Sunday, August 11, 2019

MORE ABOUT LESS P.R.I.D.E. IN THE LAS CRUCES PD

     South on the not-too-far-away border, U.S. government uniformed personnel are using false arrests, false testimony (testilies), and abusive and inhuman treatment to deal with refugees trying to get out of the fire in Central America to seek shelter in the frying pan in the United States.  Worsening the problem, internal investigations give cover to systematic misconduct.  Such police-state misconduct and investigative dishonesty typify the metastasizing immorality of the Trump administration.  Unfortunately, similar conduct, though on a smaller scale, occurs in Las Cruces.  My previous blog discussed misconduct by investigating police officers; my present one discusses investigations by Internal Affairs (IA) division.  Like Big Brother, little brother has politically purposeful and self-protective policies and practices to deter or discredit complaints.

If citizens make anonymous complaints about other citizens, by policy, police officers investigate them.  The assumption is that all such complaints are valid, and all accused are guilty until proven innocent.  Thus, hostile neighbors or other residents can make police officers agents of harassment, and the police readily accept this role. 

By contrast, if citizens make anonymous complaints about officers, by policy, the police do not investigate them.  If citizens disclose their identity, they must choose between informal complaints to the officers’ supervisors or formal complaints to Internal Affairs (IA) and ultimately to the Chief of Police.  The result of either choice is the same: little, if any, action taken.  If citizens choose to file formal complaints, they must sign an IA statement which not only warns against penalties for false reporting, but also advises that polygraph examinations may be required.  Accused police officers are, I assume, rarely similarly warned or advised, because IA assumes that police officers tell the truth.  This double standard reflects “blue privilege.”

IA’s official purpose is to handle complaints against police officers.  Its officers’ job is to investigate and, for cause, charge officers with offenses.  They are regarded with suspicion by their fellow officers.  If they do their job, they experience resentment and hostility from their fellow officers for violating the code of silence.  If they do not do their job, they try to exonerate accused officers, often by using unethical means to discredit accusers.  One ploy: call complainants, conduct preliminary interviews, ask leading questions, all while recording the call without notifying the complainant.  IA Officer Carmen Lazarin made such a call to me on 5 August.  After her first question, I asked whether the call was being recorded; when she said that it was, I labeled her conduct “unethical” and hung up; she called back and apologized; we continued with a recorded interview.  The practice of not disclosing the recording, while legal, is unethical and is admitted to be unethical, yet IA officers practice it because they, the most immune of those immune from discipline, get desired results.

Despite IA investigations establishing the facts and the law, the LCPD still exonerates officers. Under the former Chief of Police, the late Jaime Montoya, I reported a police car K-9 driving though the then new center of town on Main Street, not at the posted 15 mph, but at 30 mph.  My observation was not unique.  Almost everyone has noticed that police cars, using no lights or sirens, often exceed the speed limits.  Almost everyone believes that the officers know that complaints will be ignored or dismissed, or that investigations will conclude with no action taken.

My email to Chief Montoya detailed place, date, time, speed, and circumstances.  He sent it to IA, which thought he meant it for the circular file until he corrected its mistake.  After the investigation, which disputed neither the facts nor the law, he wrote that the officer’s driving speed was “justified.”  When I asked what justified it, he provided a list of about ten possible reasons.  I responded that the list provided no justification, and requested to know the reason.  I got no reply—not only insulting me, but also persuading me that there was no justification.  Even when nothing challenges the complaint, IA or the Chief of Police will exonerate the officer without reason.

Today, Chief Montoya’s successor Chief of Police Chief Patrick Gallagher.  For many years the IA bureau division commander in New York City, he is highly experienced in IA policies and practices.  Las Cruces IA policies and practices, including those privileging and protecting police officers, have not likely escaped his notice or endorsement.  For many reasons, he is unlikely to initiate necessary reforms.  Having seen the success of the “Garza Gang” and anti-“militarist,” anti-veteran City Councilor Greg Smith in undermining outsider change-agent, former City Manager Stuart Ed, he knows that he, another outsider, could face job-threatening opposition to real reforms from second- and third-tier “old” Las Cruces police officers.  He likely suspects that, if he developed such reforms, he would face not only resentment at their threat to “blue privilege,” but also resistance in the form of an epidemic of “blue flu.”  He knows that meaningful reforms would require a major share of resources to retrain current personnel.  So he will work to look busy on the job by tinkering with the status quo but not doing more as not worth the effort, expense, or personal risk.

Which means, of course, that the police department is really under no one’s control when it comes to customary policies and practices which enable aggressive and dishonest conduct disrespectful of or harmful to citizens.  Police officers (claim to) want and need the trust and respect of citizens but feel no need to reciprocate.  This lack of reciprocity manifests itself in police officer actions which every day speak louder than words, and in some languages to some people more than others.

Unless Las Cruceans want the “border” to the south to creep north, they need to urge that their elected representatives in City Council take action in two ways.  One, it should conduct regular and vigorous oversight, with requirements for public input and Council reporting.  To this end, citizens should copy complaints to the LCPD to their Councilor.  Two, it should create a civilian review board to investigate and report on police conduct and, in that work, to compel testimony from uniformed officers of all ranks. Without these means of accountability and transparency, continued and possibly augmented police abuses in this city will become a more dangerous part of its future.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

QUESTIONS PROMPTED BY AN LCPD POLICE OFFICER WITHOUT P.R.I.D.E.

