By Douglas Alderson

There is much talk these days of “Judeo-Christian values”, those values which underlie Western Civilization and make our political/social order of individual rights and democratic institutions possible.  There is no denying that Judeo-Christian values are “biblical values” being derived from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh—what Christians call the Old Testament, and New Testament.

Both Old and New Testaments contain stories and teachings that are, quite apart from their theological significance, filled with moral meaning and ethical guidance.  You don’t have to be a “believer” to understand that the Bible offers a view of human nature and what is required to live a moral and just life.   Together with the ancient civilizations of Rome and Athens, Jerusalem—through the Bible, lies at the foundation of Western Civilization and at the heart of our socio/political systems.

What exactly are Judeo-Christian Values?

Some of the more important sources of Judeo-Christian values are found in The Ten Commandments (Exodus XX:2–17, Deuteronomy V:6–21) and the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew V, VI, and VII) and the Parables of Jesus in the New Testament.  Perhaps the best summation of Judeo-Christian values is found in the answer Jesus gave to the question: which is the great commandment in the law?

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew XXII.36 – 40)

While theological debate raises interesting questions regarding the extent to which Jesus’ teaching developed the law of the Old Covenant, Jesus’ teachings are not a repudiation of that law, but rather a completion.

The Ten Commandments

Theological issues aside, the basic moral law as found in the Ten Commandments, was at the time of its revelation to Moses, a radical break with the polytheistic cultures that the ancient Hebrews found themselves living among.  The strict monotheism of the opening Commandments is, among other things, a warning not to worship false gods or idols, something we would do well to remember in our consumer-oriented, celebrity-obsessed, society.

The requirement to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” shows a remarkable concern for not only the individual, but also one’s entire family, servants, livestock and the stranger who sojourns with you.  All were required to be given a common day of rest.

Similarly, the requirement to honour one’s father and mother has important implications for family and inter-generational relations and the role of tradition in human affairs.

Prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, lying (false witness) and coveting are moral/social necessities if individuals and societies are to flourish and enjoy civic peace.

The Book of Psalms

The 150 Psalms that comprise the Book of Psalms are reflective of a deep moral order that has consequences for shaping the thought of those who hear them.  One only needs to think of Ps. 119 (118 in the Vulgate) which is a magnificent prayer/meditation on the happiness of those who delight in and live by the law (Torah).

This should not be surprising, given the fact that the Psalms are a form of poetry, and poetry has the habit of being able to sink into our consciousness in ways that prose cannot.  For thousands of years, the Psalms have found expression in liturgical worship, first in the Temple at Jerusalem and then in the Christian liturgy of both the Mass and the Divine Office.  Indeed, as the Divine Office is prayed daily, the entire Book of Psalms would be recited on a weekly basis.  The monks and clerics who prayed the Divine Office, where the ones who were responsible for creating canon law and working in the Royal chancellories where the West’s legal and governmental structures were created and evolved.

Sermon on the Mount

Most think of the Sermon on the Mount as the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they….”, however, the Sermon contains a great deal of additional moral teaching and insights that, if practiced, make for a more humane and civilized society.

For the most part, in the Sermon while Jesus affirms the Laws of the Covenant, he doesn’t hesitate to impose a more rigorous standard.  For example, with regard to the prohibition against murder, Jesus enlarges the prohibition to include the idea of the merits of being reconciled with those who offend us.  Similarly, the prohibition against adultery is enlarged to not only the act itself, but also the thought.  In doing so, Jesus is pointing to the root cause of the sin, namely, lust.

“An eye for an eye” and the idea of retaliation is replaced with the need to forswear revenge and instead meet violence with goodness.  Similarly, love of neighbour is enlarged to include one’s enemies and the obligation to pray for those who persecute us.

In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount not only imposes a more rigorous standard of moral behaviour, it also turns the moral code of Rome and Athens on its head where meekness and humility are preferred to the Greco-Roman virtues of courage and pride.  The Beatitudes, which begin the Sermon and introduce the requirements of compassion, humility and love, stand in stark contrast to the Greco-Roman world view of society based upon power, force and harshness.  The Sermon on the Mount continues to this day to confound and challenge us in their rigor as we seek a better world.

The Parables of Jesus

There are some 38 Parables of Jesus contained in the Gospels and represent a treasure trove of teaching and wisdom.  They are stories meant to teach us which contain ethics and humour as well as instruction.  While they might appear as simple stories taken from the ordinary mundane affairs of everyday life, Jesus uses these stories to make points of deep spiritual and moral significance.  In many ways, the Parables give practical voice to the more abstract teachings found in the Sermon of the Mount.  Consider the following examples of Parables that have a decidedly individual, social and hence political impact: The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew XVIII: 23 – 25) teaches us to forgive others as God has forgiven us; The Two Sons (Matthew XXI:28-32) teaches that actions speak louder than words; the Good Samaritan (Luke X:30-37) teaches to love your neighbour/enemy as yourself; The Rich Fool (Luke XII:16-21) teaches that life doesn’t consist of an abundance of possessions; and The Two Debtors (Luke VII:41-43) which teaches that greater forgiveness leads to greater love.

The Parables of Jesus are NOT political tracts.  Rather they are spiritual and moral teaching that if taken seriously will have political implications, for what else is politics than a mirror of our moral and/or spiritual beliefs.  Moreover, it is these Judeo-Christian values that give rise to the “bourgeois culture” of the middle class which practises the civic virtues of hard work, sexual discipline, private property, neighbourliness, respect for authority and charitable giving, amongst other standards.  Civic virtues, incidentally, which seem to be in increasingly short supply in Canada these days!

The Heirs of Judeo-Christian Values

  1. K. Chesterton observed in his 1910 classic, What’s Wrong with the World, that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The same might be said of living up to the Judeo-Christian values that underlie our Western Civilization.  No Civilization is perfect, but the values that underlie a civilization that can give rise to the rule of law, limitation on government power and the inalienable rights of individuals to freedoms of conscience, speech, religion and trial by jury is surely worth preserving and getting to know better.  A civilization that understands that human beings, not cultures or forms of government, are created equal is a civilization that makes possible liberty, free inquiry and progress, no matter how imperfect at times.

We have become far too hubristic in the present day where we take so much of our political institutions and rights for granted, forgetting that they have taken hundreds of years to mature and become effective.  For example, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms didn’t just appear in 1982 after several years of political negotiations between the federal and provincial governments.  Rather our Charter traces its origins to 1215 on the fields at Runnymede where Magna Carta was first signed.  Similarly, our Parliament did not begin at Confederation in 1867, but traces its origins back to the Witenagemot of Anglo-Saxon kings, and later the Curia Regis of William the Conqueror.  In each case, the point is that these accomplishments did not evolve in a moral vacuum—they are the direct result of Judeo-Christian values and the interplay they had with the surrounding pagan cultures.

Indeed, we are the heirs and beneficiaries of a civilization that was animated by Judeo-Christian values that took hundreds of years to evolve into the liberal democratic society we live in.

To defend Judeo-Christian values is not only to defend Western Civilization, but also to defend our social and political institutions and way of life.  It is to defend the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of us all which makes possible the “free and democratic society” we call Canada.  It is high time we start living up to those values and to insist that our politicians and governments do so as well.