The world is and always has been governed by rules. Although the rules currently in place may not bear exact resemblance to those that have existed at various points throughout history, they are nonetheless typically derived from the rules of the past that have worked effectively. That is not to say the rules as they currently stand are perfect. In reality, they are far from it, to varying degrees. Rules have a purpose in this world, but sometimes they need to be broken so as to allow society to progress, to get to a better place than it currently is or has been in. But in order to understand the necessity for breaking the rules, we first must explore the roots of rules and regulations themselves, and why they exist.
Since the Earth’s beginning, there has been a natural order to the world. In the view of Christianity, the world was created by God Himself over a period of six days, whereupon the seventh day He rested (this is what is referred to as the Sabbath, from the Hebrew “shabbat”, meaning “to rest from labour”). Within those first six days, He created all things: light, dark, sea, sky, sun, moon, stars, land, animals, plants, humans. Everything you see around you now came from these initial entities of creation; visually simple, but complex in nature. Now, we will discuss Creation in a future piece in this series, but we must return to the subject of this piece, rules and morality.
As mentioned, there has always been a natural order to the world in which we reside. From the beginning, God has been at the top, rulers, humans and the like in the middle, and plants and animals and any other inanimate nature at the bottom. However, order does not simply comprise of hierarchies, at least not when complex beings such as humans are involved. For order to be maintained, rules must be set in place for human beings to follow. Nowadays, these rules are typically decreed by lawmakers, democratically elected by the people of their respective nations to represent them in their respective government bodies, usually referred to as Parliaments. This differs for those countries under a dictatorship, whereby rules are set by a totalitarian leader. We will return to more modern times after we have discussed the history of rules, more so in Biblical times..
In Biblical times, rules were set down first and foremost by God, however there were certain groups who laid out rules of their own, steering society in a direction that was, in simple terms, the wrong one. In the New Testament, these were the Pharisees, a group of Jewish rabbis who we will discuss in just a moment. First, we must again go back to the very beginning, to the moment of the creation of the first human beings in Christianity, Adam and Eve. Upon their creation, Adam and Eve were told by God that they must follow one simple rule: Do not consume the fruit upon the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As we know from the first edition in this series, they chose to disobey this golden rule, thereby bringing sin, evil, into the world.
Now this was not what would be considered a necessary breaking of the rules, and thus God did not take it lightly. He cast Adam and Eve out of the paradisical Garden of Eden, leaving them to fend for themselves. This was not the only time God brought punishment upon human beings for breaking the rules. Take, for example, the Great Flood. You might be more familiar with the other name for this story: Noah’s Ark. The Great Flood was deemed necessary punishment for God’s people on Earth, given they refused to obey the rules and had thus created a chaotic environment. Now to be clear, God is not unreasonable; He did give them a chance to save themselves. However, many did not heed His warnings, and thus Noah, his family, and two of each kind of animal were saved from the Flood. Upon the ending of the Flood, God sent a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak to Noah as a sign of peace, promising never to do this again. He has, to this day, kept that promise.
But many may wonder, why would God punish His own people? The answer is, to some degree, simple. Punishment is a necessary part of maintaining and/or restoring order. Human beings must be conditioned in such a way that they will act in a socially acceptable manner. If they do not, they become isolated, cut off from society by their own hand. Now by no means am I seeking to justify harsh punishment. In fact, if a punishment is too harsh, it may paradoxically be deemed punishable itself. Reasonable, measured punishment is what human beings what is acceptable within society, and what is not. The difference between right and wrong is not always clear, yet for the right amount of order to be maintained, we must learn to be able to distinguish between the two.
Typically, when it comes to simple questions of right and wrong, it is an easy task to determine which is which. For example, is it right or wrong to steal? Anyone in good conscience could not say it was right, therefore it is deemed wrong. But what about questions of right and wrong that are more complex in nature. For example, let’s say the automatic teller machine (ATM) spits out an extra one hundred dollars in cash. Would you report it to the bank, or take it, walk away, and keep your mouth shut? It is an interesting dilemma. There is no doubt there would be people who would take the money, considering how tempting it is. But there are also those who would be willing to do without it and return it to the bank. This goes back to last week’s topic, choices. We can give in to temptation and potentially damage our ethical judgement, or we resist it and keep that intact.
Before we go back to Biblical times and discuss the Pharisees a little more, I would like to bring one more social dilemma to the surface. In a world where evil exists, crime is committed. Sometimes, in some countries, these crimes are punished by means of the death penalty. But is the death penalty morally justified? Again, this is one of those questions that divides society. Some would say the death penalty is deserved given the nature of the crime (usually something morally reprehensible). These people would likely argue that it is better the criminal is put to death rather than spending decades in prison leeching off the taxpayer dollar. On the other hand, those who oppose the death penalty would argue it is morally wrong. For transparency, I am one of those people. People like me (although I do not claim to speak for all of them), would typically be of the line of thinking that if we are to kill a man for what he has done, we are no better than he. As a Catholic myself, I cannot in good conscience condemn a man to death. That is not to say all those of the faith agree with me. There are some who would side with those in favour of the death penalty. But as someone who believes in the value of human life, life created by God Himself, I view it as morally wrong for us to take it. After all, one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai was “Thou shalt not kill”.
