It is almost universally taken for granted that Jesus’ moral teaching, whatever else we might want to say about him, is exalted, if not perfect. Even Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, suggests as much. As he puts it, making sure that no one should misunderstand what he is saying – giving respect where, in my view, it is not due — and confuse it with his earlier description of the Old Testament god:
Well, there’s no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament. Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn’t) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years. It was not for nothing that I wrote an article called ‘Atheists for Jesus’ (and was later delighted to be presented with a T-shirt bearing the legend). 
Some Christians might retort that Jesus did not so much anticipate Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but that these two modern heroes learned from him. However, not to put too fine a point on it, during my years as a priest I kept stumbling over Jesus’ morality, until, in the end, it seemed clear to me that, on the whole, I preferred the Old Testament god. Certainly, there are unlovely features of the Old Testament god, but the best of the Old Testament — or what should more appropriately be called the Jewish scriptures, the Tanach — presents us with a loving and caring god, concerned with justice, and at least dreaming of peace. Jesus, on the other hand, is quite different, and, I believe, morally far less defensible.
I want to take the Sermon on the Mount as the basis of this discussion (Matthew chapters 5-7), since this is what people reflexively refer to when they are thinking of the purity and perfection of Jesus’ moral teaching, but which I think shows, not a perfect man, but someone able to dream up a list of sentimental comforts, and append to them a morality so grotesque in its cruelty and inhumanity that it should be rejected by every thoughtful, caring human being.
We start with the saccharine:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Most of these are simply empty ”sublimities.” For some of them, all you have to do is to take Aristotle and invert him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is exactly the reverse of the Aristotle’s ideal of megalopsychos, the man (and, of course, for Aristotle, it was always a man) who ‘thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them’ (see Peter Goldie on Kristjan Kristjansson’s Justifying Emotions: Pride and Jealousy). “Blessed are the meek” is a similar inversion. And despite the influence of Christianity, and its ideal of humility, there really is no great benefit in humility as such, and sometimes it is appropriate to welcome praise when it is due. While I enjoy being praised — doesn’t everyone? – especially when I think I have done something worthy of it, I am still reluctant — indeed, there is a psychological block impeding my ability to accept it without making others feel awkward and embarrassed for having offered praise in the first place. There is nothing blessed about this at all, and it is a product of my religious upbringing. Prideful arrogance, of course, is the opposite of Aristotle’s megalopsychos, for it demands recognition of something worthy of pride without being in clear possession of it. Saying that those who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted is like saying that the injured are blessed, because they will be healed. That’s just stupid. Saying that people are blessed because they are persecuted for righteousness sake — and what is righteousness? – you may well ask — but living a life that is pleasing to god — which makes this beatitude circular. And people who insist on being righteous in this sense, like some insufferable people who bear with the slings and arrows of outrage when they picket abortion clinics, or parade in defence of what they think their god demands of all of us, whatever some of us may think, may be blessed, but there is very little I am prepared to say for their morality in terms of which it is admirable to impose your values on others, even though those others may give contrasting, but equally valid, reasons for thinking and acting as they do. And while peacemaking is to be admired, there is nothing admirable in peace at any price. As for being persecuted on Jesus’ account: well, this is the kind of arrogance that is only warranted if you accept the claims that are made for him, claims which are deeply implausible, and it is hard to think of this as an expression of meekness, so undoubtedly something written on Jesus’ account, and not something said by the man to start with. I know nothing of purity of heart, and have never met it.
As for mercy. That depends, I think. When someone has taken someone who once looked like this:
And turned her into someone who now looks like this by pouring acid over her face and body:
mercy is not the first thing to come to mind. Nor, in my view, should it be. We may want to treat the vile person who did this thing, according to law, and make sure that there are laws which will appropriately punish such behaviour, but mercy will not be the guiding hand that drafts such laws or commits people to the penalties prescribed in them. (You can see the BBC video, from which these pictures are captured stills, here – h/t Egbert.)