 Little lies lead to big ones.  Tolerance of officers’ lies of any size supports a culture enabling and covering up conduct contrary to the Las Cruces Police Department (LCPD) sloganP.R.I.D.E.—professionalism, respect, integrity, dedication, excellence.  Ranking officers sustain this culture by using the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) less to investigate citizen complaints than to exonerate accused officers. The public grants “blue privilege” to those with a badge, uniform, and lethal weapon because officers are necessary to an orderly society.  Often, however, that necessity becomes the mother of injustice.

I detail a minor episode revealing those abuses which cumulatively accustom officers to disregard decency and honesty, to be arrogant and aggressive; and accustom citizens to expect such conduct as routine.  The result: corruption of a public service and the resulting distrust of the police, especially in populations used to police misconduct.

On 31 July, Officer Valles (badge 450) of the Animal Control Section (ACS) attached a “Warning Notice” to my front gate.  It alleged five “Municipal Code Violations” about my dogs: “Excessive Waste,” “Required Multi-animal Permit,” “Pet Licensure/Owner ID,” “Restraint,” and “Required Rabies Vacc.” I immediately called the county dispatcher and later called Animal Control, to have Officer Valles contact me.

When Officer Valles called back, I learned something about how the ACS operates as a matter of policy, sometimes in ways which abuse citizens.  One, it accepts anonymous complaints without acquiring confidential identifying information.  Two, it investigates, or claims to investigate, all anonymous complaints. Three, it puts a copy of the Warning Notice, regardless of the validity of the complaints, into the citizen’s file for future use.

Officer Valles admitted that he made no effort investigate these alleged violations.  He came to my house and noiselessly posted the notice on my front gate.  He did not lift the inside latch on the gate, walk to the front door, and ring the bell (as everyone else does); he did not use a phone to contact me.  If he had tried to open the gate or call me, either I, sitting near the door and reading in total silence, or any of my dogs, especially my German Shepherd close to me, would have heard him.  His investigation involved nothing more than hurriedly writing up a Warning Notice and attaching it to my gate.  Questions: why did Office Valles not conduct the required investigation, and will the ASC or the LCPD will do anything meaningful about his failure to perform his duty?

Officer Valles admitted that he had no evidence to support any of the five violations.  He had not looked for or seen dog feces on my property. He had not seen my dogs off leash. He had not examined my records to see whether they were incomplete.  He could have confirmed or refuted the first two violations.  Since the anonymous caller could have known nothing about my records, Officer Valles fabricated these violations and falsified police records. Questions: why did he fabricate three allegations, and will the ASC or the LCPD do anything meaningful about his dishonesty.

I now address the five alleged violations:

“Excessive Waste”: Officer Valles made no effort to inspect the property to confirm or refute this allegation.  His failure to do so is one lapse of professional conduct; another lapse is not taking the opportunity to explain to a citizen what is or is not “excessive waste.”  The criterion of the vague word “excessive”—size, number, total volume, total weight, or some combination—is thus left to the absolute discretion of the officer.

“Restraint”: Officer Valles made no effort to ascertain whether “four dogs” of mine ran loose in the Brown Farm area.  He did not ask about the number of my dogs (three) and thereby check the credibility of the complaint.

“Required Multi-animal Permit,” “Pet Licensure/Owner ID,” and “Required Rabies Vacc.”: These alleged violations involve documents.  Before charging me, Officer Valles could have asked me to see my documents (complete and current).  But he was too eager to make unsupported and false charges to take the time to do so.

At the end of the call, Officer Valles was irritated by my criticisms.  He said that he would be stopping by to inspect my property for “excessive waste”—plainly a threat to repeat or make more charges.  (Perhaps he will enlist a fellow officer or two to take up his grievance by a harassing inspection.)  All in all, his performance manifests no P. for professional, no R. for respect for citizens, no I. for integrity in truth-seeking or fairness, no D. for dedication in investigating, and surely no E. for excellence.  Instead, according to ACS policy or his peculiar performance, he abetted a known neighbor’s vendetta by harassing me with unsupported charges and by threatening me with future harassment.

LCPD and ACS leadership have much to answer for.  If the ACS claims to respond to anonymous calls, can it prove to have received them? Can it trace them?  Should not the same standards of acceptance and investigation apply to them as to anonymous calls complaining about officers (IAD rejects them).  If alleged violations are false, should not filing a false report be a chargeable offense, in this case against both caller and officer?  What, if any, are the safeguards against false reports?  Do citizens’ responses to Warning Notices become part of their files?  Why are Warning Notices based on false reports made part of LCPD records?  How long are they retained?  For what purposes are they used?

As for Officer Valles, prosecutors may want to consider his credibility before relying on his testimony, and defense lawyers may want to question his honesty, if nothing else.  As for the LCPD, when one officer lies and fails on the job, he or she calls into question the P.R.I.D.E. of all other officers.  It has good and bad apples, and they know who each other are.  The problem is that good officers tolerate, accommodate, and cover-up for bad officers.  So how good are good officers?  Which is their priority, the public or their partners?  Do ranking officers know or care?

If my experience were just one of a few, not of many, of this kind, LCPD would not have issues of public trust.  To reduce its tarnished image, it responds to anonymous citizen complaints about other citizens but rejects anonymous citizen complaints about officers.  The reason is to get high numbers for responsiveness to citizens’ complaints about other citizens and low numbers for citizens’ complaints about police officers.  The effect of biasing the data makes ranking officers look good and bamboozles City Council into thinking that the problem is a small one.  But continuing distrust means that the LCPD has work to do.  Are ranking LCPD officers up to it?  Does City Council care?  Will mayoral candidates, especially anti-“militaristic” candidate Greg Smith, address the issue in the coming campaign?  Or does “blue privilege” entitle the LCPD officers to a pass?

