About a week ago, I wrote an article called, “Traditional Judeo-Christian Morality,” which was mainly about the difference between ethics and morals and how that important distinction applies to the separation of church from state. I deliberately avoided the issue of discerning sin from crime not only because I felt that it was an oversimplification that some of my readers might find condescending, but also to see if anybody would catch the omission and call me on it. Well, somebody finally did — and surprisingly it wasn’t one of the several thoughtful folks who commented on this same article over at Blogcritics.
Dory of Wittenberg Gate responded to the article in my comments section and on her blog in an article entitled, “On Judgment vs. Discernment and Sin vs. Crime.” Regarding my predication that the Scriptures in Matthew 7:1-5 are the basic Judeo-Christian ethics upon which our country was founded, Dory wrote, “Although I agree with her that hateful rhetoric on either side is not proper, I differ with many of the conclusions she draws from these verses . . . I don’t think that it is accurate to say that the ‘basic Judeo-Christian ethic upon which our country was founded,’ can be summarized by this one (or any one) passage of Scripture.”
Indeed, that wrath begets wrath is a universal truth. But when people can can differ with one another civilly and respectfully, we gain the wisdom that brings us peace through the truths that process reveals. So, I am going to attempt to address Dory’s contentions in an effort to demonstrate that there are more commonalities than differences here, mainly because that is always a far more interesting challenge than simply defending my premises against those who might beg to differ.
First, I fully understand how anyone who read my esoteric — those who are not fascinated by the vitriol of politically ambitious theocrats who often pose as Christian Americans might call them ambiguous — opening references to the “Culture War,” social issues, Judeo-Christian ethics and the moral fabric of our society could have reached the conclusion that I wished to convey the overly simplistic notion that America’s founding principles could be neatly summarized in one Biblical passage. This is an impression that is very likely derived from style rather than substance, the latter of which Dory and I are in complete agreement upon.
There are no shortcuts to the revelation of the truths that may lead us to realize the fortitude and transcendence our Founders drew upon to create their idea for a system of government in which all of the people could truly be free. We cannot really know which paths to these axioms inspired our Founders as they were men of diverse faiths. But the profound wisdom in Matthew 7:1-5 — even if the Bible was not the actual text from which it was revealed to them — must have played a large part in the formation of their ideas about how best to create a free nation because true freedom is not possible when we pay too much attention to other peoples’ sins without reflecting upon our own.
All Crimes are Sins, Not All Sins are Crimes
Of course, our Founders’ concept of freedom is not synonymous with anarchy because law and order are essential to the goal of fulfilling the the promise of freedom they laid out in our founding documents over two centuries ago. The civil and human rights that are recognized by the conscience of free societies cannot exist where there is no system in place to protect and serve those rights. Securing, guaranteeing and defending our rights as they are outlined in our Constitution is the primary mission of the state, so it is a given that the state must be able to prosecute and incarcerate the people who violate our civil and human rights.
The question of whether any given law protects or infringes upon civil and human rights is the fundamental difference between the prosecution of crime and the judgment of sin, which is why we must guard our rights by recognizing the distinction between transient social conventions and the unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience as well as the difference between the mortal humans we elect to protect and defend our rights and the institutions we turn to for guidance in matters of conscience.
As mere mortals filled with pride, prejudice and all of the other weaknesses of the flesh, we are not fit to judge the finer points of the subjective concepts of virtue and sin, but our conscience is able to discern consensual acts and behaviors which do not directly encroach upon the civil and human rights of others from acts that cause direct harm to others.