Zuma, King James and Moral Codes

Jacques Rousseau has written a good article on our government’s proposed task team on moral regeneration. You can (and should) read it at:

http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2010-03-03-lets-talk-about-our-moral-code

Given that our country is a mess of different cultures, traditions and beliefs, the article essentially highlights that moral discussion in plural society cannot be relativistic. The assumption under which this moral discussion is to take place seems to be that our cultures and traditions are of equal importance, and we must learn to mutually affirm that value. As Jacques points out, this is an assumption that precludes discussion altogether.

Having Jacob Zuma calling for moral regeneration sounds to me like good old King James who supported the Protestant movement because it was less rigid on divorce than the Catholic alternative, and he was itching to move on from wife number 1. Despite the moral laxness that motivated him, we would argue that the Protestant movement was a step away from superstition and into grace, and that the first officially sanctioned English Bible, translated under his auspices, was a wonderful cultural, educational, and spiritual achievement for the English-speaking world. In other words, good came from it. One can only hope that JZ’s moral duplicity nevertheless leads to better things for South Africa’s collective morality. That our president seems to be calling for discussion because he’s tired of people calling him immoral means that we’re off to a bad start.

Of further concern to me is the body that is heading up discussion. The National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC) has significant Christian representation in its ranks, including its chairman, Rhema’s Ray McCauley. Being a somewhat moderate prosperity preacher, the McCauleys of the world are almost certainly ill-equipped to understand deeply enough the Biblical morality that they claim to be representing. If Biblical morality is wise, it is only so when properly understood, and so I worry that whatever gets aired over at the NILC is likely to be ham-fisted traditionalism of the kind that happily pastes favourite selections of the Old Testament onto modern South Africa without any further analysis.

A body that sets out to discuss morality with a mandate that excludes discussion — and with leaders who are likely to misunderstand the best of the ready-made moral codes available to them — does not fill me with the greatest of confidence.

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7 thoughts on “Zuma, King James and Moral Codes

  1. Jacques says:

    Indeed, Jordan – one could (and many have) go on at length about McCauley’s failings, from the perspective of the faith he claims to represent. He’s a very bad choice, in all sorts of ways, and one can’t help but feel that the call by Zuma is utterly insincere, and a mere attempt at deflection.

  2. LG says:

    Your blog post is pretty spot on I would say..I wonder if we’re really going to get some benefit from this ‘moral regeneration’, but as you pointed out, despite the deflective reasons, it could be a step in the right direction…and I agree moral regeneration should not be limited to ‘Christian’ principles only, though I am a staunch believer…

  3. Hephaestion says:

    Having Jacob Zuma calling for moral regeneration sounds to me like good old King James who supported the Protestant movement because it was less rigid on divorce than the Catholic alternative, and he was itching to move on from wife number 1.

    It’s interesting that you imply King James should have abided by the stricter Catholic moral pronouncements. The Catholic church was likely more rotten then (as it was more powerful) than it is now (if that is possible). The church has harboured untold thousands of child rapists under the guise of being our moral guardians. This rot starts at the top and works its way down. Jamie Doward , reporting in the UK’s Observer, notes, “In May 2001, he [Ratzinger, the supreme lead, hotline to God, having a deep understanding of Biblical morality, etc.] sent a confidential letter to every bishop in the Catholic church reminding them of the strict penalties [excommunication] facing those who referred allegations of sexual abuse against priests to outside authorities [the police].” This is not an institution that we should be turning to for moral guidance. And never has been.

    It’s not just the Catholic church, and it’s not just Ireland, Germany, Australia and the US where religious institutions are abusing their position of power – while hiding behind the Bible. In South Africa, townships are rich feeding grounds for pastors to prey on young girls in the congregation. The sad thing is that their mothers think it a good thing that their daughters are being impregnated by a pastor.

    In “Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immunity and Behavior,” researchers Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel and Adam Galinsky found that power tends to make people stricter in their moral judgment of others while less strict in judgment of themselves. The more a person believes their power (however legitimate) to be an entitlement the more hypocritical they are likely to be (whereas those who don’t think themselves entitled to the power become stricter on themselves, something they call “hypecrisy”). Zuma and Ratzinger are excellent examples of this moral hypocrisy.

