqueness of Jesus in history,
especially claims to the nature of Christ as the second person of the
Trinity. He expected, probably correctly, that this would not cause much
of a ripple among the people at that gathering because many of them
would also have re-thought these issues.
But then the Rabbi went on to say:
Possibly some of you, perhaps even the majority, find in Jesus' message
about human relationships a source of spiritual truth. Jesus does not
have to be the Messiah or God incarnate for him to be a great teacher
of wisdom. But does he have something of great significance to say to
all of us? Are Jesus' words meaningful to me?
Was Jesus right to think that we should love unconditionally, that we
should help everyone no matter what the cost to ourselves? Was he
correct to tell us that we should love our enemies? Or that we should
forgive no matter what the circumstances? For nearly twenty centuries,
Christians have taught that they should live up to these religious
ideals. But can we? And have Christians themselves done so?
[Cohn-Sherbok went on to relate his experience that Christians, as much
as any other people, have not lived up to these ideals.]
This, of course, does not prove that there is anything inherently
mistaken in Jesus' teaching. But it does illustrate that the Christian
community has not and does not live up to its moral principles. And to
my mind, it is not surprising that this is so. I believe Jesus was
mistaken in encouraging his followers to lead lives of self-sacrifice.
This is a moral error. It is unrealistic to think that human beings
will ever be able to live selflessly. Humans are not designed to live
in this way. The vast majority cannot. And history illustrates that
most Christians do not.
But not only are Jesus' moral precepts unrealistic, they actually
distort human relationships. In the gospels, Jesus tells his followers
that they should love all human beings, even their enemies, and that
they should forgive seventy times seven. In other words, we are to be
active participants, whereas others are to be the object of our
concern. Paradoxically, in this way we actually diminish human beings.
They become faceless, two-dimensional.
The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber ... cautioned against turning other
people into objects ... Yet this is precisely what Jesus encourages us
Let me put the matter in a different way. All of us wish to be treated
as adults, and we want others to behave in an adult fashion. But if we
follow Jesus' teaching we infantilise other human beings. If we are to
love others unconditionally, and forgive them for whatever they do,
then these agents have ceased to be autonomous, responsible moral
In my view we should abandon Jesus' ethical prescriptions and substitute
instead a more mature framework. In place of selfless giving we should
act on the principle of reciprocity. In other words, human
relationships should be guided by mutual concern, give and take. All
giving should be balanced by the desire to receive. We should act so
that in every relationship there is an equal rate of exchange. Parents
should expect their children to give as well as receive. Husband and
wives should act similarly towards one another. One partner should not
do all the giving, and the other all the taking.
I am suggesting therefore that Jesus' teaching about selflessness be
replaced by the principle of give and take. If we give, we should
expect to take. And if we take, we should expect to give.
Why should this have shaken me so much? It happened, I think, because I
have every reason to respect what Dan Cohn-Sherbok has to say. Although
I may not often succeed in doing so, I do seek to be aware of my own
biases. What the Rabbi says seems to make a lot of sense. While at times
stumbling along and having to work my way around the practical
difficulties, I have still kept the Jesus ideal at least as a principle
with which to direct life's journey. Here is someone, not antagonistic
to a spiritual view of life, who says I have got it all wrong.
I have pondered a lot on this over the past two years but, for now, have
come back to my original position.
These are some of the thoughts which have led me back to the conclusion
that ultimately the Jesus ideal is the one worth pursuing rather than
the principle of reciprocity or
tit-for-tat which Dan Cohn-Sherbok advocates:
The biggest problem in give and take in actual relationships is the
different perception by each party as to what is fair or just. That
is, as to the point at which the giving stops and the taking begins. I
see this at the level of international relations as well as those of
an intimate nature. Internationally, for instance, it seems ludicrous
that a country as economically and politically dominant as the United
States should expect reciprocity in giving and taking with countries
as poor and weak as Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps this principle of
give and take is at the heart of the problem of establishing peace
between Israel and Palestine. This sort of attitude can lead to the
sort of victim mentality on the part of the relatively weak which can
In the intimacy of marriage, too, so much strife is caused because
the partners have different understandings of what is fair. Between
countries there are cultural differences which exacerbate these
misunderstandings. In marriage there are the inherent differences
between men and women to complicate matters.
Who makes the first move? Who is going to be first to give? Once the
process of reciprocal exchange has begun at what point do the parties
agree that the giving stops and the taking begins?
Regrettably, not all human beings (or countries for that matter) are
fortunate enough to be physically or mentally able to be treated as
mature adults and maintain a relationship of equals. There is a
tremendous range of transition between our being fully mentally
capable and, at the extreme, stages of dementia and eventual complete
Far from wanting always to be treated in an adult fashion I am happy
to be treated as the object of someone else's concern and sympathy
from time to time and to be at peace with it. To be always on the
guard for reciprocity in my relationships can become very wearing.
Loving, as against being loved, has therapeutic value in itself. Even
when one is the weaker party in a relationship, an act of love, for
instance that of forgiveness, makes that person the initiator, thus
giving him or her a sense of power or at least control over one's life
compared with seeing oneself as the disadvantaged victim.
So the love ideal turns out to be not so impracticable after all. At the
extreme it means dying for someone else and there can, and have been,
inspiring, classic cases of this occurring. At the day to day level,
however, there are common sense counters to the sticky problems which
can arise when adopting this philosophy.
For example one has to care for one's body and mental condition to some
degree if one is to be any good to anyone else. Even in regard to
marriage, to the extent that it is a self-centred condition, I have
argued to myself that I could not be a
"complete person without the
satisfaction that marriage and family bring. If I am not a complete
person I am less able to give to others.
agape love which Jesus stands for is, at one level, simplicity
itself. At other levels, as many have found down through the ages, it
has a complexity which adds tremendously to the spice of life.
As for me, until something better comes along, I'll choose love.