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Ancient (and Modern) Ignorance

I suppose the thing I most enjoy about religion commentary in the New York Times is the serenity of its ignorance. All sorts of NYT writers just say stuff about religion, without much caring whether any of it is true. A lovely recent example is this column by Howard Gardner — about ethics, delightfully enough — in which he assures his readers that “human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance.” And why is traditional morality so useless, pray tell? Because “For most of history, and all of pre-history, our morality has been extended to our geographical neighbors — anyone else falls outside the framework of neighborly morality.” About strangers, Gardner assures us, traditional morality has nothing to say.

Mr. Gardner, may I introduce you to Leviticus 19? Yes, I know, that’s the chapter with the funny stuff about clothing made of two different materials, but notice this passage near the end:

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Notice that the people of Israel are not only commanded to love their neighbors as themselves, but also love strangers as themselves. And notice also that in an ethnically diverse and multicultural ancient Middle East, the Israelites knew what it was like to be strangers in a strange land.

It wouldn’t have taken Mr. Gardner very many Google searches to find that out, but perhaps he didn’t want to. If I didn’t think it would overload his synapses, I might also point him to a certain rabbinical story about a compassionate Samaritan. Verily, in the way of moral challenges, there really is nothing new under the sun.

(Nota Bene: No comments about the evil of slaying Canaanites and Amalekites, or about how we would have paradise on earth were it not for religion, shall be approved. Not relevant to the post, which is only about the single question of whether “traditional morality” knows nothing about strangers. And anyway, you can go over to Sam Harris’s blog to say stuff like that.)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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