    We need to understand our nature before we can protect ourselves from it. Fortunately, homo sapiens are acutely attuned to evaluating hypocritical behavior. Unfortunately, Christian dogma has its own view of human nature and it is not one shared by science. Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds (How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong) and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (The Modern Denial of Human Nature) are a good place to start in understanding human nature and morality.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hello Hephaestion. Your comments are, as always, most welcome (and sneakily opportunist!!).

      On this first comment of yours, I must point out that I did not imply that Catholic strictness was necessarily better than Jamesian laxness. James certainly falls foul of scripture’s take on divorce, because the prohibition is against all those who desire to upgrade wives to newer models. Yet Catholic strictness is also excessive, because scripture at least recognises that adultery is a devastating enough breach of contract to validate a divorce if reconciliation proves impossible. Long story short, I merely pointed out that James supported the ‘right team’ (if you’ll forgive the bias), but for the wrong reasons.

      More emphatically, I certainly did not imply that Catholicism offers a more laudable moral code in general. They were/are stricter on divorce is all I said.

      As I hope is evident from my posts on this site, I am in firm agreement with you that evils such as child abuse and homophobia – especially when ‘justified’ from scripture – are to be confronted and condemned.

      I would also be interested to read the works that you cited. I have heard Pinker’s name countless times, but have not yet had the opportunity to read him.

      I hope, on the other hand, that you might leave the possibility open that your judgment of the Christian view of human nature may be premature. Certainly, if you intend any link between your good comments about power and hypocrisy and the idea that we need to know ourselves, then I think you’ll find scripture more of an ally than you realise. For example, rather than finding an oppressive system of judgment (even though people twist it to that end), there is remarkable moral freedom in scripture while still preserving a high standard (positive commands to love are preferred to lists of rules about externals; even in the OT in which there is a series of external rules symbolising holiness, such as not eating pork, laws are summarised by ‘love’, and make no attempt at being exhaustive). Likewise, hypocrisy is very staunchly targeted very often.

      Seeing as it is not clear how you view scripture and human nature to be in conflict, I will not go any further, but that would be an interesting discussion. Maybe we’ll have a beer one day.

  4. Hephaestion says:

    If Biblical morality is wise, it is only so when properly understood, and so I worry that whatever gets aired over at the NILC is likely to be ham-fisted traditionalism of the kind that happily pastes favourite selections of the Old Testament onto modern South Africa without any further analysis.

    So what sort of moral guidance can we get from the Bible? Where does it clearly state that rape is forbidden? Where does it clearly state that slavery is forbidden? Where does it clearly state that genocide is forbidden? Where do we learn that xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny are bad things?

    In 21 of America’s fifty states teachers are allowed, by law, to beat a child with a wooden board. Until quite recently it was not just permissible but almost obligatory to beat a wayward child. But we now generally accept that beating children is wrong. Furthermore, we can show that it is harmful and unnecessary. Research shows that beaten children have their IQs permanently reduced. Research shows that only the carrot is needed, not the stick. We are not just morally more decent these days (in general), but we can defend that decency with facts and reason. The sparing-the-rod-and-spoiling-the-child policy is a throwback to barbaric and ignorant biblical times.

    If Biblical morality were “wise” then surely it would not be too much to expect a simple, clear and timeless guide to morality and not something that requires ingenious theologians to twist and cajole into something cogent and respectable, cherry-picking as required. It’s absurd for Christians to claim that non-Christians don’t have a moral compass when their own supposed compass is inscrutable to all but a mentally-agile few and no one is able to tell just who those few are. If they all claim to be “true” Christians, to have a “proper” understanding, and so on, who can tell?

    How does a Christian (or anyone for that matter) decide which bits of the Bible offer a morally valuable precept and which bits are positively vile? The ability to make this distinction cannot itself be derived from the Bible – it has to come from the outside. How many Christians find that God guides them to accept things that conflict with their personal opinions? Are the two not curiously in step? Homophobics have a homophobic god; Christian prosperity preachers have a Capitalist god; gentle people have a gentle god. Our understanding of the Bible depends on our nature and our nurture.

    Wherever we get our moral framework from, it is not from the Koran or the Bible or any other holy book.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      “If Biblical morality were ‘wise’ then surely it would not be too much to expect a simple, clear and timeless guide to morality and not something that requires ingenious theologians to twist and cajole into something cogent and respectable, cherry-picking as required.”

      Seeing as the non sequiturs in the last comment have got me into a logical-fallacies kind of mood, let me object that this is a false dichotomy.

