I received my religious education in Sunday school, as a Jew. It was shortly after the Holocaust, and the Jewish community was eager to ensure the perpetuation of Judaism. Intermarriage—even mere exposure to Christianity—were viewed as palpable threats. My religious education said nothing at all about Christianity. My parents’ understanding of Christianity was limited to a notion that Christians believed in three gods—God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost—while we Jews believed in only one. I learned that “an acknowledgement of that God was the centerpiece of the Friday night service in every Temple in the world.” We recited a prayer that affirmed that God was one. We understood that Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, whereas we believed that Jesus was a great man, but the Messiah, the son of God, had not yet arrived. Reform Jews had a distinct belief that instead of a personal messiah, there would be a messianic age when there would be peace on Earth. Since there was no peace on Earth, the Messiah had not yet arrived.
My first exposure to the words of the Sermon on the Mount was upon seeing the movie King of Kings (1961). Before that, I literally did not know what moral message distinguished Jesus’s teaching. I began reading analyses of the Sermon on the Mount by Christian scholars. It seemed that as a humanist, I had a distinct perspective on the suitability of this message as a moral guide for contemporary life. That is the basis for this article.
In what follows, I will proceed sequentially, presenting a segment of the Sermon followed by typical Christian commentary on that segment and then my own perspective on that commentary.
Commentary: Blessed means “happy.” Therefore, this statement means that people who are poor in spirit are happy because they will receive the reward of heaven.
Christian commentators equate “poor in spirit” with the opposite of pride and haughtiness. However, this is a linguistic mistake. It assumes that only two choices are available: poor in spirit versus haughtiness. However, one who is not poor in spirit may merely be self-confident; one may be valued for his or her contribution to society without being haughty. Alternatively, those who are “poor in spirit” may simply be dejected, depressed, or suffering the absence of self-worth. Consequently, the problem with this platitude as an ethical prescription is that either it is ambiguous or it implores people to think little of themselves in order to receive the Christian reward of heaven.
Commentary: Christian commentators describe the meaning of mourn as to “mourn for sin” or “mourn for human anguish of the lost.” This conflicts with the common contemporary meaning of mourn as the expression of grief that we feel and express for the death of someone we love. We mourn for the deceased, not for sin or for the anguish of the dead. If the meaning of the word mourn is understood by Christian commentators in ways that are not so understood by contemporary society, then the usefulness of this passage is ambiguous. However, if those who mourn as an expression of grief will be comforted, does that mean anything more than the natural expression of compassion expressed by friends and family toward the bereaved? If the bereaved have no friends or family, then what is the evidence that they are comforted? Who will comfort them? What if they remained grief-stricken for years after their loss? Would that mean that Jesus was wrong? Is Jesus saying that people should be happy to mourn because mourning brings comfort? Are they mourning for somebody or for sin in the world? Do they do this all of the time or only when tragedy strikes? This prescription rapidly descends into incoherence.
To mourn for the anguish of the lost suggests a belief that those who die exhibit human anguish. We humanists don’t have evidence that people who die continue to suffer. Deprived of a brain and nervous system, how do they suffer? Where are they suffering? Do they suffer in heaven? Again, ambiguity makes this assertion not useful.
Commentary: Christian commentators equate meek with “humbled before God.” How do they know this? Are they speaking for God? Has a pope or the Bible ever defined the meaning of meek as “humbled before God?” The common meaning of meek is submissive, gentle, humble, and easily imposed upon. Christian commentators can make up new meanings for words, of course, but that creates confusion for people who don’t understand the terms in that way. In order to affirm the statement that “Happy are those who are meek,” it would be necessary to inquire whether submissive people are happy. Was Martin Luther King Jr. submissive? Does that mean we should restrain ourselves from crying out about injustice?
Christian commentators read the phrase “shall inherit the earth” to mean the happiness of the kingdom of God, on Earth as in heaven. The kingdom to which Jesus speaks is within us as well as it is present to the spiritual citizen of heaven to come.
This is terribly murky. Why wasn’t Jesus clearer about what he means? The common meaning of “inherit the earth” is that the beneficiary shall take possession of, or come to own, the property of the earth. What is the basis for Christian commentators taking liberty with language and claiming to know what Jesus meant? If by “inherit the earth” Jesus meant “know the happiness of the kingdom of God on Earth,” he could have said so. Further, why do the meek receive the happiness of the kingdom of God on Earth while those who are not meek do not receive this benefit? Is it possible to verify that the meek receive the happiness of the kingdom of God on Earth? What if they don’t believe in God? What if meek people say that they are not internally happy, but they are depressed?
