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Posted December 10, 2004

Book: When Jesus Came to Havard: Making Moral Choices Today
Author: Harvey Cox
Houghton Mifflin, Co., New York, pp. 338

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Over the fifteen years that Harvey Cox taught his Harvard undergraduate class Jesus and the Moral Life, the course grew so popular that the lectures had to be taught in a theater usually reserved for rock concerts. The overwhelming response as a clear signal of the hunger for guidance in today’s confusing world, where moral guidelines seem to shift daily. How can we ask today “What would Jesus do?” when Jesus never had to cope with an unintended pregnacy, or confront a teenage daughter about her drug use, or decide whether to put an ailing parent in a retirement home?

In his new book, Cox brings the moral wisdom of Rabbi Jesus into the twenty-first century by way of the questions, arguments, responses, and doubts of centuries of rabbinic and Christian theological exploration, as well as the voices of the thousands of Harvard students who attended his course over the years. Cox shows how we can extrapolate from Jesus’ parables and bridge the gap between the ancient and modern worlds. As an example, he recalls his experience while locked in a southern jail during the civil rights movement, when the song, “We Shall Overcome” rang from nearby cells. The message he takes is from the story of the Resurrection: transcendent hope rising from the depths of injustice.

An Excerpt from the Book:

What role, if any, should emotions like anger, revulsion, fear, and outrage play in our thinking about moral issues? According to most ethical philosophers, from Plato to Kant to John Dewey, they should have no place at all. They corrupt our clarity of thinking and undermine our capacity to make sound judgments. This may often be the case. But in our era of long-distance warfare, proxy killing, and extortion by e-mail, abetted by the anesthetizing effect of constant media violence, we also have the opposite problem. Our capacity for sensing pain in others becomes numbed, deadening our ability to imagine what our actions may be doing to other people.

The trajectory from Guernica to Hiroshima presents a clear example of this muffling effect. Guernica is the name of a small town in the Vizcaya province of northern Spain on the Basque River. In April 1937 German planes sent to support Franco’s forces bombed it heavily, killing a large number of civilians, including many women and children. The world responded with a wave of outrage, especially against the intentional slaughter of unarmed civilians. Pablo Picasso furiously painted what has become the best-known canvas, which bears the simple title Guernica, and the word itself became synonymous with injustice, cruelty, and the primal horror they arouse. Only six years later, however, the United States was heavily engaged in the intentional large-scale bombing of German and Japanese civilian populations. The campaign culminated in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, in each of which a hundred thousand people — mainly civilians — were annihilated in one night, and finally in the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Children who were seven when Guernica was destroyed were only fifteen when Hiroshima was obliterated. But few Americans complained at the time. And no one painted any masterpieces of protest art, at least not for years afterward. This is how quickly outrage and the moral indignation it arouses cools into complacency.

A parallel coarsening of moral sensitivity may be under way today on the issues of torture. Once considered a relic of the Dark Ages, although it continued to be practiced, torture returned with a vengeance to the public eye under the twentieth-century dictators. Hitler’s loyal henchmen introduced new and more modern methods. Mussolini force-fed his opponents quantities of castor oil. Stalin locked his prisoners in windowless cells piling up with their excrement. Latin American military juntas made effective use of electric shock, which leaves no visible scars. An international society for the abolition of torture was founded in France. Early in 2004 the world was shocked to see pictures of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners.

. . . . What exactly is this “reason” by which we claim to be guided? What relation does it or should it have to love, awe, compassion? Or to anger and revulsion? Should all these human sentiments be sealed in airtight containers? In the West, until the thirteenth century, a much more ample concept of the nature of reason was common. The separation of these “emotional” elements from reason evolved only very slowly, and it seems possible that all parties have suffered from the divorce.

The life of Jesus and those around him is not only a history. It is also drenched with pungent emotions. They run the gamut from joy to pathos, from courage to cowardice, from soaring hope to the blackest despair. That is why his story still speaks to our imagination so powerfully, and thereby nurtures our capacity for moral choice.

Table of Contents:

1. He was then, we are now
2. Rabbi Jesus on the scene
3. A world full of stories

1. Stories They Told About Him

4. The ballad of the Begats
5. Picking just the right woman
6. Exiles from Eden
7. The gurus and the usual suspects
8. Riffing on Simeon
9. Beat the devil
10. The campaign begins

2. Stories He Told

11. Jesus retells his people’s story
12. Salt and lamps
13. The Rabbi teaches Torah
14. Parables and Zen slaps
15. The crooked CEO and the spoiled brat
16. Why: the crowds came
17. The Armageddon syndrome

3. More Stories They Told About Him

18. The Transfiguration and the prophet’s night journey
19. Bridge burning and street theater
20. Trial and retrail
21. Dead man walking
22. Reason, emotion, and torture
23. It had to be done
24. A world without God?
25. The Easter story
26. The laughter of the universe