Sunday, July 7, 2019

AMERICA: THE LAND OF LOUSY SEX

       In my youth, a joke populated Hell with national stereotypes.  The British were the cooks; the French, the politicians; the Italians, the soldiers; the Americans, the lovers.  Sometimes, jokes tell truths.  The allegation of bad sex against Americans, especially American males, received support from a fellow graduate student and feminist friend during the hey-day of the women’s movement, when she quipped, “a hard man is good to find.” Since I was happily married at the time, she felt free to come to me with her complaints, and she had many. Fish may not need bicycles, but women need men, and, of course, vice versa.

If sex in America is lousy, it is more often than not the man’s fault.  I am not blaming my gender-mates for chronic erectile dysfunction or for an occasional lapse of interest or ability to perform.  I blame them for a lack heart and the skill and style which go with it.  Many men give Trump a pass on groping because they understand and indulge various forms of misogynist aggression themselves or approach sex as if it were a two-minute drill at the end of a close football game.  This behavior reveals not only a lack of respect for women, but also deficiencies of character necessary for good sex: caring, cherishing, and consideration.  Such men, most notably, incels (i.e., involuntarily celibate males), do not realize that they repel women with their sense of entitlement to sex and their deficits of empathy and affection which make intimacy possible and sex satisfying.

That said, I am no sex therapist; I am an occasional pundit on politics, among other topics.  I derive my sense of America’s lousy sex from the energy which far too many men and women expend on talking about sex: the gender identity or orientation, sexual behaviors, or reproductive choices of others which concern only others, not themselves.  Their vicarious involvement reflects nothing virtuous about them.  Sexually unsuccessful men, especially incels, likely divert their energies from failed efforts with woeful results, to pornography, misogynistic fantasies, and chatroom diatribes; and women having no, or no good, sex seem envious of and vindictive toward women more fortunate than they.

Yesterday, sex was one of three subjects taboo in polite society (the other two were politics and religion).  But, since the mid-twentieth-century Kinsey reports, sex has been a prime topic while polite society as well as social graces and common decency has gone the way of vacuum-tube radios.  Today, talk about sex is rife.  Sexually unfulfilled souls froth and fulminate about which sex another person is or which gender identity another person can claim, what sexual practices between other consenting adults are permissible, and which conditions of gestation should govern another’s personal decisions—all in the land of the presumably free.  Their obsessions with homosexual sex, same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, contraception, and abortion prompt their senseless or salacious assertions in support of legislation restricting others’ “pursuit of happiness.” I suppose displaced sexuality may be better for them than none at all, but not by much, and worse for the rest of us.

Government interest in these matters is a tell-tale sign of totalitarian impulses, the intrusion of public power into private lives.  Novels like George Orwell’s 1984(1949) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale(1985) show that controlling sex is an essential exercise of tyrannical power.  Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata(411 BCE) reverses this dynamic by dramatizing efforts to use private desires to effect public policy.  The women of Athens and Sparta unite to end the Peloponnesian Warby withholding sex from their partners. They fail because their desire for sex betrays their effort.

Recent history provides notable examples on the Right and the Left.  Nazi Germany restricted religious intermarriage and encouraged out-of-wedlock procreation (1932-1945).  Communist China has long had and enforced policies limiting the number of children in a family; most draconian (and disastrous) was its one-child-per-family policy (1979-2015).  Laws prohibiting and punishing homosexuality and other unconventional forms of sexuality have been the norm almost everywhere.  Governments which acquire the power to control sex-related conduct restrict some of the most fundamental choices which people can make, and incline to restrict other consequential choices.

American anti-abortionists specialize in ever more rabid attempts to make abortion illegal at all levels of government.  Led by Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, using their narrow sectarian doctrines to cover their conservative ideologies, the anti-abortion effort is a political crusade masquerading as a religious or moral movement.  I need not rehearse the incongruities and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church and its clergy—priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes—on matters of sex and procreation.  Similar sins afflict both local fundamentalist preachers and “mega-mediavangelists” who have indulged sexual predatory behavior or ignored it in their peers.  These men of God have exploited their positions of power, and many have extended their quest for power from the pulpit to the platform.  Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, among others, have used sex-related issues as passports to politics, with abortion often a visa for entry. They manufacture and manipulate fraudulent concern about the sanctity of the unborn and use it to mask their pursuit of power to dominate the born, not only women who are or might become pregnant, but also their partners and families.  Otherwise, such Christian leaders would invest in the sanctity of the born, especially those living in poverty, with its associated evils of poor health, nutrition, housing, clothing, and education; or in peril of exploitation, persecution, or violence.

Since I am no sex counselor like Dr. Ruth and no technical adviser like Alex Comfort, though roughly of their generation, I incline to reticence and modesty.  Were I to offer any suggestions to improve the quality of sex, I would urge three steps.  One, stop talking compulsively about, and advocating coercive positions on, sex and related issues.  Two, leave others to define their sexual and reproductive lives for themselves without harm to others.  And three, work on character issues to become a more humane person, which just might include better sex.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

THE GOSPEL JESUS: THE FIRST CHRISTIAN ANTISEMITE

[Note: Admission and Correction of a Mistake

I have two, inter-related admissions to make; I have changed my mind because I have recognized a mistake.  These admissions, show, I hope, that I practice what I preach: if I make a mistake, I admit it; if I get new information or insight, I am not afraid to change my mind; and if I change my mind, I explain my reasons.

