Is Hijacking Murder ? And Other Moral Questions

Chapter 1   ADDING another god

We have seen that the ten categories of moral judgment are found among all nations, but the content varies immensely from person to person. As we will see, a person's religion will govern how each of the ten rules is filled out and defined in practice. When there are different interpretations of the wrongness of idolatry, murder, adultery, and the other commandments, we should suspect that different religions and ideologies are involved.

As given in the Bible, a religious reason is given for the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2). That reason could only apply to the Jews of the Exodus and their descendants. But Christians rightly assume that the Creator in whose image we are made (Genesis 1:26-27) is the same Creator that is referred to in the moral law given by Moses.

But it is not only religious people who need to beware of dividing the oneness of ultimate reality. We defined the first universal category of moral judgment as: (1) There is only one supreme being or reality. This means that atheists, who do not believe in a Creator, should also reject the addition of other gods. And we will see how that can happen.

For those who do not see the world as the creation of a supreme artist, the first cause of our world and our life on earth is defined as matter-energy, light, the Big Bang, or whatever. Physicists and Organic chemists assume they will eventually be able to explain how conscience and human morality evolved from that. But just as the first of Moses' ten commandments allows no other god but the one Creator, atheists have no business adding any other principle as their reason for morality.

When a despot who began as an atheist begins to view himself as having the right to overrule the moral judgment of his people, he has made himself into another god. The next stage is for an emperor to declare himself God, as happened again and again in Egypt, Babylonia, Rome and other empires. Having done that, he will quickly make it illegal for any other god to be worshiped (see for example Daniel 6:6-9). During the persecutions in the Roman empire Christians were thrown to the lions for refusing to worship the Emperor as their God.

Some are atheists in theory, but they allow race to function as another god. Hitler was an atheist who concluded that the Aryans, and the German nation in particular, had evolved to become the master race. They were the supreme arbitrators of morality. And Hitler was their Fuhrer. The Nazis then defined the Jews vermin, so taking their possessions was not stealing. And vermin have no rights at law. The next step was totally logical. Vermin must be exterminated and gas chambers were the very best way to do this.

Communism began as an atheistic ideology. Its moral ideal was very beautiful. Each person should give according to his ability, and each should receive according to his or her need . To achieve this ideal the Russian state had to be given the power to enforce the vision.. It was called the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was hopefully only a temporary measure which was necessary till people learned to give according to their abilities voluntarily. But of course Stalin was the one to make the rules, and enforce them. Dissidents were sent to death camps in Siberia. The result was that the state still officially believed in materialism (matter was the origin of everything), but Stalin had become another god. The same thing happened in China in the cultural revolution enforced by Chairman Mao.

For ordinary people who call themselves atheists happiness is often made into a god. And the reason given for the ten commandments is that they are said to be basic for human well-being. But that soon raises questions about whose happiness is important. Is it the best educated, the rich and powerful, those who agree about atheism, the young, or the old, those best suited to propagating the race, preserving the environment? What if the happiness of others conflicts with my happiness? Is the expropriation of my property for a road or mine or government building a form a stealing?

For theists who believe that the world we live in is an artistic creation (and so not a chance happening) the Artist is called God. In the first chapter of Genesis he was named Elohim but it makes no difference if in other languages he (or she) is given other names (such as Zeus, Dieu, Allah, Khuda in Urdu, Permeshwar in Hindi). But naming our ultimate reality as Creator does not define for us what God is like. What if he turned out to be a vicious monster? Is he impassive or caring? Is it right to call him Father, or is he the Judge who sends us into eternal damnation if we do not meet his standards? Depending on the metaphors we add to explain what the Creator is like (see God of Many Names), we will see how quite different systems of morality will emerge.

In discussing the oneness of God it is important to define what kind of oneness we have in mind. In one form of Hinduism (called Absolute Monism) the Absolute (another name for God) is the only reality. The way of escape from the confusion and misery we experience in this world is to lose our distinct personality and merge with that Absolute. There are various forms of meditation that are prescribed for achieving this, and these have now become common in western countries. When this way is taken seriously, the individuals who meditate, and those around them, may cease to be important as individuals. Personality is a mistake. And that will have a practical outcome in the way the way the ten categories are defined. "If the purpose of life is to merge my personality in the Absolute, why should I worry about justice and human rights?"

A more common form of Hinduism (called Modified Monism) pictures God as the soul or life force of the universe. Our world becomes a living organism, and all forms of life are to be respected and given their value. This fits the vision of many in the west who are concerned about ecology. But in practice other gods like Krishna are added, and most Hindus do not mind if Jesus is added as one of many other gods. Swamis, gurus, and cult leaders quickly attain semi-divine status. In India Hinduism gives a huge tolerance for whatever people choose to do, as long as they do not kill humans or cows. Many avoid meat altogether and become strict vegetarians.

But once the nation becomes another god (as in Hindu nationalism), the interpretation of each of the ten categories of moral judgment changes its flavor. But this is also true among Christians who find themselves saying "my nation, right or wrong." In Britain for example people sang "Rule Britannia" in a way that could suggest that Britannia was another god beside the Creator. The United States is a great nation that says "In God we trust," and believes in equal freedom and rights for all nations, but there is also a constant temptation to make Uncle Sam into another god.

The absolute oneness of God is important for Muslims. And they fault Christians for dividing the oneness of God the Creator. They complain that for Christians, Jesus, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit are other gods. But Islam also has the problem of religious leaders becoming other gods as they begin to demand supreme obedience. And once Allah is defined as the judge, the killing of those who reject his authority will govern a nation's interpretation of the ten commandments. If God guarantees the perfect bliss of heaven to those who die in a jihad (religious war in the name of Allah), flying a plane into a tower full of innocent people becomes totally logical.

In chapter 11 we will see how a Trinitarian model of oneness allows us to think of God as Love long before the creation of our world. And when we define love as caring for the freedom of the other, we have a way of giving a specific meaning to each of the ten commandments.

Evidently there are vast differences in the way the first category of moral judgment is interpreted in Hinduism, Islam, and Trinitarian Christian faith. But already it should be obvious that trying to merge all religions into a single kind of undifferentiated oneness is wrong-headed. It also makes it impossible to grasp the reasons that underlie the very different interpretation of each of the ten categories of moral judgment.

But whatever natural or supernatural reasons we give to define the content of our ten categories of moral judgment, the first commandment allows only one principle of rights and wrongs for all people everywhere. If murder is wrong for them, it is also wrong for us. If one day of rest in seven is a right for people in our country, it must also be right for all people. Having agreed on that, we can engage in discussion about how that is to be worked out in practice.

That means no moral person can accept the ancient Greek idea that slaves are not human, and so they have no more rights than animals. Nor can we approve a standard of morality for dictators and presidents and religious leaders which is different from that of ordinary people. In the Bible we have to judge David and Solomon by the same moral standards as their subjects. The first principle of moral judgment is therefore a powerful weapon against the misuse of power by dictators and leaders in any level of government or social institutions. But it only works if we deny the authority of any other god. "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other god before (besides) me" (Exodus 20:2).

Chapter 2   LOCALIZING reality in an idol