Morality is pesky. Is our notion of right and wrong just a function of socialization? Or is there something cosmic, objective, external about it, as constant as the speed of light? (Although maybe that is not such a good metaphor. I read a physics article recently questioning whether the speed of light really is constant throughout the universe. A straightforward summary is available, like everything else, on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_speed_of_light.)
Part of the problem here may be that differences among religions and moral codes confuse the issue. Broadly, there seem to be two kinds of morality. One is the obvious kind, the Do This Or Else kind. The “Or Else” is something different depending on where you go. In one tradition, it’s the threat of hell; in another, the threat of karmic retribution in some future birth; in a third, Zeus’s lightning bolt. Take religion out, and there’s still the threat of imprisonment or a fine or community service. What these systems, religious or secular, have in common is the threat of comeuppance. This kind of morality lends itself naturally to legal language—to think someone in “violation” of a religious “law” is to think metaphorically. The codification can be broad (the Ten Commandments) or highly specific (the Sanskrit The Law-Book of Manu). But the moral phenomenon is the same.
The second kind of morality (I propose) is the one that derives from love—and I mean “love” considered as a mystical phenomenon, the experience of unity between the self and the other. This adds a conceptual corollary to the Golden Rule familiar to all schoolchildren. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—because they are you. And, according to mysticism, you are both divine. The mystical traditions formulate this in one way or another: in Sanskrit, Tat tvam asi, literally that you are. You are that God. You are that person. Or in Aramaic: The Kingdom of God is within you. Or in the Arabic of Mansur al-Hallaj: an’a al-Haqq, I am the Real. (“The Real” is one of the most beautiful names of Allah.) The mystical tradition, in every religion, is a minority tradition, in some cases persecuted by the codifying orthodoxy. It equates the individual and the divine. God, self, and other are collapsed into a single higher self. Thou shalt not kill and the rest become redundant. Moral behavior becomes the natural result of self-preservation.
In this kind of morality, let’s call it mystical morality, how “good” we are is not a function of how well we observe fasts, how exactingly we follow injunctions and restrictions. Rather we improve morally the farther our radius of selfhood extends. Many people extend this radius to include their immediate family. (Some do not even get that far: These are the abusers of children, the beaters of wives.) For the people inside our moral radius, we are willing to sacrifice ourselves. I love you so much I would give my life for you. This is not mere figurative language when it comes from a parent. When an individual makes a nation his own, regardless of race, he becomes a Martin Luther King, Jr. When he makes the population of a subcontinent his own, regardless of caste or faith, he becomes a Mahatma Gandhi. The immensity of Christ’s self-sacrifice is proportional, in Christianity, to the human race in its entirety, the living and the not yet born. The bigger the circle we draw around ourselves, calling all who stand inside it self, the greater our moral good.
With this moral greatness comes great vulnerability: All three of these examples, King, Gandhi, and Christ, died by violence. The opposing, anti-mystical force—division, exclusion, tribal animus—perceives such men, correctly, as existential threats. They realize that mystical morality depends on the dissolution of the self. The universalized self terrifies the tribe self. The divisions between white and black, Hindu and Muslim, Jew and Roman could be preserved only by destroying the King, Gandhi, or Christ who transcended these divisions. The threat includes the unifier’s own race or faith of origin. A white man killed King, but a Hindu killed Gandhi; Roman and Pharisee colluded in the crucifixion.
What motivates the reverence of the “great soul” becomes as clear as what motivates the hatred, when considered in this way. Both are correct: The disciple, who sees, in the great soul, immortality; and the assassin, who sees annihilation.