Commentary: Commentators state that righteousness means acting in accordance with divine or moral law. Therefore, “hungering for righteousness” does not require action, merely a deep desire for acting morally. This desire is proof of their spiritual rebirth, according to the Christian commentators. They assert that this hunger and filling replay themselves continuously.
Humanists, by definition, believe in acting (not hungering) according to moral principles that are based on our best judgment of the most desirable human consequences. That is, what is moral is a behavioral choice that has the most fulfilling impact on the human and environmental family. Divine law doesn’t consider consequences and is therefore antithetical to humanism. To cite just two examples: divine law that (1) requires the stoning of children who disobey or stoning of adulterous women or (2) condones slavery or eternal suffering of those who do not subscribe to a particular religious faith are expressing righteousness in a way that is immoral from a humanist perspective.
The idea of feeling righteous and being filled, and again being righteous and being filled, appears to be a meaningless exercise. However, it is possible that Christian commentators are employing some unknown code here that this author doesn’t understand. However, if it is obscure to most people other than professional commentators, then it is not a useful principle.
Commentary: Does this mean that we should be lenient toward those who commit heinous crimes? This would suggest that Christians should oppose the death penalty. How else can one show leniency to a guilty murderer?
Many, probably most, humanists oppose the death penalty. They do so not because of the happiness associated with being merciful, but because they believe that the death penalty is a barbaric example for society to set, that it does not deter crime, and that it is more expensive than life imprisonment. In weighing the morality of the death penalty, humanists consider such factors as whether or not it provides closure to the victim’s family or whether mistakes by the judicial system result in innocent persons being convicted.
The hypothesis that people who show leniency toward those who injure others can then expect the compassion of others toward them in return can be tested. It may or may not be true. However, empathy toward others is essential to humanist morality, whether or not it is rewarded by others being more compassionate toward us. We can only judge the consequences of our behavior by our capacity to understand the emotions of others we affect. As social animals, we naturally understand how we affect others. People who don’t have this capacity are sociopaths, psychopaths, or autistic and are treated as ill or as outliers. As humanists, we exercise our empathy in order to honor the sensitivity of others.
According to the Christian commentators, Christians are not saved because they show mercy; rather, the saved Christian shows mercy because he or she was saved by God’s sacrifice. According to these commentators, this assertion is not an exhortation for Christians to be merciful so that they will be rewarded with mercy. Consequently, Christians act with mercy toward others in order to reciprocate for Jesus’s sacrifice of his life for us. Mercy is not to be exhibited because of our natural love for our fellow humans or because of our sense of identity with common human shortcomings. How does the commentator have the wisdom to know that?
Commentary: This presumes that the word see means something other than “experience through the normal senses.” Christians do not believe that God is verifiable by our senses; instead, he is to be accepted on faith without any criteria for falsification. According to Christian commentators, “seeing God” is equivalent to being saved. “Being saved” is being pure in heart. Consequently, if one sees God (has been saved), one is pure in heart by definition. It is not possible to avoid being pure of heart if one has been saved.
Being saved means we are saved from God’s wrath on judgment day. We are saved by Jesus Christ’s death.
The concept of being saved begins with an assumption that all humans are born in sin and have sins to atone for, without so much as describing what constitutes sin. The concept of being born in sin is taken from the Garden of Eden story, in which man’s sin was curiosity: the search for knowledge. It is incomprehensible that eating an apple would be a sin by secular standards; the fact that eating the fruit had been forbidden by God made it sinful. Therefore, the “moral” of this story is that morals are not based on the human impact of our behavior but on the fact that morals have a divine, holy, origin. If God tells us to do or not to do something, that trumps human considerations. Human reason, critical thinking, and judgment about how we affect one another are irrelevant to God-centered ethics.
This message was repeated when Abraham was tested by God, who asked him to kill his son in order to prove his faith. Abraham was considered a “good” man because he was prepared to obey God rather than defy him and declare, “No, this is a cruel, immoral order no matter who you are!”
Other references to “sin” in the Bible have to do with the denial of God or disobedience to God’s laws. On the other hand, causing hurt to others, slavery, torture, and war were acceptable behaviors to Christians and justified by their faith. For example, sexism and racism persisted in Christian-dominated countries for hundreds of years and were justified by passages in the Bible.
Christians believe that the recitation of a salvation prayer absolves our sins and rewards us after our death, thus providing an excuse for even the most heinous of crimes.
Commentary: The yardstick that humanists use to evaluate whether a decision is moral is whether it is the most fulfilling choice for those affected by a collective decision and whether it most likely contributes to a more peaceful world. Humanists use their best judgment about which choice most enhances personal fulfillment and minimizes human suffering. In order to apply this judgment, the prospect for a more peaceful world is an important consideration. Consequently, humanists are peacemakers, but we would not regard ourselves as sons of God in any conventional sense.
