The Ten Commandments: Laws or Guidelines

Last week the governor of Louisiana signed a law mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in public school classrooms. 

In some ways I get it, in spite of the fact that like so many it challenges the constitutional separation of church and state.  The Ten commandments are perhaps the original guidelines for how a community of people can live in freedom, something that the Jewish people hadn’t known for generations.  The ancient story from the book of Exodus describes Moses going up to Mount Sinai during their escape from slavery in Egypt to receive the ten rules — six about how to live together in community (don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery  honor your parents);  three about how to be in relationship with God (one God, no graven images of God, and don’t try to use God to advance your own agenda); and the fourth, or hinge commandment, requires a sabbath day, which is necessary in order to keep human relationships and the divine relationship in balance.

When working with teenage groups years ago, I would often invite them to imagine living on a desert island and then asking them to design the rules they would need in order to live in some sort of harmony.  Invariably they came up with guidelines that largely matched the last six of the ten commandments.  And they would usually add an addendum to “thou shalt not kill” :  no killer statements; which for them meant no bullying, no put-downs, no verbal punishments —words that could wound, if not kill, the spirit.

For thousands of years the ten commandments have been the foundation of western moral and legal traditions.  They are concise.  They make sense.  They can easily be remembered.  And while many of us have breached a commandment at one point or another, we  still honor them; and we recognize that we need them.

That said, I am offended by the Louisiana law, for two reasons: 1) I can’t help but think that displaying the commandments is less about helping to assist in the moral development of young people and more about sticking it to a growing secular culture which the Louisiana governor and his advocates feel is sliding into greater immorality; and 2) that the visible display of the commandments will become a kind of idol.  Instead of opening up conversation and reflection, I worry that it may shut it down.  Will there be a willingness to sort through the third commandment — “do not take the name of the Lord in vain,” to explore how we use God as a tool to get our way (e.g. God is my side), or will it be limited to not saying bad words.  Will the fourth commandment — “remember the sabbath and keep it holy,” be focused only on going to church on Sunday (or mosque on Friday noon or synagogue on Friday night) — or will it be an opportunity to discuss that the sabbath is a day of equality; a time set aside when we don’t have to prove ourselves; when we are set free from the production/consumption system?

As our culture becomes more polarized, I notice more and more people, myself included,  breaching the tenth commandment:  “thou shalt not covet.”  Normally, we think of covet as a desire to have someone else’s job or house or valuable asset.  What I see these days is that people on all ends of the political and religious spectrum are coveting their own positions, their platforms, their mindsets, to a degree that they need to be aggressively defended with a hostility that demeans and dismisses another perspective or interpretation. 

I recently convened a meeting of the leaders of two congregations who are exploring the possibility of sharing more of their life together.  It was clear to everyone present that the process needed to be taken one step at a time, and that there was no timetable or a predetermined outcome.  One leader, a farmer, said that he long ago learned that he couldn’t force his cows to cross a stream;  it would just make matters worse.  They would scatter and moan, and it would take a lot of time to gather them back together. They need to be led, he said, and that take patience and experience, both of which he had in abundance.

The ten commandments are meant to lead us, not force us.  They are guidelines, not idols.

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