      Firstly, I think rather that Biblical morality is wise BECAUSE it comes to us mostly in narrative, rather than in timeless abstracts. In fact, it is exactly because interpreters of scripture try to universalise as moral laws what are actually time-bound particulars, they get it wrong, especially from the Old Testament. Hence my worry about the NILC. Having law presented in narrative alerts us to the fact that law IS contextual, and needs to be understood within the purpose for which it was intended. A law to kill rats, for example, makes sense within the days of the Plague, but is an odious cruelty if made universal. The fact that law was given to Israel only AFTER they had been constituted as a divinely-rescued exclusive community is absolutely essential to understanding the place of law in religious life. The fact that law was given illustratively in application allows us to abstract the spirit of the law, rather than being bound to endless detail within the definition of the law.

      Indeed, this does oblige us to have to think about what is being intended in the story, and it opens up the possibility of disagreement about what is the essence of this or that law or moral play. However, it is substantially less complicated than modern law for which we need highly trained lawyers who also disagree. And because modern law is all about the letter, it’s an endless process of shoring up loopholes, and rewriting as the context changes. Any simple-minded believer can apprehend the spirit of the law as it is frequently summarised in the command to actively show love towards God and to one’s neighbour (‘all the law is fulfilled in these two commands’ says Jesus). The finer detail does demand some expertise, but in which field is this not true? Some preachers are guilty of cajoling and twisting, but in which field (at least those of some similarity – abstract maths may differ too basically) is this not true? It is not the case that any cherry-picked interpretation is considered valid. Literature does permit some multivalence or ambiguity, but not an endless amount. Deceitful interpretation can often be objectively exposed.

      “How does a Christian (or anyone for that matter) decide which bits of the Bible offer a morally valuable precept and which bits are positively vile? The ability to make this distinction cannot itself be derived from the Bible – it has to come from the outside.”

      Not all of us take ‘bits’. In my opinion, we take all or nothing. There may be many things that we have to say we don’t understand, but not that, having understood them, we refuse to accept. How law changes between OT and NT is a matter of perceiving the change in the circumstances for which the law was given, and much or all of this is pointed out in the text itself. Sure, it requires an informed overview of the trajectory of biblical history, and a knowledge of how narrative works, but can anyone claim to understand ANY literature that they have not read and digested? Watching Ethan Hawke’s modernised Hamlet will never qualify one to understand Shakespeare. Why should we expect that scripture yields all its depth to casual readers?

      “How many Christians find that God guides them to accept things that conflict with their personal opinions? … Our understanding of the Bible depends on our nature and our nurture.”

      There are tonnes of things that are in painful conflict with the natural disposition of true Christians. The whole point about, say, racist Christians is that God is NOT a racist God, and scripture condemns them outright, yet they refuse to submit to the moral outlook and the image of God that they claim to follow. Our individual understanding of scripture might be parochial, but that is why theology is pursued in community. More than ever before, Christians are able to be in conversation with a worldwide community, and with historical theology. In short, you are incorrect that Christians are permitted to rest comfortably with a god of our own image. Genuine Christianity shatters that at every turn, and it practically HAS shattered it for many of us, in which I include myself.

  5. Hephaestion says:

    I hope, on the other hand, that you might leave the possibility open that your judgment of the Christian view of human nature may be premature. Certainly, if you intend any link between your good comments about power and hypocrisy and the idea that we need to know ourselves, then I think you’ll find scripture more of an ally than you realise.

    In The Blank Slate, Pinker describes three secular doctrines of human nature: The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and The Ghost in the Machine. He then explains why they are all fundamentally flawed. You’ll have to read the book to understand why.

    The Blank Slate (which goes back to Aristotle, resurfacing with Ibn Sina, an 11th century Persian philosopher) holds that we are born a blank slate onto which experience carves its prose. It ultimately undermined a heredity royalty and aristocracy (since, whether king or pauper, all our minds start out blank) as well as the institution of slavery (since slaves could no longer be seen as innately inferior or subservient). Both Mao and Pol Pot based their ideologies on this flawed doctrine (blank slates, after all, don’t do anything). Mao Tse Tung wrote, “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written.” The Khmer Rouge had a slogan, Only the newborn baby is spotless. (Their ideologies also incorporated the notion of a perfect future, an earthly heaven, that simultaneously devalued the present while encouraging a the-ends-justifies-the-means guide to morality.)

