Friday, October 25, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Hallie's Do's and Don'ts

What does Philip Hallie mean by negative and positive commands? Explain. Do you agree with him that positive commands are harder to live up to than negative commands?

To Hallie negative commands are the do not's. The 10 Commandments of the most frequently used example. They tell you all the things that you should not do.

Even the two which could be seen as positive commands, keep the Sabbath holy and honor your parents, in context really come out more as don't do bad things on the Sabbath and don't do bad things to your parents. I think it is fair to say the entire Decalogue can be regarded as series of negative commandments.

According to Hallie, negative commandments are commandments that are aimed at keeping us away from moral pollution. If you obey negative commands, your hands, and theoretically your soul, will be clean. In this sense, it is rather like a command from a parent who says to his youngster, don't play in the dirt. By staying out of the dirt you will keep your clothes clean.

This is good as far as it goes, but while negative commands prevent you from doing any wrong, they do not lead you to do anything that is good either.

Positive commands on the other hand, are commands that tell you what you should do, not simply what you should avoid doing. does an excellent job of explaining them, so I will simply quote from their article below.

-- A POSITIVE ETHIC requires us to be more than decent; it is to be active, even risky in what we do to help others. It is to be, for example, "one's brother's keeper." Or as stated in Isaiah, "defend the fatherless," and "defend the widow." Consider also the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible.
Positive—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and Negative—“Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” --

So now you have to do something more than just not get dirty, you have to actually go out and work hard to do that which is right. The negative command might tell you not to hurt your neighbor, but a positive command requires you to actually help your neighbor. As we mentioned before, all the prophets in the entire Bible, including Jesus himself, all declare that we must actively work to help the poor and the desperate. Failure to do so is failure to do enough good in this world.

Of course it is much harder to obey a positive command. For a negative command all you have to do is avoid something. This can be a very passive act. A positive command requires you to actually go out and work at something, to accomplish something. It's not enough just to avoid, you must actively seek out and do.

I can't help it be reminded of the story of Jack o'Lantern, which I used to tell the children at my school every Halloween. It is actually an old Irish folk tale. In the story there was a man named Jack. He never did anything bad. He never did anything good. He was just Jack.

In this context you could say that he obeyed all the negative commands, and payed no attention at all to the positive ones.

In the due course of time, Jack died. His soul ascended up to heaven where St. Peter greeted him. St. Peter carefully looked in the book of all those who had done good during their lives and were therefore entitled to enter heaven. He shook his head, looked up at Jack and said, "Sorry m'lad. You've never been good enough to come in here."

Jack was horrified, but there really wasn't any other choice, so he then descended down to hell. There Satan greeted him. Satan carefully looked in the book of all those who had done evil during their lives and were therefore doomed to enter hell. He shook his head, looked up at Jack and said, "Sorry m'lad. You've never been bad enough to come in here."

Jack was outraged. He insisted someone had to take him in somewhere! But St. Peter and Satan were absolutely determined. Jack wasn't listed in either book as having done either good or evil during his life, therefore he was not entitled either enter heaven or hell.

When Jack finally got tired of arguing, he didn't have anywhere else to go, so he returned back to earth. He really hated being a ghost, so he decided he would just have to take over someone else's body. Even as a ghost, Jack had trouble seeing things at night when he was able to be active, so like so many poor people in his day, he carved a lantern out of a huge turnip and put a candle inside. All night long, he wandered the hills flashing his lantern here and there, trying to find some fool who was out late at night so he could steal his body and live again.

Now when the Irish say "o'" they mean "of", so naturally people came to call him Jack o'Lantern. Jack of the lantern, who was doomed to spend all eternity wandering around hoping to catch someone foolish enough to be out at night so that he could steal his body. And all because Jack could never be either good nor bad when he was alive.

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