ETHICS ARE BASED ON RESPECT – Exodus 20: 12 – 17
Christians believe that the most important rule that should govern the relationship with others is LOVE based on Leviticus 19:18. However, the Ten Commandments suggest it is RESPECT. It is not a contradiction. Respect is a starting point that paves the way to love. “You can take a horse to water, but you can not force the horse to drink water.” Respect is like “taking a horse to water” to create the condition that will lead us to LOVE.
Respect stops you to commit murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, envy and greed. And it begins with appreciating your parents. Acknowledge that your parents brought you into the world and therefore give them respect. It is not a matter of choice. Without parents, there is no ‘me nor you.’ Respecting your parents, even imperfect ones, means you are affirming your own existence. Not respecting your parents is to deny your own existence. That’s a starting point. The remaining five rules are deeds as the result of respect. They are necessary rules for our own survival in the interdependent world.
When you read the Old Testament however, you will find the Ten Commandments demanding observance of those six rules hypocritical. The commandment, “Thou shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, nor be envious,” was required only among the Israelis. They were gratuitously violated otherwise. The God of the Old Testament freely allowed Israelis to not only ignore them but often were encouraged to violate them.
The same is true today. There are many excuses to disobey the six Commandments. In fact, despite the universal acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the fundamental rules for any decent human being, they are shamelessly ignored and violated. War, capital punishment, under-cover police operation, espionage, and competition in the market motivated by envy and greed should be all illegal among all children of Abraham – Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Ten Commandments are the basis of our ethics and legal systems. But that is not the case. Why? Why you must not murder your fellow citizens but can kill your enemies? How can you explain that?
It’s the contradiction stems from the conundrum caused by the juxtaposition of specific and universal. When you say, “Charity begins at home,” you recognize the universal importance of charity, but you have to begin practising it specifically at home. The circle begins small but must expand. When it is not big enough, the contradiction exposes itself. When you say, “I love my country.” your statement is based on your limited experience and specific knowledge of people and communities you know. You do not know whole of Canada and all Canadians. But you can not claim to love Canada if you do not love some Canadians you met and the parts of Canada you know. Your love of the country begins at home. Specific and universal are one undivided continuum . There can not be one without the other. You can not claim to love Canada if you hate your home town.
Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He does not know life. We are not alone. We exist because of others people. In an African language, there is a saying, “ Motho ke motho ka batho.” It means “ a person can only be a person with people.” That is what Nelson Mandela called, “Um Buntu.” Interdependence is the only viable way for us to survive as a species. This is why welfare of the whole community is vital for us. “A man is not an island.” So when you recognize the importance of interdependence, you know that respect other persons is also critical for our survival. Respect is not only an article of moral ethics, it is an indispensable ingredient of the recipe of life. No one can survive if the community you live in is not functional, where members want to kill and/or deceive each other. Guns do not guarantee your safety.
When a community is small, there must be respect for family, friends, and neighbours. But outsiders must be repelled, therefore the rules that are essential within a community do not apply to outsiders. They can be ignored and other rules must be followed. So do not kill your neighbours but may have to kill the outsiders. But as the size of the community become larger, those rule must be applied to the larger number of people. This is how tribal laws become national, national become international, and international to universal. Same rules that have to be applied to humans will have to be expanded to include animals and plants when interdependence of all creatures are recognized to be essential. The world we live in can continue to exist only when all rules become universal.
Now briefly the specific rules:
Respect your parents: this is not a matter of choice, it is given. You don’t choose your parents, likewise you don’t choose the Creator. You deny God at your expense. The stupidity to deny your origin will lead you to your own ultimate demise.
Do not kill: killing other people is an act of suicide in the interdependent society. When you respect another person, you are exercising an art of survival.
Adultery is an act of disloyalty: when your impulsive pursuit of self-interest takes over, your are not behaving according to respect. A community where there is no loyalty will not live long.
Theft is the result of lack of respect for the boundary between you and other persons. In many societies where sharing is the norm, there is an understanding that sharing is different from theft. Theft is an act as a result of lack of respect for other person’s boundary.
Deception is the result of ignoring truth for selfish interest.
Envy and greed also is the result of selfish pursuit ignoring the need for the interdependent community.
There can be many other examples of the ways to exercise respect, but the author of those rules were restricted to reach and stop at the number “10″ as the number for the perfect laws. Therefore, the number can be altered. In fact, many followers of the ancient Jewish traditions later added and expanded the scope of moral ethics. Christians did the same such as Seven Deadly Sins.
However all rules must be based on love because it is the sum of all laws. (Romans 13:8 – 10)