I would like to share one of my favorite Scriptures because, with all of the controversies surrounding the so-called “Culture War” over social issues and their effect upon the moral fabric of our society, there is a real need for us to remember the basic Judeo-Christian ethics upon which our country was founded:
1 Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. — Matthew 7 (King James Version)
Distinguishing Rules (Ethics) from Conscience (Morality)
The most important among America’s primary founding principles are freedom of religion and the separation of church from state. However, one needn’t be a Christian — or even believe in God — to understand that the profound wisdom in Matthew 7:1-5 is essential to our progress toward the goal of realizing the promise of liberty as it was laid out by the Framers a little over two centuries ago. And as we pursue that goal, we must be careful not to confuse universal truths with religious and other dogma, lest we forget that it is our God-given (or natural) free will that places the onus of seeking truth on human conscience, which is what should allow us to separate church from state without sacrificing our moral clarity.
America’s greatest strength is our diversity, while our pride is our primary weakness. It is this pride that causes us to forget — or in some cases to deliberately ignore — the difference between the laws that are essential to maintaining order in a free, heterogeneous society and the conscience that gives us the forbearance to live harmoniously among the diverse multitudes — or at least the ability to recognize and respect that our right to be who and what we are belongs to all of us, even if we might not all agree on the finer points of the fleeting social conventions of a continuously evolving civilization.
The so called “Christian Right” (may God have mercy upon their poor lost and tormented souls), who appear to be so proud that they believe their own wrath to be virtuous, have been confusing truth with doctrine to the point where they must now engage in the practice of intellectual dishonesty in order to justify the continued politicization of their faith for the purpose of promoting its dogma as the one and only truth. But this dynamic is not exclusive to religious fundamentalists as some secularists also appear to have a difficult time distinguishing ethics from morals. A recent demonstration of this occurred on the April 8, 2005 broadcast of Real Time with Bill Maher, in which former New York governor Mario Cuomo gave the erudite, yet theophobic Mr. Maher a little education in this very subject.
MAHER: If you disagree so much with so many of the rules, why do you need religion at all? I have a lot of trouble understanding why somebody like yourself who is a brilliant man, I have trouble understanding why brilliant people can even be religious. [applause] Quite frankly, I don’t mean that disrespectfully.
CUOMO: [overlapping] Bill—okay. No, Bill, I—
MAHER: [overlapping] But – and it seems like religion is the kind of thing where you either eat the whole wafer or you don’t eat it at all. [laughter] I mean, if you’re going to pick all the raisins out, why buy raisin bread? [laughter] [applause]
CUOMO: Well, I’ll tell you…Well, for the bread, that’s why you buy it. [laughter] [applause] But let me – Bill, let me make that point. Let me make that point again. [laughter] You’re a super – you’re a super-intelligent person.
MAHER: Well, thank you. Finish your thought. [laughter]
CUOMO: I suggest – I suggest to you that what I believe and call religion, you would believe and call it natural law. If you never saw a guy with a beard come down with a tablet, if you never read a book or heard a homily, just as a human being, if you opened your eyes to the reality of your own life and you looked around, you’d have to come to two conclusions, I think. That, number one, you and the rest of the human beings are different from the other animals because you can think, you have consciousness, et cetera. And that there’s a compatibility between you and all those other human beings. There are animals out there you eat for lunch, and there are animals out there that want to eat you for lunch.
And so you would say, look, I ought to get together with these human beings; we have something in common. That’s called, in Hebrew, sedaka, the notion of charity and commonality.