In a long essay, “One Jesus for Jews, Another for Christians,” I argued that the pre-Jerusalem Jesus was Jewish, that the Jerusalem Jesus was Christian, though essentially a variant of paganism.  My argument was wrong because I relied on recent scholarship which has argued or simply assumed and asserted that Jesus’ views were much like those of Reform rabbis. I should have re-read of the Synoptic Gospels, which I had read many years before.  As a result, I failed to depict, as promised, “a truly Jewish Jesus in Jewish terms.”  I have realized from a fresh and more informed reading of the Synoptic Gospels that the Gospel Jesus, the Jesus as reported in the Gospels, was not Jewish though the “real” Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew.

However, I am not withdrawing this long essay because it contains useful information and interpretation.  Instead, I use a shorter essay, “The Gospel Jesus: The First Christian Antisemite” to correct my mistake by arguing what the title says.]


The Gospel Jesus: The First Christian Antisemite

A radical difference divides the theological Jesus depicted in the Synoptic Gospels (hereafter, the Gospels; I omit John as even more historically unreliable than Mark, Matthew, and Luke) primarily as the messiah of the Jews and the son of God, from the “historical Jesus” sought by scholars as teacher, healer, and performer of miracles.  The difference is radical because many believe that the Gospels are historical accounts of the life of Jesus, but some, mainly religious scholars, doubt that they are reliable sources of biographical information.  The divide seems unbridgeable.  Christians who believe that The Bible is inerrant or that faith trumps reason, that is, facts and logic, are unlikely to change their minds.  But thoughtful Christians may seek to reform theological dogmas with “unchristian” consequences.

Today, almost everyone agrees that Jesus was a Jew, but that agreement means little.  One reason is that the person Jesus is indiscernible because the Gospels are not historical records, but instructive or indoctrinating documents to serve religious purposes.  In fact, they self-identify themselves as “good news,” and, in several places, Jesus commends his message as “good news,” an internal endorsement of the Gospels.  This bias distorts or obscures beyond recovery the “real” Jesus, the person who was born, lived and died a Jew in Palestine.  Another reason is that the Jesus depicted by the Gospels, the Gospel Jesus (hereafter, Jesus), is not mostly or consistently Jewish.  Given his departures from Judaism or his demeanor in dealing with other Jews, Jesus is not a Jew; instead, he is the first Christian and the first Christian antisemite.

Far from discrediting Christianity or Christians, this strong assertion credits Paul with creating a new religion, an anti-Judaic, though not anti-Semitic, Christianity, remarkably with no contribution—no Virgin Birth, no Trinity, no Eucharist—from then non-existent Gospels.  Paul’s creativity was threefold. He redefined the idea of sin in Judaism, from deeds contrary to the law for which repentance was humanly possible to an idea of sin as an inherent human condition ineradicable without God’s grace; thus, he rejected the Law as ineffectual, if not noxious.  He redefined the military-political messiah of Judaism as a scapegoat redeeming humankind from that inherent sin.  And he raised that scapegoat to the godhead.  These features of Paul’s originality derive, not from Judaism, but from paganism. Yet Paul retained two features from Judaism, neither present in paganism: a love of God and, at a minimum, love for one’s co-religionists.  Such is the blend of pagan and Jewish features which constituted the first version of Christianity.

Many people overlook Paul’s priority and preeminence because they believe that the Gospels, placed first in the New Testament, were written before Paul’s letters, placed after them; even a few scholars have written as if they share this belief.  However, his authentic letters date no later than 58, his contested letters no later than 62, and his pseudographic letters no later than 64.  Mark’s Gospel dates from 66-70; the other Gospels—Mathew’s (85-90), Luke’s (85-90), and John’s (90-110)—date from decades later.  Since the narrative appeal of the Gospels is greater than the doctrinal appeal of Paul’s letters, the important purposes of instruction and indoctrination justify their non-chronological sequence. 

All five writers were born, lived, and died outside Palestine; all wrote in Greek, not Latin, Aramaic, or Hebrew; and all were influenced by their circumstances.  Paul, born Saul, was both a Roman and a Jew who knew of Jesus and might have known him. Yet the life of Jesus mattered not to him.  What mattered to Paul was the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus as Christ, and his mediating role in the godhead—matters of faith central to Christianity.  This emphasis reflects his background as a child and youth in Tarsus, a center of Dionysian worship, in Asia Minor.  Like minorities everywhere, Jews understood the dominant religions different from theirs in the societies in which they lived; likewise, Paul understood Dionysian and other pagan cults, their beliefs and rituals.  He exploited his knowledge and understanding of paganism when he undertook his mission to the gentiles.  Paul focused his message on Jesus after death as the pagan cults focused on their demigods after death.

Likewise, all four Gospel writers were born, lived, and worked entirely outside Palestine, in the Levant, Turkey, and Greece.  Despite some mistaken beliefs to the contrary, none of them was among Jesus’ twelve disciples, and none even knew Jesus.  Whatever they knew of Jesus and of Jews, they knew from oral report, minor writings, or, after Mark, from each other, and from knowledge of Judaism and Jews living in widely scattered Diaspora communities known to them.