So much, then, for the saccharine in Jesus’ teachings regarding morality. I just noticed this morning, that Gary Gutting has something up about the Sermon on the Mount in the New York Times, in which he suggests that it does not provide us with a way to live our lives, and ends up by saying something completely inapropos, in my view:
Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it. To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity. This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world. In this sense, to forget the church is to forget Jesus.
But this is just a form of prevarication. If this is the kind of thing that Jesus has on offer, perhaps we should forget Jesus altogether, rather than going to school with him to those who claim to understand him more generously than the words themselves allow. Gutting has certainly not given us any reason to remember him.
The problem with Jesus’ morality goes much deeper, however, than the saccharine ”beatitudes,” which sound more profound than they really are; because he immediately follows them up with a moral philosophy which is simply horrifying in its implications. He begins by affirming the letter of the Jewish law — which then begs the question why Christians are not Jews — a debate which played itself out in the Pauline churches scattered around the littoral of Aegean. Which reminds me that Paul (or pseudo-Paul, depending on attribution) said to Judaisers in the district of Galatia, that, when they are circumcising new members, he hoped the knife will slip and they would castrate themselves — a lesson in mercy and love that was not lost in centuries to come when Christians encountered “heretics” (a variable in a moral equation which equals “thinks differently about matters of faith than us”) or believers in other gods.
However, back to the Sermon on the Mount. Having expressed himself instransigently on the letter of the law, Jesus goes on to amplify the law, so that we can tell he is really taking it seriously. The Ten Commandments forbid murder; but Jesus amplifies this in such a way that it includes being angry, or calling one’s brother (= follower of Jesus) a fool. Of the latter, he says, without qualification, thus showing forth his mercy, that the man who calls his brother a fool is worthy of the hell of fire. The same goes for another famous commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. In Jesus’ amplification anyone who looks at a woman — the morality is clearly about men — to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her (so, one might think, it would be as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and, adultery being more fun, might as well consummate the deal right there and then). Just for clarity’s sake, let’s let Jesus say it himself:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Well that’s fairly clear, anyway. Couple that with another of Jesus’ sayings in the same gospel:
… there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 19.12]
Now that really does put a shine on the injunction: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” And there were some Christians who did precisely this. Origen, the great Egyptian theologian, whose affirmation of “Universalism” — that is, the doctrine that hell will be empty — except, of course, for Hitler — cue George Pell — amongst other things, earned him a posthumous condemnation as a heretic, heard Jesus’ words and went out and castrated himself.
However it’s the mercilessness of Jesus’ morality that should worry us. Yes, we are to show mercy, but, no, God won’t — but yes, he might, if you love Jesus. Don Cupitt points out the problem:
One begins to realize that at the very heart of traditional objective theism there is something utterly dreadful and horrible, the worst idea that we poor humans have ever had, a virus in the brain so soul-destroying and yet tenacious that one wonders how we will ever be able wholly to rid ourselves of it. Do you know? – there are a few ideas and conditions that remain a cruel lifelong curse to those who are afflicted by them, and this one is the worst of them all. At the core of monotheistic faith is an experience of sheer black all-consuming terror, the terror of a damned soul that knows it cannot die. And that is why we have been so frightened of breaking the rules, and so fascinated with the spiritual power wielded by those who administer the rules. [The Old Creed and the New, 11-12]
And whether it began with Jesus or not, Jesus certainly made it his! However, notice another thing about this idea. According to Jesus, there is simply no way to avoid going to hell, for the amplification of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is impossible to obey. Human beings are just so constructed that they respond to sexual stimuli. It’s really that simple, and if responding to sexual stimuli — looking at others “lustfully” — which is particularly prominent at certain stages of life — is equivalent to adultery, and earns us eternal punishment in a place of fire, then we are all lost — or at least men are. Of course, but I forget: that’s what Jesus is all about. While we will inevitably fail, he is there to save us. So, all we have to do is to sin boldly, and then throw ourselves on god’s mercy. The trouble with this is that, while Jesus had to be encouraging to his friends, he also had to be dismissive of any who did not follow him. ‘Twas always thus. But it doesn’t really leave much room for truly moral action. Like all religious morality, this is a recipe for submission, not one to encourage moral growth or progress. Morality has to start somewhere else.