    The Noble Savage, notably espoused by the Earl of Shaftesbury (Inquiry Concerning Virtue, 1699), was in many ways a reaction to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathon (1651), in which we find the famous line, “…and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We hear echos of the Noble Savage today, in romantic notions of peaceful tribes of past and all things good that are natural. Hobbes, meanwhile, was himself reacting to the brutal religious wars of the period. He argued that the state was founded on a Social Contract in which liberty was traded for peace and security through surrendering to an absolute ruler (the king is this case) whose legitimacy stemmed from the Social Contract.

    The Ghost in the Machine (as most famously articulated by René Descartes’ mind-body dualism) appeals because it feels true and holds out the hope that we may escape death. The doctrine is most clearly echoed in the debates over stem-cell research and abortion, in which theologians argue over when, precisely, the ghost is inserted into the machine. But, for all our wishes, it seems there is no mind-body dualism – one gives rise to the other. As Michael Shermer cheekily put it, hit yourself over the head with a brick and see what faculties you lose. All the evidence indicates that our minds arise from our brains, and our brains are a complex neural network. Destroy the network and you destroy the mind. Consider the stroke victim (whose brain damage extends to the ability to discern its own damage) who contrives the most shocking confabulations, as he struggles to mold reality to his internal, and compromised, model of reality. (Oliver Sacks and Jill Bolte Taylor on http://www.TED.com both give extremely moving and informative accounts of what can happen when the brain is compromised in some way.)

    The Christian view of nature can be seen, for instance, in the doctrine of the Ghost in the Machine. For Christians this would be the soul. Just as science has shown this doctrine to be flawed, it follows that the idea of souls is flawed. The Christian doctrine of free will, meanwhile, derives from Adam and Eve and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Whether or not we have free will, it is important that, under secular law at least, we are each held responsible and accountable for our actions. Christianity subverts this notion of personal responsibility and accountability through such things as inherited punishment, divine providence, future punishment (post death) and vicarious redemption. Ultimately, responsibility is conceded to the absolute sovereignty of God. Beyond even the most extreme form of totalitarianism one can imagine, in Christianity one’s thoughts are under constant surveillance (giving rise to thoughtcrime, in which thinking “sinful” things is equivalent to doing “sinful” things), and punishment lasts for eternity.

    Finally, the Biblical theory of morality holds that we are born sinful and this theme (of innate corruption) pervades all aspects of Christian dogma. Yet it is but one (and a poetic, if distasteful, one at that) aspect of human nature. The anthropologist Donald Brown has catalogued over 300 universal traits, including aesthetics, affection, ambivalence, verbs, violence, vowel contrasts, weening and attempts to control the weather. We are extremely complex beings. Our propensity for violence, for instance, is but one aspect of a complex set of behaviors. And it can be explained by evolutionary psychology. For example, 150,000 years ago, there was no Hobbesian Leviathan (that is, a police force) to defend a person’s rights. To avoid becoming a punching bag a lust for revenge and calloused knuckles would be part of the everyday arsenal of survival.

    Pinker identifies four serious concerns regarding human nature (the fear of inequality, the fear of imperfectability, the fear of determinism and the fear of nihilism) and then argues why he thinks they are all based on non sequiturs. He goes on to outline the dangers of denying human nature. It is this denial of human nature (perhaps for good and serious reasons) that is so prevalent amongst the religious.

    In trying to understand human nature we should be aware of how our minds work. In Don’t Believe Everything You Think (The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking), Thomas Kida outlines the predilections that we all unconsciously hold. These are: the preference of stories over statistics; seeking to confirm (not question) ideas; not appreciating the role that chance and coincidence play in shaping events; inaccurately perceiving the world around us; oversimplifying our thinking; and having an imperfect (that is, malleable) recollection of events. Forewarned is forearmed.

    The Bible has dominated and confused western intellectual discourse about human nature for centuries, and similarly influenced everything from how we discipline our children to how we construct secular laws. Shakespeare was a far keener observer of human nature than any Biblical author, yet no one would hold up Macbeth or Hamlet as a normative guide to human nature. If there are any Biblical insights concerning human nature it is with an educated eye, 20-20 hindsight and sophisticated interpretation that we pick them out. The Bible is a work of literature; as a work of science, approach with caution.

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