Paul and the Synoptic Gospel writers wrote with a purpose, but they differed in their purposes.  Paul wrote to formulate doctrine and to resolve doctrinal or ecclesiastical problems. The Gospel writers wrote to instruct the already faithful and to indoctrinate the potential converts in religiously mixed societies.  Necessarily, they competed with Jewish rabbis and scholars who preached Judaism in local synagogues and attracted converts as well as “righteous Gentiles.”  As Paul’s letters and Luke’s Acts make clear, Paul had some success but more failures converting Jews to the new faith and thus focused his mission on the gentiles, better understood to be pagans.  The Gospel writers addressed only pagan populations for good reason and in their terms.  As was then the custom, writers of reports about persons and events in distant lands about which readers were little or not informed resorted to current cultural features to describe and render intelligible the unknown and the different.  Moreover, pagans were probably as disposed as non-pagans to accept such accounts by authors, whence the term “authority” and other cognates.

These points receive support from consideration of nearby pagan religions.  Many pagans disliked Jews because Jews had only one god and no regard for a plethora of pagan gods ranked according to their power and the scope of their functions. Pagans prayed to intermediary, inferior gods to win their favor and, through them, the favor of their superiors. Moreover, some of these subordinate gods were demigods born of a god and a woman, later slain and resurrected.  A new god, born a demigod of a god and a woman, identified as the son of the supreme god, slain and resurrected, and installed as a mediator for favor, would be familiar rather than foreign.  So the Christian trinitarian godhead claiming to be unitarian approved not only the Jewish belief in one god, but also pagan beliefs in a pantheon of gods.  Gospel narratives, with the important events of Jesus’ birth and death, imply or incorporate pagan motifs and dress them in Jewish garb.

The Gospel narratives also enlarge the openings which Paul created.  Whereas Paul’s attacks on Jewish law were anti-Judaic, the Gospels’ attacks on Jewish law and Jewish leaders were antisemitic by inextricably indicting the one and imputing malign motives to the other.  They dramatize Jesus challenging Jewish views and decrying Pharisees as hypocritical or blind, as serpents or vipers, or defending himself against the Sadducees for violating the law or being victimized by their anger in his conviction and subsequent crucifixion.  Thus, the Jewish leaders who apply the law are attacked as conspirators against Jesus and the instigators of judicial murder.

At the same time, the Gospels valorize Jesus’ pre-Jerusalem miracles, messages, and behavior with a peculiar mix of materials, some Jewish, some pagan, some Christian according to the Christianity then, when the Gospels were written.  The differences are evident in the differences between the Gospel Jesus and the “historical Jesus.”  However, my “historical Jesus” is not the person whom scholars have tried to discern in the Gospels by winnowing the wheat from the chaff; scholars cannot properly characterize this Jesus by chipping away at what he is not.  Jesus is the person—think of him as the “Jewish Jesus”—whom scholars should fashion as a Jew in terms of the Judaism of his times, with Jewish disciples and audiences.  This Jesus knows only those Jewish moral and religious beliefs and practices available to him and those about him in the context of Jewish society, by contrast with contemporary pagan or early Christian resources.  We can also infer some sense of his Jewishness or lack thereof from his audiences’ responses.  The Gospels often report them amazed or astonished.  Either their responses signal his departures from Jewish conventions, or the words are euphemisms for disapproval, even outright, angry rejection, whether Jesus claims to speak on his authority or articulates differences between his teachings and those of the Pharisees or Holy Scriptures.

Collectively, the Synoptic Gospels comprehend agreed-upon or variant or unique reported remarks or events involving Jesus—here and hereafter, this Gospel Jesus, not the “historical Jesus” or the “Jewish Jesus.”  My standard for judging the Jewishness of Jesus’ words or deeds is concurrence between Jewish conventions and his declaration in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 17-19).  First, I test Jesus’s standard against his participation in an unusual episode and his comments on two commandments, the fourth and the fifth.  Then, I rate some more general aspects of his position on Jewish law.


An unusual episode reported in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 5:1-17; Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-37), an exorcism in the land of the Gerasenes or Gadarenes, involves a dietary law, a kind of law which Jesus may not have meant to include in his Sermon statement.  The complication arises in the unknown religious affiliation of the people, pagan, Jewish, or a mix of both.  The answers probably reflect less knowledge of the demographics at the time than desires to interpret the passage according to religious convictions.  On the widely accepted assumption that Jesus preached or ministered only to Jews—in a few instances, Gentiles came to him—, the inference must be that the population was Jewish.  However, the law forbidding Jews from touching, eating, or raising swine makes it hard to accept Jewish involvement with swine, especially in a large, public way.  It is also hard to imagine Gospel writers not knowing of this best-known Jewish dietary prohibition.  Yet, as they say, there it is: Jesus himself dealing with swine, though not touching, eating, or raising them, and villagers so upset with him for damaging the local economy by driving the two-thousand swine herd into the sea and drowning them that they ask him to leave.  The episode suggests—I do not say shows—that Jesus disregards Jewish law and thus raises doubts about his Jewishness.

There is also a problematic suggestion of the Roman occupation in the demoniac’s name “Legion.”  The episode offers ambiguous interpretations.  One, the demoniac’s demons are Romans whom Jesus exorcises and destroys.  The other, Jesus, in relieving Legion of his demons, is supportive of the Romans—a convenient point to make when the Gospel writers wished to distinguish Christians from Jews and thereby avoid and redirect Roman reproach, persecution, or repression following the fall of the Second Temple.  If so, the suggestion makes the Gospel Jesus less Jewish than Christian.

Mark 5:1-17
1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.  3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.  5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.  6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”  8For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”  He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclear spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.”  13So he gave them permission.  And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people came to see what it was that had happened.  15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had the legion; and they were afraid.  16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.  17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:28-34
28When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him.  They were so fierce that no one could pass that way.  29Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?  Have you come here to torment us before the time?”  30Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them.  31The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32And he said to then, “Go!”  So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water.  33The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they say him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:26-37
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.  For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  (For many times it had seized him he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bond and be driven by the demon into the wilds.). 30 Jesus then asked him, “what is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.


