Morality and Death

Morality and mortality are almost identical words in English. The words in the Latin roots are similar too—mores (customs) and mors (death). And they are linked concepts in biblical myth. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is death in the Genesis story. Adam and Eve were warned not to eat of that tree of the knowledge of good and evil; they should have eaten of the tree of life. Death in much religious thinking is not just biology, it’s moral punishment.

Some Christian thinking reserves the power of death solely to God—life is not to be tampered with from zygote conception through to life’s end. The Catholic Church in the last thirty years opposed the death penalty largely in support of its anti-abortion position. Abortion, execution, euthanasia are proscribed in this view as life is deemed ‘a seamless garment,’ not to be torn by man. Life and death belong to God.

This is not the view of President Bush who espouses a warrior Christianity eager to slay evildoers. Nor is it the view of jihadist religious warriors like Osama bin Laden who espouse a warrior Islam eager to slay infidels. They both proscribe abortion as violating the sanctity of life but they embrace execution as holy in the name of the moral destruction of evil.

‘Evil’ is the label that renders others killable. Figuring out evil and controlling it is what social ‘mores’ (‘customs, affairs, situations’ from the Latin) or morals are about. But religious warriors like Bush and bin Laden see morals not as human customs but as divine commissions. They believe in their righteousness and the evil of the other. They believe they are a higher law.

Both Bush and bin Laden argue that they have a right to the power of death—not because they have great wealth and weaponry, but because they are good and others evil.

Many blame religion for this kind of thinking despite the Alexanders & Caesars and Stalins who conquered for glory and empire and power not for God.

Blake, a great religious thinker during the Enlightenment, thought it was morality not religion that was the problem. He said “If Morality was Christianity Socrates was the Saviour.”

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Dividing people into good and evil abstracts humans into entities worthy or unworthy of life; it licenses a kill. For Blake good and evil apply to acts. Humans are capable of both. For Blake Christ was the Saviour because he championed not abstract purity or goodness but a humanity which mastered its own evil and did not return that of others. “The Religion of Jesus, Forgiveness of Sin,” he wrote, “can never be the cause of a War or of a single Martyrdom.” It wasn’t that Blake didn’t know about the Crusades or the Inquisition but he understood that invoking god and being godly weren’t equal. He thought religions that preached vengeance for sin were false, of Satan—a word that means not ‘the evil one’ but ‘the accuser.’

He took the God principle back to the distinction between life and death. And he thought that basically man will have a religion—either of Jesus or of Satan, either a human face or an avenger. He saw Christ not as accuser-warrior, but as lover-savior. God is not the killing principle.

Judge a tree by its fruits.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: