It has become common to speak of Judeo-Christian principles, but that also begs the question of precisely what those principles are. And so, not long ago, I searched for a clear set of them and came up dry. I found statements of religious beliefs and I found lists of good habits that were spawned by Judeo-Christian principles, but I didn’t find the principles themselves.
Nonetheless, a consistent set of Judeo-Christian principles held all through the run of Western civilization. And they remain even now, as our civilization sputters toward either a defiant revival or a whimpering end.
The principles of Judaism and Christianity empowered what was, by far, the most productive and moral civilization in recorded history. (Yes, with many failures, but with many fewer and smaller failures than any other major civilization.) I think these principles are worthy of our time, and, more importantly, are worthy of our action.
Here, then, is my set of Judeo-Christian principles:
Our relationship with the creator is fundamentally personal. To both Judaism and Christianity, the creature-creator relationship is fundamentally individual, not collective. Such a relationship means that each of us matters to the creator. And by extension (the importance of which would be hard to over-stress) this means that what we do matters. The actions of each person… male, female, young, old, whatever… all of them matter. The actions of our neighbors do not matter more than our own, and certainly not to the creator.
We carry free will. We are not slaves to fate, nor are we simply pre-programmed machines. We are free and individual moral agents. Our choices matter.
We are able to improve. The Bible – the central literary source of the Judeo-Christian development – continually features men and women who had changes of heart, providing examples of positive change most of all. That has taught billions of us that we are able to change, positively. The importance of this can hardly be over-stressed.
Power and rulership are antithetic to the creator and antithetic to human progress. The Judeo-Christian God cares not for the high, but for the humble. He speaks not to the powerful but to the powerless. This is seen in the Bible from one end to the other, often explicitly. Granted, those who wish it were otherwise can pull out a few contrary passages, but a local creek hardly overpowers the mighty Mississippi.
Justice stands above the ruler. Over and over, the Judeo-Christian God thunders against kings and leaders. He demands justice, especially for the downtrodden.
The creator… the ultimate… is qualitatively good. The rough parts of the Old Testament not withstanding (and please see the Discourses book noted below for coverage of this), “the creator as good” has been the message of Judaism for a very long time, and has definitely extended through Christianity. If nothing else, this concept gave powerless people a way to prove their rightness with God. The influence of their good God was visible in their goodness; it meant that they bore his impress. This was a terribly productive incentive, even if some number took it to odd places.
We are obliged to our offspring, not them to us. Not only does the God of the Hebrews rage against children being made to “pass through the fire” to Molech, but he frames his warnings in terms of “what will happen to your children.” Clearly, the needs of the child are shown as superior to the desires of the parents.
A strong preference for production rather than plunder. From Abraham through the New Testament, Jewish and Christian writings assume they are addressing productive people, not plunderers. Jews and Christians never had anything like, as the Romans did, an Altar of Victory. (Again, see Discourses regarding conquest passages.) Conquering resided in Judaism only in the sense of throwing off oppressors, not to become oppressors. And this is certainly a theme that continues in Christianity.
The ultimate is an individual. If the ultimate is an individual – if God is one – the holders of such an image become somewhat more willing to think as individuals and find more strength to stand alone. This is a potent image for people to hold.
Geography has no bearing on our relationship with ultimates, truth or justice. Judaism broke geography from God, thus separating all the matters of the inner man from kingdoms and from the outer world in general. This was a fundamental concept, and it set human minds free of many restraints.
Humanity is in a long-term, familial relationship with the creator. Regardless of the Bible’s warnings, and even because of them, the fundamental connection between the ultimate and mankind is a familial relationship. This is sometimes shown in surprisingly intimate and touching tones, as in this passage from the second chapter of Jeremiah:
Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holiness unto the Lord, the first fruits of his increase: all that devour him shall offend.
Co-dominance. Co-dominance is the negation of status in interpersonal relationships: I’m not dominating you and you’re not dominating me; we can both be strong and friendly at the same time.
Where co-dominance is absent – where people interact on the basis of who is higher or lower – anger festers, compassion fails, grudges are never released, and rivers of energy are wasted in posturing and scheming.
Where co-dominance is present, we can spend our time and energy creating actual progress. More than that, co-dominance sets us free to love one another. And from “love your neighbor as yourself” to “God is no respecter of persons,” this theme runs throughout Judaism and Christianity.
Love for the other. The portrayal of the outsider, the other, as an entity to be despised has spawned millennia of hate and hundreds of millions of murders. The Judeo-Christian principles, however, directly oppose it. Here’s a very early passage:
[The Lord your God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
And here’s one from Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Despite the confusion and error that has always circulated, these principles lie at the core of Judaism and the Christianity that came from it. They have been a tremendously important addition to the world. Their loss would be incalculable.
This article is adapted from Chapter Three of Discourses On Judaism, Jesus And Christianity.