Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another…” 

Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, which we commemorate today with fireworks, parades, barbecues, national songs, displays of the American flag – and overall patriotic good wishes.   Two hundred forty-six years ago, the colonies declared their independence from England.  The foundational expression of American democracy is an incendiary document; claiming no end of “injuries and usurpations”.  As America nears its Sestercentennial (that’s 250 years), a not so glib question can be asked:  who are we declaring our independence from today?   Certainly not Great Britain.   Is it one another?   The political bands holding us together as a country are terribly frayed, if not torn.  Injuries and usurpations are daily proclaimed from each of the outer edges of the political spectrum.  Some people in some states are advocating secession.

Can we hold together?  How will we do that?

Nearly four thousand years ago, our spiritual ancestors were on a dramatic and dangerous journey to freedom.  About half-way through, Moses, their leader, climbed up a mountain and came down with ten commandments.  They were instructions for how God’s chosen people were to live in freedom, which they had long forgotten how to do, since they were slaves in Egypt for at least two hundred years.

The first three commandments are about God – that there is one God, that it is forbidden to fashion images of God, and don’t ever use God as a tool to advance your own agenda.  The last six provide guidance for how to live in  community:  don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t covet, don’t lie, keep the covenant of your commitments (especially marriage), honor your parents.  For several years I would ask a group of high school kids to come up with some rules for how people can best live together.  Invariably, they arrived at variations of the last six of the ten commandments.  The ten commandments have stood the test of time; we still honor them, although most of us have a hard time keeping them.

And then there is the fourth commandment, which many say is the hinge-point of the ten – and perhaps the most important:  Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Like many of us, I was taught that it meant you should go to church (or temple or masjid).  Once a week.  That is part of it, but it is much deeper and broader than that.  As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out,  sabbath was a day when we could be free of the production/consumption system.  Sabbath was a day when we should be free from having to do work, which meant it was a day we didn’t have to prove ourselves.  Sabbath was a day of equality – a day when everyone could share in their common humanness.

We live in a culture that has run roughshod over the maintaining of the sabbath.  Most of us feel compelled to prove or justify ourselves nearly every waking hour, seven days a week; or to aspire to a higher rung on society’s hierarchy – or complain that we have been moved down.  Equality then becomes hard to imagine.

Keeping sabbath can help enable us to envision equality. 

In recent years, and especially in recent weeks, there has been an expanding inventory of “injuries and usurpations” – from either the Supreme Court or political leaders or the media or our neighbors or family members or even from our religious communities.  So many people feel threatened.  Taking a sabbath from those perceived threats can feel, well, threatening.  So we hold on to our defenses and our arguments and carefully honed positions.

Remember the sabbath.  Take sabbath time.  Be freed from the work of justification and argumentation.  And perhaps, just perhaps, we can envision equality and help create a “more perfect union” as declared in the Preamble to the Constitution.  And live into the freedom that our spiritual and national ancestors have long sought to provide.

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