And what would you do with that relationship since nobody was there to instruct you? You’d say, look, the one value I’m sure of is the value of the next breath I draw, the value of my life. And I have this instinct to procreate. And so you’d get together with the other human beings and say, let’s make this life better. The Hebrews call that teekonolom [sp], “let’s repair the universe.” That gives you Christianity. “Love one another as you love yourself, for the love of me,” that’s Jesus. And what do we do? God made the world, didn’t finish it; let’s try to make it better. That’s my religion. That would be yours, as an intelligent man, and I’m sure it is, only you don’t call it religion. You call it raisin bread. [applause]
Tree-lovers, Meet the Forrest
The pursuit of true human freedom is a challenge that requires courage, personal responsibility and charity toward one’s fellow man. And, if we just open our minds to that, the Scriptures in Matthew 7:1-5 reveal universal truths from which we can draw the strength needed for the self-reflection that inspires our endeavor to promote the peace, understanding and tolerance necessary to the viability of our liberty as it applies to the longevity of our civilization.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Whether or not one believes that Christ was the immaculately conceived Son of God who performed miracles and rose from the dead is not relevant to the universal truth that it is not within the purview of humanity to judge its own sins. We are simply not qualified. Even though we are sentient beings, capable of reason and invention, we are ultimately ruled by our passions and prejudices, sometimes barely able to hold onto the the self-evident truth that all people are created equally. Of course all of that begs the question of who or what actually is endowed with the competence to judge our sins, but that’s not the forest, it’s just one of the trees. Suffice it to say that whomever or whatever it is, it is certainly not us.
This is more than sufficient justification for the separation of church from state because the state is run by fallible human beings who measure virtue and sin via the science of public relations, arrogantly presuming themselves to be unequivocal arbiters of conscience as they change, create and enforce laws according to the whims of a bunch of other fallible human beings (some of whom really ought to know better than to expect that deliverance and grace will be forthcoming due to the policies and actions of the earthly institution of government).
“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
We are supposed to avoid judging our fellow man because of the universal truth that judgments beget more judgments without producing any results that make a better world. All of that judging is nothing more than a competition in self-righteousness in which hypocrites of every stripe proudly assert that their self-assumed superiority is justification for their wrath that stems from their lack of faith in their fellow man — and sometimes even themselves. Such contests do not make a better life for anybody, especially when they escalate into internecine conflicts like our current “Culture War,” which is unlikely to ever have a real victor — if it ever has a real end.
“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
But we really cannot help ourselves because none of us are beyond reproach. It is in our nature to examine the sins of our brothers and sisters when we, as mere flesh, often have a difficult time finding the fortitude to look inward and contemplate our own misdeeds. This is yet more evidence of our inadequacy to judge one another’s sins and good reason to err on the side of caution when we are tempted to legislate conscience, which falls within the purview of faith, not governments.
The recognition of religious freedom is what secures and guarantees our right to choose our own way from amongst the almost endless number of paths to the same basic objective truth that if we love God (or nature or life or whatever manifestation of being inspires our faith) and love one another as we do ourselves that everything else will take care of itself and we will have peace — in theory, at least.
Realistically, of course, we are limited in practice by our own nature and mortality, but we do have the quality of faith to help us to seek the wisdom that can help us to distinguish transient social conventions from the unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience so that there is no blurring of the line that is supposed to separate the organizations of mortal humans we elect to protect, serve and bring order to society from the various spiritual institutions, traditions and ceremonies in which we celebrate our faith in the mysterious natural and/or supernatural forces of creation from which we draw our moral clarity.
“Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”
While we are busily engaged in the practice of evaluating and judging one another’s alleged sins, we comfortably avoid reflecting upon our own the detriment of truth and justice. We do not create an harmonious society by attempting to dictate that other people live by some subjective code of ethics, but rather by seeking the truth and justice in our own actions and deeds.
Courage is the human virtue that inspires our natural need for liberty, while our fear of liberty as it applies to human nature imprisons us and impedes our progress toward the goal of achieving the promise of freedom. And there is much to fear at the prospect of living in a truly free and open society — especially one whose people are so diverse — because a free people must be possessed of the self-discipline to deal with the unavoidable temptations of a free society, not the least of which is the temptation to limit those temptations via the legislation of conscience.
We must be brave and refuse to succumb to fears of our nature because such legislation only serves to defer personal responsibility to the same degree that it curtails liberty without ever actually affecting the availability if the offending temptation. This is the trap in the seemingly simple and well-intended attempts to mandate our morality and it is the source of much of the consternation within the misguided people who believe that social and cultural matters should fall into the purview of the state rather than a higher power.
“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. “
This is the universal truth that none of us ever really gets to the point where we become so morally superior that we can effectively judge our fellow man’s sins, even if our pride might sometimes fool us into believing it. True freedom requires that we manifest a great deal of tolerance, which is not so much about the acceptance of differences as it is a matter of having faith in our fellow man’s ability to deal with liberty.