The Christian commentators interpret peacemakers not as those who strive for world peace, but as those who are at peace with God and all men (Rom. 5–1). They are not social reformers but those reformed by the Gospel. They are ambassadors of peace with God to the world. This uniquely enables them to be considered children of God. This implies that people must act as ambassadors—in other words, sell God to others—in order to be considered children of God. Inasmuch as humanists do not sell God to others, they do not measure up to the criteria for being God’s children, whether or not they would wish to be his children. As humanists we are curious about the desirability of being God’s children as opposed to someone else’s children.
Commentary: Christian commentators interpret this statement to mean that Jesus foresaw that his followers would be persecuted because they were Christians. Therefore, being a Christian requires being steadfast to living in Jesus Christ in a godly way, in spite of evidence presented by those who would attempt to woo them away from Christian belief. The commentators state that the word persecuted does not mean physical abuse but simply rational discourse that may tempt them to be persuaded toward another worldview. Consequently, this insulates Christians from evidence of the irrationality of their belief or an evaluation of God’s commands as cruel or mean-spirited. This belief follows in the tradition of Abraham’s test of faith, which required him to ignore the consequence of obedience (killing his son) and instead trust in God even though he could not understand God’s will.
If Christians consider the entitlement to the kingdom of heaven as a desirable achievement, then they should be informed about what they will do there for eternity. What we now know about the biological source of pleasure and tranquility is that these feelings are generated by specific parts of our unique brains. Consequently, it is unclear how feelings and memories that we experienced when we were alive will relate to some desirable feeling in the kingdom of heaven, after we (and our brains) have died.
Commentary: This statement indicates that Christians should be happy that they are reviled and persecuted for their unyielding faith, because prophets had also been reviled and persecuted before them. Why should Christians find it satisfying to be persecuted because others had been persecuted before them?
The Christian commentators who interpret this passage speak of the fact that if heaven is to be gained for eternity by enduring suffering and persecution in this life, then it is worth the price. Fulfillment in this life (falicitudo) is denigrated in Christian theology for the benefit of fulfillment in the afterlife (beatitudo). It is this idea of suffering in life as the price to be paid for heavenly rewards after death that was the principal object of rebellion by the enlightenment philosophes: Locke, Voltaire, Bishop Butler, Jefferson, and Madison. The idea set forth in the Declaration of Independence that humans are endowed with a right to personal happiness in this life is not a Christian concept. The reference to a “creator” by Jefferson was a deist concept of a force that created the universe but was not involved thereafter in the lives of humans. The right to happiness and liberty were invoked as natural rights in the framework of government for the first time by the Enlightenment writers of the seventeenth century. Therefore, to be “endowed by our creator” meant that there were rights to be discovered from experience that are essential to the dignity of humanity. The Declaration of Independence was a list of grievances against a king who claimed his authority to oppress the colonists as a monarch and agent for God and the Christian church. There is nothing in the Old or New Testament, the declarations of the popes, the Qur’an, or the Torah that speaks of a human right to happiness or to fulfillment in this life. To espouse a claim for personal fulfillment in this life is the antithesis of imploring people to endure their suffering in this life in order to receive the rewards of heaven for eternity.
In conclusion, contemporary society is more complex than the world of Jesus. Good moral action requires an awareness of human behavior informed by our discoveries from the social sciences, and reflecting our capacity for empathy, that was not present two thousand years ago. Torture and slavery were acceptable institutions then; Jesus objected to neither, though he would become a victim of torture. Proportionality of punishment to the crime has become a humane civilizing influence only since the writings of the Italian Philosopher Cesare Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishment (1764). Jesus did not register any disapproval of harsh punishment that did not fit the crime. His most famous outburst of temper was a result of commercial activity in the Temple. (How would he feel about Bingo in the church?)
Due process, equal rights for women, welfare for the disabled, international standards of morality according to the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations, public education for the masses, and the elimination of child labor are among modern standards of morality that have had their foundation in moral suasion, not in any supernaturally based scripture. We will continue to discover new understandings about how to build a just society, resulting from our awareness of the science of consciousness and the elimination of pain and disease. These understandings will inform our morality and enable human beings to forge a more perfect society, with a better chance for a more peaceful world and a more fulfilling life for more of the world’s citizens. Were blessing needed, I would say blessed be those who seek that.
Gordon Gamm, JD, is credited with composing the first amicus briefs explaining humanism in state and federal courts.