Christ, Jain, and the Nature of Ethics

In one of the previous examinations of Jain and Christianity, there was an affinity observed between the way both Christ and the teachers of Jain both moved the ethic of violence beyond mere action into the heart of the moral agent. In this final comparative look at the two faiths, it will be interesting to notice that this shift in morality beyond the realm of action extends beyond just questions of violence. In fact, that may be the most potent quality of both ethical systems. In each, what makes a good or bad person (or more precisely a moral or immoral person) is more than merely the incidental fact of good or bad actions. The measure of a person is the heart (taken metaphorically) from which flows a wellspring of not only right action but right thought and right disposition. This is exemplified in the Mahavrata, or Five Great Vows, of Jain. These vows–intended as binding on Jain monks and as an ideal for the Jain laity–were handed down by Mahavira and form the core ethical canon for Jain. Briefly stated, they are:

  1. Renunciation of violence
  2. Renunciation of lying
  3. Renunciation of stealing
  4. Renunciation of sex
  5. Renunciation of attachment/possession

There are a number of interesting points of contact here with the Christian faith. Most obviously, they appear to form a kind of atheistic distillation Decalogue, with its laws against murder, dishonesty, theft, sexual impropriety, and covetousness. Beyond this lies a more basic commitment of each faith to ethical behavior, because both insist that what someone does in this life has eternal repercussions. The most interesting parallel, however, requires a fuller, closer reading of the text of the vows. Take the first vow, as an example:

I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable. Nor shall I myself kill living beings (nor cause others to do it, no consent to it). As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins, in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body.

Each of the vows conforms to this same basic pattern: “I shall neither speak lies, nor cause others to speak lies, nor consent to the speaking of lies by others,” “I shall neither take myself what is not given, nor cause others to take it, nor consent to their taking it,” and so on even down to attachment to material things, so that the Jain monk commits never to offer even consent to others being attached to worldly possessions. For the practitioner of Jain, it is not enough merely to avoid theft with the body. Theft must be excised from the mind. It is not enough to merely avoid dishonesty in speech. Dishonesty within oneself or dishonesty with one’s actions are no less lies than those which are spoken. Chastity is more than merely going one’s whole life without having sexual intercourse. The Jain monk must be chaste not only at his own core, but he must also not incite or consent to impropriety in anyone else.

Taking this final example, we can see that–in a less concisely stated way–Christianity offers a similar picture of ethics. The New Testament presents a very definite picture of an ethical system which is committed to a very narrow definition of sexual propriety. Overemphasized as it is today within the larger scheme of Christian moral thought, it is still undeniable that there is a basic vision of sexual ethics in Christianity which is indisputable: sex belongs between a single consenting man and a single consenting woman within the institution of marriage. This, in behavioral terms, excludes a host of sexual sins, including but not limited to rape, premarital sex, homosexual sex, and extramarital sex. These, however, are only the bodily manifestations of sexual impurity. As with Jain, the chastity extends far beyond that. For Christ, sexual purity is no less important in the mind. In fact, Jesus famously insists that the desire to have sex with a woman in a way which is inappropriate is the same as committing the act. The moment the heart wills the sinful behavior, whatever prevents it from actualizing that will is incidental. What is necessary of thoughts and actions Paul will expand to include speech as well, counseling Christians against engaging in any kind of lewd talk. As with Jain, Christianity takes the commitment to chastity and applies it to body, mind, and speech, or, more appropriately given the obvious merism at work, the entire human person.

The Christian understanding of sexual propriety, as with Jain, extends beyond merely the individual moral agent as well. The New Testament also presents an ideal of Christian behavior which echoes the Jain commitment to neither incite nor consent to sin. In fact, much of the commitment to modesty in Christian ethics should be understood in these terms (though it should be noted that “modesty” in the New Testament has a much broader meaning and application which does not always neatly collapse into a rejection of sexually provocative dress and behavior). Christians commit not only to resisting the temptation to be sexually inappropriate but commit to not being that temptation for others. What is more, out of a concern for communal purity, Paul makes it very clear that Christians cannot offer their tacit approval (their “consent” in Mahavira’s terms) to improper sexual behavior in their midst. It must be opposed, at least as it appears in the context of a church.

Christianity suffers (if that is not, perhaps, too strong a term) from not having the comprehensiveness of its ethic as neatly concentrated as does Jain. Nevertheless, it is important for Christians to realize that, for example, a Christian sexual ethic is not just being faithful to one’s wife or taking a purity pledge as a teenager. It certainly isn’t making sure that you scream the loudest to prevent homosexuals from getting married. It is a holistic understanding of ethics which grasps that God created sex with a purpose, and that the church is a place in which that purpose is both joyously celebrated and fiercely guarded. The same spiritual process of cutting to the heart of an ethical concern and then marveling at the depth and breadth of its impact can and should be carried out on any of the above moral maxims or any moral impulse within Christianity. Taking the cue from Jain, Christians need to realize that a commitment to honesty, chastity, non-violence, charity, or any other guiding ethical principle of the faith is more than just a legal concern, a commitment to compliance. It is a richer statement about the way the world was intended by the One whose intentions formed it. In broadening the understanding of Christian ethics, their scope and their interrelatedness, Christians can better understand that the moral precepts of Christ are not a guidebook to technical propriety but an invitation into a perfect kingdom in which all people are at harmony with themselves, with each other, with creation, and with the Creator.

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