Back to the Pharisees. The Pharisees took the Ten Commandments and expanded them, creating in total 613 rules (6+1+3=10). However, they often failed themselves to follow the rules they imposed upon the people. They were, as Jesus labelled them, hypocrites. It is interesting given that even today, governments and politicians do the very same, failing to adhere to the rules they set down upon the general public. But the Pharisees’ hold upon society started to waiver when Jesus Christ began His ministry. Throughout this time, Jesus often broke the rules of the Pharisees. That is not to say He broke any of the Ten Commandments, but instead adhered to those and not to the interpretations made by the Pharisees to get to 613 rules. Jesus only ever broke the rules for the benefit of others, never for Himself. He healed a leper, an outcast of society, even though the people were told not to touch these individuals for fear of becoming unclean. As previously mentioned, He denounced the Pharisees, the religious rulers of the time, because they forewent more important things like caring for others and promoting mercy and justice to instead keep to the letter of the law. On one Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples were following Him through grain fields, and began to pick some of the grain. Being a day of rest, this was frowned upon by the Pharisees. We see this described in Mark 2:24, 27:
Then the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look! They are doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath!” – Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
In this way, Jesus makes the Commandments originally given to Moses by God in the Old Testament perfect.
I would like to present one final example of Jesus breaking the rules to benefit others, one which goes back to the idea of moral dilemmas. This was an occasion where Jesus healed a man with a paralysed hand on the Sabbath. For the purpose of understanding and familiarity, the verse reads as follows:
On another occasion, when Jesus went to the synagogue, a man was there, who had a paralysed hand; and some people watched Jesus, to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so they could accuse Him. Jesus said to the man with the paralysed hand, “Stand here in the centre.” Then He asked them, “What does the Law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To do good or to do harm? To save life or to kill?” But they were silent. Then Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart. And He said to the man, ”Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was healed. But as soon as the Pharisees left, they met with Herod’s supporters, looking for a way to destroy Jesus. (Mark 3:1-6)
I think this particular verse best sums up the whole idea of righteous breaking of the rules. Within it, we see Jesus, the Son of God, putting a man whose hand was paralysed front and centre for everyone in the room to see. Clearly, those within the room know that, by the rules laid down by the rulers, the Pharisees, it is unlawful to do work such as healing someone on the Sabbath. But Jesus does so anyway, acknowledging the moral principles in the law set down by God. Before He heals the man, Jesus turns to the people gathered there watching Him, asking them to think about the Law of the Sabbath. These are people who have been living under the rule of the Pharisees for so long that they seem to have lost all sense of morality, putting their faith in the hypocritical rulers rather than in God and His Law. They would have no issue with seeing a paralysed man continue to go unhealed to protect their law. Jesus is clearly dismayed to see how far God’s people have strayed morally. He then heals the man publicly, the Pharisees reacting by seeking to destroy Him, to protect their old ways.
Much like this event in the Biblical era, in the modern day we see people putting blind faith in their leaders, in systems, in institutions. They do this to the point where they are willing to part with good judgement to protect themselves, casting out anyone who does not strictly adhere to the rules. They do this at the detriment of society and their own morality. Throughout the time of COVID-19 in particular, there has been a noticeable decline in social acceptance, and thereby public morality. I have seen, read about, and heard of countless occurrences of people showing great disdain for others, casting them out like lepers if they are do not so much as wear a mask, or even reporting their neighbours if they have more people over than is permitted by certain restrictions. Even before COVID-19 people were actively attempting to bring others down to make themselves happy. For example, people would trawl back through social media feeds to find something someone said years, even decades, ago to get them fired or turn their life upside down in any manner of ways. We should never seek to destroy other peoples’ happiness to improve our own self-worth.
I have on numerous occasions, more so in recent times, looked around wondered: how did society fall this far? How did we become so horrible to each other? The answer, I think, is clear. We have allowed our lives to become dictated by the rules. We are, too often, ruled by the rules, to the point where we have begun to worship them more than we worship God. We have strayed from the Commandments set out by Him, the only rules that should never be broken. We have put the rules above God. We have preferenced the rules over loving our neighbours. Our world has become worse for it. These kinds of things allow evil to pervade society, to take a hold on humanity.
Human beings are not perfect. We are all flawed. We are all susceptible to the temptations and corruption of evil. We do need rules to give structure to society and the way we live, but not to the point where they become subversive of the values and morality stemming from Christianity that provide the foundation upon which society has been built.
What people need to understand is this: it is ok to break the rules so long as doing so will benefit others. I know breaking the rules sounds wrong, but sometimes it is the best option. If you need a guide on how or when to break the rules, look no further than the Bible, in particular the Gospels, those four incredible Books that relay the ministry of Jesus Himself. And if you need to practice by example, look no further than Jesus Christ. He was one of the first great rule-breakers on this Earth. His working demonstrated that the rules are not the be all and end all. We can still abide by rules and maintain order while bending or breaking some of them in order to maintain morality.
And if you ever find yourself uncertain of whether or not the rule-breaking you are considering is morally right or wrong, just ask yourself a simple question:
What Would Jesus Do?
This is the third Part of a Series entitled Uncovering Christianity: Exploring the Roots of the West. This series explores the values and ideas originating from Christianity, looking back at Biblical times, and relating them to the modern world. There are central themes to each piece in this series, with key messages throughout to guide you in your own life. The series also looks at some of the threats to the roots of Western Civilization and discusses what can be done to placate them and protect the foundation of society. Keep an eye out for new series pieces each week.