The Gospel Jesus’s regard for two of the Ten Commandments is not ambiguous.  The Fourth Commandment reads: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”  (Ex 20: 8-11)

There are two relevant episodes.  In three similar accounts (Mark 2:23-28; Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), the first episode shows Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating grain to allay their hunger on the sabbath.  In defending them against Pharisees who charge them with breaking the law, Jesus invokes the precedent of David entering a synagogue and taking for himself sacred bread on the sabbath.  (Samuel I 21:1-6)  But Jesus omits details which discount the precedent.  David is in a desperate situation, needed food to carry on with his mission, did no work to secure it, and received sacred bread with the permission of the priest.  In short, necessity and permission allowed an exemption to use sacred food for secular purposes.  Because the disciples’ hunger involves no exigencies, Jesus’ defense of their work undermines the Fourth Commandment.

Matthew’s addition, Jesus’ comment that priests break the sabbath, presumably by conducting Temple sacrifices on that day, yet, as can be “read in the law,” are guiltless is false and inappropriate.  The claim is false; Holy Scripturesis silent on this point.  And Jesus’ analogy fails in defense.  The priests’ work in conducting Temple sacrifices on the sabbath is necessary for sanctioned religious rituals; the same is not true of his disciples.  Again, Jesus’ defense undermines the commandment.

Mark 2:23-28
23One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”  25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?  26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate of the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”  27Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath”
Matthew 12:1-8
1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.”  3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?  6I tell you something greater than the temple is here.  7But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
Luke 6:1-5
1One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”  3Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  4He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”  5Then he said the them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Likewise, in three similar accounts (Mark 3:1-6; Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:1-5), the second episode shows Jesus healing a man’s diseased arm on the sabbath and being challenged by Pharisees on the legality of doing so. Matthew’s account differs by the appeal to analogy: saving one’s only sheep if it fell into a ditch on the sabbath. Once again, no exigency requires the healing of the “withered arm” on the sabbath; it could be cured the next day. Moreover, the urgent need to rescue the only sheep of a destitute person is hard to align with a prompt curing a long-diseased arm; the analogy mixing terms—a sheep’s life to a person’s life, not a withered arm—is a bogus one.

Mark 3:1-6
1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  3And he said to the man who had the withered hand “Come forward.”  4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  But they were silent.  5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Matthew 12:9-14
9He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.  11He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?  12How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!  So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.  13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”  He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.  14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Luke 6:6-11
6On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered.  7The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.  8Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.”  He got up and stood there.  9Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”  10After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.”  He did so, and his hand was restored.  11But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

The Fifth Commandment reads: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the lord your God is giving you.”  In one passage, 3:31-35, Mark says nothing about this commandment in Jesus’ words which put distance between himself and his biological family and make a metaphorical family of those who do God’s will.  But distancing is not dishonoring.  In another passage, 7:9-13, Mark assumes this commandment in Jesus’ berating Pharisees who tolerate those denying their parents support, thereby dishonoring them, by using it for ritual sacrifices to God.  The example is neither credible on its face nor strengthened by Jesus’ vague allegation that “you [Pharisees] do many things like this.” I note that Jesus’ position here, honoring parents ahead of religious observance—certainly a Jewish prioritization—is at odds with his position elsewhere, which insists that his followers prefer him to their parents.

Moreover, the second part of the quotation “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die’” is, again, false and fabricated.  Jesus appears not to know that God speaks the commandments, and Jesus fibs that Moses (or, for that matter, God or anyone else) says, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die”; no such words appear in Holy Scriptures.

In one passage in Matthew (10:34-38) and in two corresponding passages in Luke (12:51-53; 14:26-27), Jesus, silent about the Fifth Commandment, nevertheless speaks in direct contravention of it.  I note in passing Jesus’ declaration opposing peace, either by “a sword,” or war, or by “division” is contrary to a basic Jewish desire for worldwide peace.  In both Gospels, Jesus’ idea of setting children against parents violates the commandment.  In Matthew, Jesus’ idea that children must love Jesus more than they love their parents in order to be worthy of him erodes their commitment to parents which the commandment implies.  In Luke, Jesus’ idea that children must hate their parents to be Jesus’ disciples is a stark reversal of the commandment.  Jesus’ attack on the Fifth Commandment has no precedent in Judaism and exposes his position outside it.

[two passages unmatched in Matthew and Luke]

Mark 3:31-35
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


Mark 7:9-13
9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!  10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’  11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.  And you do many things like this.”
Matthew 10:34-38
34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.


37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Luke 12:51-53
51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son and son against father,
mother against daughter and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”


Luke 14:26-27
26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”



By the standards of Jesus’ words to fulfill the law, his words relevant to dietary law and, more significantly, two of the Ten Commandments reveal him to contravene, not conform to, Jewish law.  Beyond his words about the laws discussed above are his departures from what may be called Jewish legal theory.  The proliferation of detailed Jewish guidelines to enable obedience to the law is known as putting a fence around the Torah.  Consider adultery, prohibited by the Sixth Commandment. Fornication with a person not one’s spouse is thereby forbidden.  To provide assistance to prevent adultery, additional rules might stipulate that a married person be accompanied by another person of the same sex in the presence of an eligible member of the opposite sex, that they must always be in a public place if they are unaccompanied, that one must not touch the other, and so forth.  But, when Jesus expands on the notion of adultery—from adulterous conduct or any conduct preliminary to it to a lustful impulse—, he goes well beyond the Jewish understanding of law, regulation, or guidance, or compliance with the implications of that expanded notion.  The expansion makes it impossible for anyone to comply with it.  A person can, at least in theory and, so it is assumed, in practice, control his or her behavior by obeying the rules; a person cannot in theory or in practice control having emotions told and believing them to be sinful. It is one thing to fornicate with a person not one’s spouse; it is another not to desire to do so.  One can take a cold shower; one cannot preclude hot passion.  In short, Jesus talks moral nonsense at odds with the ordinary understanding of what the law and what people can and cannot do.

