Jesus Christ is indecent, outspoken, and known to be violent. He keeps bad company, is no role model for ordinary decent folk who just want to get on with their lives, and has absolutely whacko opinions on just about everything. He is, quite simply, immoral.
That friend of drug-mules and terrorists, Jesus of Nazareth, would, frankly, never be allowed to speak on an Alan Jones talk-back segment for more than a quarter of a minute, would he? Our Saviour is, to put it bluntly, a scandal, an abomination and an embarrassment.
Recently, a student in one of my theatre history lectures gave a presentation discussing whether or not a certain film conveyed “a message of Christian morals”. She, not I, had chosen the topic, and at the end I gently suggested that it may have been better to have asked whether it conveyed Christian values rather than Christian morals.
While there is, undoubtedly, a Christian morality, it is not necessarily a sign of a Christian. The deeply entrenched dislike of hypocrisy in our Western culture stems from an acute awareness that apparently Christian acts can in fact mask despicable intent and wallpaper over more secret, darker deeds.
Conversely, we know from the word go, from the New Testament, that the despicable and the corrupt were often good friends of Jesus.
It astonished me that this student, of a quite definitely younger generation, and at a Protestant college, could have somehow missed out on this cornerstone of Christian teaching. It seemed only yesterday, when we older types were at university, that this simple thought - that Christianity was not the spiritual property of “the good” - was, after pre-eminence of the salvific message of Christ’s dying on the cross, the central conceit in the evangelical propaganda wars.
Notions such as that God kept an account book and weighed up our good deeds and our bad and thus determined our entry into, or exclusion from, Heaven, were regularly trounced; after all, had St Paul not made it clear that “all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”? Were we not encouraged to “come as you are”, “warts and all”, “saintly or sinning”? Was there not more celebration in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than over the many righteous? Did we not believe in the hope of death-bed conversions by the worst of the worst, after a lifetime of “immorality”?
It seems as if, in this era of hard-nosed, conservative over-regulators, status-seekers and high-achievers, we need once again to remind ourselves of the counter-cultural immorality - the wild outrageousness - of our Lord and Saviour.
There is nothing, at heart, very special about the word “morals”. Originally it just meant “customs”, or perhaps, better, “customary behaviour”; “what everybody did”; “the norm”, as we might say in Australia. In the pluralistic Roman empire, “mores” (to use the Latin) could vary from province to province, and just so long as the “mores” did not affront the majesty of the Emperor and what he stood for, people were free to do what they liked.
Christian behaviour was, in Pliny the Younger’s time (circa 100 AD), noticeably different from the “mores”, and thus was considered a threat, although Pliny himself found it hard to understand why, since the principles he uncovered in the “sect” - which he perceived as honesty, integrity, and the worship of Jesus as a God - seemed harmless enough.
Over time, of course, as Christianity became the dominant religion in society, more and more people sought to advance their status by attaching themselves to perceived “Christian” “mores”: and given that a belief in sanctification implied that Christian influences had progressively improved the “mores” of individuals, the word “morals” itself came to have a certain aura of sanctification about it.
In the 1960’s, when I was growing up, people were praised for having “morals”. Johnny O’Keefe was reminding people of a truer form of Christianity when he sang the song contradicting the norm, in which the man of doubtful character in a street of gossips is the one who dashes out and saves a child from being run over, sacrificing himself in the act.