Religious Rulebooks?

Why do so many religious people try to turn their faith into a set of rules and regulations? It happened with Judaism, it happened with Islam, and it happened with Christianity.

It’s one of the things Jesus got most worked up about in the Gospels. Think of the times he tells the Scribes and Pharisees off for sticking to the letter of the law, but ignoring the spirit of the law.

You’ve got to remember that Jesus himself was brought up as a Jew. He’s referred to sometimes as ‘Rabbi’. It’s obvious that he was steeped in the Jewish scriptures and traditions. But the religious establishment he saw around him had gone through centuries of change. Scholars had studied the ancient books and come up with their own interpretations of what you had to do and believe to be a good Jew.

It’s a process that’s still going on today. In the UK we have Orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews, and Liberal Jews. There are other, smaller groupings as well. When you go to Jerusalem you discover that there are many, many different varieties of ultra-orthodox Judaism. You see them around the city – their clothing is a sort of uniform indicating which of these denominations they belong to. You may have seen Louis Theroux’s recent TV documentary about the ultra-orthodox settlers in the Holy Land. That gave a fascinating insight into some of their beliefs and practices.

What many of these groups have in common is that they have developed their own ‘rule-book’. If you stick to those rules, you’re OK. You’re accepted. Everyone else has got it wrong.

To an extent, the same process has gone on in Islam. Again, you have various groupings – Sunni and Shi-ite being the most well-known. The hostility between the different parts of Islam sometimes breaks out into the most terrible acts of violence, and some interpretations of the Koran are used to justify suicide bombings. Against other Muslims as well as against ‘the infidel’ or ‘the great Satan’.

But – of course – the history of Christianity is littered with terrible acts of violence as well. Christian against Muslim in the crusades. The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The Reformation and wars of religion across Europe. All these atrocities happening because of a perverted sense of the rightness of one particular set of beliefs and regulations.

Coming right up-to-date, we’ve been hearing about the way in which gay people are treated in some African countries. This January – in Uganda, David Kato was murdered – bludgeoned to death with a hammer. His crime was being gay. At his funeral, the Anglican lay leader who was taking the service launched into an attack on homosexuality. Homosexuals should repent or ‘be punished by God’. The villagers refused to bury his body. All this because they take a few verses from the ancient scriptures and turn them into a set of rules which condemn homosexuality.

I wonder what Jesus would have made of all this. In the section of the Matthew Gospel that we usually call ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus takes a few bits of the Old Testament Law and says – for example – – ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; or “You shall not commit adultery” or
“You shall not swear falsely”. But I say to you – – – ‘ – and then goes on talk about what he sees as the true, contemporary meaning for his time of those ancient commandments.

But what he is definitely not doing is to set up a completely new set of rules and regulations. Sadly, that’s exactly what some of his followers have tried to do over the centuries. They’ve done just what Jesus condemned in the Scribes and Pharisees – taking the ancient scriptural traditions – written at a particular time and in particular circumstances, and turned them into a rule book with which to control people’s lives.

Jesus was fully aware that the people he was talking to weren’t living a nomadic life in the desert as the Israelites were at the time of Moses. He knew and respected the Jewish law – knew it better than most of his hearers. But he wanted people to live by the spirit of the law – not to regard it as an unchangeable set of rules and regulations.

Any religion which takes its ancient writings and turns them into rule book for control-freaks is doomed to go on making the same horrific mistakes of past centuries – and the present century. ‘If you don’t accept all this, you aren’t one of us. Therefore we have the right to persecute and even kill you.’

That is not the way of Jesus. This is the man who said not only ‘love your neighbour’ – but also ‘love your enemy’. This is the man whose message was of peace and reconciliation; of justice, tolerance and understanding. This is the man who took the worst the world could throw at him by dying on the cross. This is the man who conquered death and lives on today in his followers – changing lives and changing the world – one step at a time.
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