In still other ways, Jesus contravenes the essentials of Judaism and, in so doing, challenges its place in the lives of Jews.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly departs from the Torah.  “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” (Matthew 5:38-39)  Jesus thinks that this injunction, which he contradicts, urges retaliation, but it actually asserts a principle of fair compensation or proportionate punishment in a judicial setting.  By contrast, Jesus cites in non-judicial settings examples of interpersonal misconduct so small in scope as to amount to little more than slights, with no damage done.  Left open is what advice he would give in the cases of actual damages, or oppression or war. To save his injunction from triviality by covering such cases, the older translation, “Resist not evil” makes more sense, but it runs counter to two essential moral principles of Judaism: personal righteousness and social justice.  However interpreted, Jesus’ idea of tolerating evil by individuals or institutions is antithetical to essential Jewish principles.

More directly antisemitic are Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees (and scribes) whom Jesus encounters or who encounter him in Galilee. Aside from his metaphoric slurs—they are serpents or vipers—, Jesus repeatedly accuses them of being blind. The accusation of religious blindness means nothing more than not seeing as he does, that is, agreeing with his opinions.  Since Jesus defies or denies the law on his misconstruction or rejection of it, his allegation is self-reflective of his blindness or disagreement.  The Pharisees can hardly be blind to the laws which they understand and accept.  Moreover, the attacks on the Pharisees as blind and hypocritical seem wildly inaccurate. They were Jewish leaders living among the people not only as respected religious leaders, but also as contributing social and economic members of the community.  Although they may have received some synagogue funds for their religious endeavors, Pharisees worked for their living; they were unlike the tax-supported, aloof, elitist Sadducees of Second Temple leadership.  Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees are antisemitic attacks on Jewish leaders whom the Gospel writers and later Christian leaders regarded as their rivals in the Diaspora.

Finally, an example of Jesus speaking and acting as no Jew at any time, in any place, or under any circumstances could have spoken or acted occurs in the Last Supper, said to be a Seder, or a Passover meal.  When Jesus makes symbolic offerings of the wine as his blood and the bread as his body, he uses religious resources nowhere available in Judaism.  If the Gospel Jesus were a Jew and if his disciples were Jews, they would not have thought to use the wine and the bread as Jesus does or and would not accept his using them in this way.  For the idea of theophagy, or god-eating, is alien to Judaism; it is not even mentioned to be dismissed as an abomination; it is exclusively a pagan ritual.

Retrospectively, we see that Jesus’ deviations from and attacks on Jewish custom, Jewish law, and Jewish ritual are Christo-pagan deviations from and attacks on Judaism.  The pagan-based Eucharist alone prompts a reconsideration of Christianity, not as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy—bogus prooftexts, notwithstanding—and thereby a completion and perfection of Judaism, but as a re-formulation of paganism with Pauline and Gospel enhancements. Two implications are that the Gospels represent Jesus as the first Christian and first Christian antisemite, and that this central figure of Christianity makes antisemitism central to its message. The “real” Jesus” was a very different person; he was a Jew.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING RELIGIOUS

      A distinguished scientist and an outspoken atheist, Peter Dawkins is one of many who deride beliefs and believers in God, regardless of their religions.  He disparages not only their creeds which cannot be proven, but also their codes which cannot be verified.  He stresses hypocritical pieties and pronouncements or unworthy, even violent, behavior of many ostensibly religious people and institutions. Disillusioned or dismayed, he and many others like him, reject religion.

Nevertheless, Dawkins, whose faith in science is itself an unquestioned faith, offers foolish arguments. First, it makes no more sense to judge religion by the standards of science than to judge swimming by the standards of walking.  Creeds and codes have been accepted and should be judged by their consequences for people and societies.  Second, religion should no more be judged by religious hypocrites or ethical misconduct than science should be judged by scientist fraud or experimental failures. Of course, nothing shows that the irreligious are one bit better than the religious.  The question is not whether to abandon religion because of its shortcomings, but whether it can be improved and implemented to better the lives of people and the quality of life in society.  Of two things I am certain: one, science cannot make people or societies better; and, two, abandoning religion would do much more harm than good. Indeed, religious values, not scientific principles, can judge what is better for humankind.

Though supportive of religion in principle, I am not a religious person; I have no religious feelings and am an agnostic about God.  I quip that I do not believe in Him, but He believes in me; I know, because He has saved me from some of my wishes.  For one, He prevented me from becoming an English professor, an intervention soon appreciated.  I have told my daughter, an Episcopalian priest in California, that if I come to God, it will be though my cats and dogs; she knows that, as a Jew, committed but unaffiliated and non-observant, I shall not come to Him through Jesus.

