“Judeo-Christian values” and the West

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“Moses and the Commandments”, by Rembrandt

“No, Western Culture Did Not Come from Judeo-Christian Values” is an unfortunate article that squanders a good opportunity for critical reflection by believers through its ham-fisted quotations from the Bible without any attention to centuries of biblical interpretation or more recent biblical scholarship. Christians always struggle with the repressive aspects of their scripture (when they are not just ignoring them) and this certainly begs hermeneutical questions which we all too often ignore (I am currently grappling with the genocidal impulses of the Book of Joshua).

Nevertheless, any look at Christian history will certainly NOT give the impression that “Judeo-Christian values” have given rise to democracy, human rights, personal freedoms or even free trade. Illiberal tendencies are evident even from sub-apostolic times, and as soon as Christians seized the levers of power under Constantine they used them with a vengeance – mainly against other, more heterodox Christians. The church of Constantinople enabled the sacrosanct powers of the Byzantine emperors (and their Czarist successors) while the church of Rome erected a vast apparatus of control that rivalled and sought to govern secular rulers. Neither Luther, Zwingli nor Calvin can be accused of championing “Western values” but enabled their own autocrats or theocracies. Anabaptists are perhaps an honourable exception (Münster not withstanding). “Freedom of religion” arose despite the Reformation, as a way to enable German princes to co-exist within the empire, to enable English monarchs to bypass rabidly Anglican parliaments, or as a by-product of Dutch mercantilism.

Furthermore, “Judeo-Christian” values are not the only possible foundation of our culture. The Greco-Roman heritage, mediated through the Late Roman Empire and the medieval church, are equally foundational and formative. It is these classical values that have been the reference point for political theorists. European civil law is based on Roman law. Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking, instrumental in shattering ecclesiastical power, are products of a return to classical sources. Another foundation is the Germanic values that came with the barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire. European notions of power, patronage, display and legitimacy derive from the warrior bands that invaded Gaul, Britain, Spain and Italy in the fifth century AD and were developed in the military cultures of the Middle Ages.

This is not to say that respect for the freedom and dignity of each human being cannot be found in the Bible. It is a corollary of loving our neighbour. It is also not to say that Western democratic capitalism is a necessarily biblical product. It does say, firstly, that “Christianity” is a religious system that is a human product of interacting with the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ and is thus subject to all the dangers and faults of human systems. Hence, its lust for power and control. A second thing to be said is that “Judeo-Christian values” is an elusive and malleable concept that is, I think, subject to the biases and values of those upholding them.

There are many Judeo-Christian values (that is, values deriving from the Christian Old and New Testaments) that deeply challenge European/Western culture. It can be uncomfortable reading the social admonitions of the Israelite prophets, the way that Old Testament history is agnostic about the benefits of centralised power, the very practical and challenging ways that Jesus called us to live together, or the way that James excoriates wealth and prestige in his New Testament letter. These are less championed “Judeo-Christian” values.

Furthermore, Western culture does not have a monopoly on human rights or freedoms. Soon after the time of Alexander the Great, the Indian ruler Ashoka attempted to build a Buddhist state built on harmony and his care of his subjects. For all its bad press and internal inequities, Islam has a notion of the commonality of the Islamic community that is most expressed in the common pilgrim’s garb during the Hajj. Many indigenous societies have reached a balanced accommodation with their natural environment that more technologically advanced and acquisitive societies (East and West) have failed to comprehend or practice. It is easy to exalt “Western civilization” by finding fault elsewhere, but the reverse project is equally as fruitful.

I do not think that our society is solely based on “Judeo-Christian values”, nor do I think that our society necessarily reflects these. God calls people everywhere to live in fellowship with him, each other and his creation. The foundation of this fellowship is most perfectly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All wisdom that is good is something we can learn from, for good comes from God. Such wisdom should be critically appraised in light of scripture, our conscience and reason. To adapt the words of the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:14, Galatians 3:28), Christ came to break down the walls between Western and non-Western, civilized and uncivilized, conservative and progressive, privileged and marginalised.

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About iacobus67

A Christ-follower, sometime Christian, navigating the realities of life.
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