The belief in an ethical God makes it possible over time, to move from a society of tribes to a society of many tribes, held together with commonly shared beliefs, stories, and traditions, because this God demands that we care for the other, the stranger, because we know how a stranger feels; we were once strangers in a strange land (see Exodus 23:9) (p. 60).
Canadian author Diane Weber Bederman, a friend of BackChannels’ editor, has put together a brief compelling volume about the origins of compassion, empathy — a pervasive thoughtfulness most of all — in contemporary western thought by way of Biblical language and lore and the interaction of the Judeo-Christian vision of God and man as woven through the western experience.
Although composed as defense and reminder of western values, it may turn out the right book at the right time as regards broadening the channels for the appreciation of a number of aspects of cultural and intercultural survival:
Ethical monotheism is not the enemy.
Belief in the ethical God of the Christians and Jews counterbalances egoism and the idolization of another human being. I cannot place belief in any man perfecting himself. The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. I wrote about that earlier, in my chapter “The Snake Tempted Me,” about the Enlightenment and the rise of secularism. More people have died from wars that embraced secular fundamentalist propaganda than have been killed in wars based on religious differences. Encyclopedia of Wars authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod document the history of recorded warfare. From their list of 1,763 wars, only 123 are classified as involving a religious cause; these wars account for less than 7 percent of all wars and less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare. It is estimated that more than 160 millions civilians were killed in genocides in the twentieth century alone, with nearly 100 million killed by the Communist states of USSR and China. Think of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-il, and Adolph Hitler.
Why do we allow ourselves to give up our free will and instead by swayed by others? Why do we so easily forget God’s admonition, “Beware of letting your heart be seduced; if you go astray, serve other gods and bow down to them . . . you will quickly perish”? (Deuteronomy 11:16-17) . . . . (p. 101)
Bederman is right and rightly quotable, page after well researched and thoughtfully written page, for her book reminds of basic principles and tenets that form the bulwark of a healthy and productive western society.
The tour begins close to the thought, “Before ethical monotheism and the revelation at Mount Sinai, there was little concept of the intrinsic value of a human being. There was little concept of the sacredness of human life” (p. 11).
Given the spectacle created by dictator and “eye doctor” Bashar al-Assad in Syria with the help of Putin, Khamenei, and Baghdadi, one cannot discount Bederman’s observation of history and its present corollaries, for conscience, empathy, kindness, human rights, freedom, and love itself may not be givens in human affairs but transmitted through the oral and written traditions in language of a civilization born of suffering beneath the words, whips, and yokes of tyrants. For that, the Judeo-Christian experience has been (from Pharaoh to Hitler) immense.
Where Bederman quotes Thomas Paine — “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man” — she precedes the presentation of it with an observation drawn from commentary on the God of the Torah:
There is a commentary in one of the many books about the Bible that imagines God’s response to the happiness of the Israelites after the drowning of the Egyptians. God hears the angels singing and celebrating His great victory. But instead of rejoicing weeps and rebukes them. “Why are you singing?” He asks. “Why are you rejoicing? The Egyptians are My children, too, and they are dead, drowned in the sea. There is no cause for you to sing. Their deaths are not to be celebrated” (p. 38).
True, and to BackChannels’ mind memory of a passage in an old Haggadah serves up the same lesson.
We — of the Jews and the “mixed multitudes” that joined the flight from Pharaoh, of “the west”, of the world’s democratic open societies, of the realms of the considerate and lawful (as opposed to those more familiar with capricious justice) — don’t rejoice at death, not even the death of mortal enemies.
As a philosophy of ethics, Bederman takes on abortion, utilitarianism, geneticism, too accepting a multiculturalism, and, of course, moral relativism: “If ethics have no extrinsic or intrinsic substantive base, then ethical decisions will be made by those in power who can impose their beliefs on others” (p. 75).
Again, page after page, Back to the Ethic proves a rich and thoughtful reading, one also at times personal as when Bederman encounters her own passage through hell in the form of a costly medical misdiagnosis and the path she takes in response to it. However, the author does not dwell in the region of her own mortality but rather in the realm of the universal and its reflection in scripture and the defense through time of Judeo-Christian belief in the structuring of the western tradition and today’s compassionate, democratic, open, and most vibrant societies.
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