As one who has lived in three families embracing seven religions, I have always been interested in and respectful of religion.  Retired from my vocation as a consultant and my avocation as a Shakespeare scholar, I have more recently and more often written on religion, specifically on the emergence of Christianity from Judaism in the first hundred years after the Crucifixion, the differences between the two religions, and antisemitism.  (I spell the word without hyphenation and internal capitalization to avoid implying the race Semite, which includes many Muslims as well as some Jews.)  Retirement suggests a certain age, but my reasons for writing more on religion have nothing to do with a sense of impending death, any preparation for it, or any concern about an afterlife.  Rather, I believe that religion can be an important, constructive, even creative part of human life.  I believe, conversely, that disrespecting religion per seand denying it a place in the life of an individual or in society distorts and diminishes both.

However, I have two concerns whether Christianity can play an entirely positive role in predominantly Christian, yet religiously diverse, populations. One, no profession of faith or invocation of love has ever stopped Christians from persecuting, expelling, or exterminating Jews, heretics, or other disbelievers.  Despite recent Christian ecclesiastical protestations—incredible, deceitful, or hypocritical—, recent Christian attacks against Jews and Muslims in Europe and America make clear that Christian texts and rituals have engendered pervasive antisemitism and motivated Christian attacks on non-Christians.  Jews have been a chronic target for a unique reason: Christian antisemitism is the only bigotry to have scriptural foundations and institutional support internationalized by text, churches, and missionaries.  Gospel narratives—if the topic is antisemitism, some Christians seem not to know them—tell of Jewish leaders challenging Jesus at every step along his way, and of Jewish leaders and crowds seeking his death in Jerusalem. Indeed, in Passion Week plays, congregations, acting in the role of a Jewish mob, speak, as the Gospel tell us it spoke, to demand Jesus’ crucifixion.  How can Christianity not be hostile to Jews when its texts are antisemitic?  And if Christianity maintains that the only way to salvation is through Jesus, how can it not be innately antagonistic, thus menacing, to those of other faiths?

Two, every one of the world’s major religions and probably most of its minor ones possess some form of the Golden Rule: do (not) unto others as you would (not) have them do unto you.  Each form inverts the merits and demerits of the other.  I prefer the negative form inHoly Scripturesto the positive form, the one and only moral injunction in the Gospels, because it denies warrant to impose one’s preferences on others.  Even so, the Golden Rule offers little moral guidance because it lacks specificity.  Judaism offers 613 commandments; Christianity, if it follows Paul, abjures the law.  But inconsistency prevails; it does not proscribe the Ten Commandments—which means it follows, not doctrine, but convenience.

Together, both concerns reflect a common fault: Christianity has a creed, but no code of conduct.  Strictly speaking, since works—deeds done and a life lived by moral rules—avail not, salvation is by faith alone, as defined by the Nicene and Apostles creeds.  Both address the miraculous birth and miserable death of Jesus; between these two events, the creeds say nothing concerning a moral message.  Unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, Christianity posits no moral ideals, principles, rules, or values other than faith for the sake of salvation, which, however, can be achieved only by God’s grace, not by human agency.  The closest thing to something of a moral nature is Paul’s urgings of love for God and the Son of God, and for one’s co-religionists.

The omission has two unfortunate consequences.  One, it leaves Christians with an unprincipled eclecticism, at liberty to pronounce anything to their liking as Christian or not to their liking as unchristian.  A school administrator, unaware that I was Jewish, labeled something which I had done for someone’s good, as “a Christian thing to do.”  Two, it means that Christians can argue issues without a Biblical frame of reference for deciding their merits or without understanding the basis of the disagreement.  So, as Christians, they argue about abortion—how can they?—although The Bible says nothing about it, and the only instance concerning the beginning of human life occurs at Genesis 2.7.  By contrast, Judaism’s main branches—Reform, Orthodox, Conservative—have such a framework. They differ about which of the 613 laws they should follow and how, but they share Holy Scriptures or the Talmud as a frame of reference for debate and for understanding their differences.

As a result, several Christian denominations have been or are embroiled in ethical controversies often leading to schisms because congregations pick and choose their ethical positions to suit their preferences.  Congregations or denominations, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, have sundered on matters of race and gender.  For example, an all-embracing ethical principle in the middle of the creeds might have prevented such acrimonious divorces:

Believing in the living example of Lord Jesus Christ, we (I) respect and join others in treating with respect all people and all peoples; share and join others in sharing the earth’s bounty to promote the dignity and wellbeing of all people and all peoples; and support and join others in supporting cooperative efforts to enhance the quality of life of all people and all peoples, and to ensure benign stewardship of the natural world.

Most of this provision is a stretch, but not beyond Jesus’ reported teachings; admittedly, the last phrase about stewardship is a stretch too far—his withering curse on the fig tree does not suggest that Jesus was much of an environmentalist—but he did not confront climate change.

I believe religion is important because I believe that its primary purpose is to inspire people to act according to high ideals of conduct, whatever the profession of faith.  As He attends Abraham on the road to Sodom, God answers His own question about keeping His intended action a secret: “No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after them to keep the way of the LORDby doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18: 19).  No sooner does God disclose these goals for humankind than Abraham respectfully negotiates lesser punishments by challenging Him to act justly.  So Jewish!  Before the births of Ishmael and Isaac, before the development of Islam and Judaism, God and Abraham agree that righteousness and justice must be done on earth and in heaven.  Of the Abrahamic religions, only Christianity has not prioritized these ethical standards, perhaps because it inclines to trace its origins only to David and thereby omits mention of God’s mandate.  Yet Christians have a text by which they can develop and justify a code of conduct to promote God’s paramount ideals.  Without such a code, Christianity grants moral license to all and gives moral direction to few.  Equally, those without religion lack a compass larger than their parochial lives to guide them in those pathways which demand moral conviction to choose and moral courage to pursue.