Claims to “Judeo-Christian” values in contemporary U.S. society are ubiquitous. Numerous institutions claim these principles as “foundational.” Various pastors, rabbis, politicians and pundits claim these values reflect America’s foundation as a “Judeo-Christian” nation. However, I fear “Judeo-Christian” values have been co-opted by a cultural understanding that demean them rather than protect them. Should our society reflect these values as they are—rather than as we have redefined them—our priorities in key areas would be dramatically different.
Judeo-Christian beliefs are rooted in Scriptures. Many suggest that within these writings are important messages on life with God. However, in modern Western contexts our propensity is to see these texts primarily as law.
While law is part of the story, in Western-influenced culture—specifically that influenced by England—law has become the focus of biblical texts. This tendency stems from a cultural preference for “rule of law.” This is expected as it is within the English heritage such legal developments as the Magna Carta, the common law judicial system, due process, legal precedent and other significant Western legal understandings developed. Notably, these were developed under Rome’s legal, military and political influence.
Rule of law, an important cultural development, likely was influenced by Christian missionaries from Rome. As these missionaries imposed their cultural norms on their Anglo-Saxon converts, these transplanted cultural values, which reflected Rome’s conflated political and religious reality, often distorted the essence of Scripture. Over time, emphasis on rule of law became the primary lens through which people read these texts in Anglo-Saxon regions and the world under Anglo-Saxon influence. Rule of law, however, is central to neither Hebrew nor Christian Scriptures.
God’s pursuit and reconciliation of a fatally estranged humanity resides at the heart of these texts. The Hebrew Scriptures (particularly the “Law”) begin in Genesis 1-3 with God’s intimate relationship to and personal engagement with humanity: a great creation with humankind at the climax, an intimate relationship with these creatures, and human rebellion from that relationship. From Genesis 3 onward, God actively pursues restoration of this broken relationship.
God’s rescue of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and the establishment of the Law is the apex of Jewish religious history. Yet even here relationship with God inhabited the Jewish Law’s core (“I am the Lord your God”). Furthermore, rightly relating to others, Jewish and non-Jewish, reflected genuine relationship with God.
Failure to relate rightly to God and to other people fueled the Hebrew prophets’ adamant challenges to their contemporaries. For example, Hosea acknowledged that people did the “legal” requirements of religious ceremony, but rejected the full relationship God desired. Amos boldly states that God rejected their legally required practices (participation in sacrifice, assemblies, festivals, offerings and worship) because the essence—a loving relationship with God—was missing, especially as evidenced by their treatment of the poor. For Micah, doing right things, loving kindness and walking “humbly” with God, was the essence of goodness. Clearly, walking with God made the former two possible.
Christian Scriptures extend reconciliation as the Judeo-Christian ethic’s essence. The Gospels declare Jesus as the answer for reconciling and restoring humanity. The Apostle Paul says, “All this newness of life is from God, who brought us back to himself through what Christ did. And God has given us the task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. This is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19, NLT)
As signified above, the essence of a biblical Judeo-Christian ethic is not one’s relationship to the law, but to the lawgiver—God. Further, our treatment of others reveals our relationship with God. Ancient Jewish rabbis acknowledged and Jesus himself affirmed two commands capture the whole law. What two great commands? Love God and love others.
Therefore, consider what these Judeo-Christian values mean. Considering God’s concern for the poor, do we end poverty rather than accepting a social Darwinism that thins out the weakest among us? Considering God’s concern for the stranger, how do we treat the “illegal”—mostly people who come here impoverished, at risk of starvation and simply struggling to survive? Do we emphasize truth in a justice system rather than procedurally eliminating it in a legal system? Do we protect the abused, or send them back to the abuser?
Do we love God and care about God’s concerns? If not, then please defend your values legally, politically or otherwise, but do not call them “Judeo-Christian.” They are not.
Quentin Kinnison is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University.