Okiefunk: Deconstructing The Ten Commandments

I agree with Kurt that the actions in Haskell County (and in many other locales) to enshrine the 10 Commandments at Courthouses in granite is unconstitutional, but where I probably disagree with him is on the value of the 10 Commandments themselves. Here’s part of what Kurt says about it…

I believe placing Ten Commandments monuments on public grounds is an obvious, direct violation of the First Amendment.

I want to approach this issue differently, however. I argue the Ten Commandments are morally repugnant, vague, and outdated. They have constructed a conventional narrative, a framework of reality, in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has led to immense suffering in the Western World. They have created deep psychological pain, contradiction, lying, and helplessness. They destroy lives, in very real ways, with their irrationality and paradoxes and expectations. We are better off without these ten hypocrisy-producing absurdities. I am not the first to argue this, of course. Others agree the commandments are immoral. . .

Kurt then goes on to deconstruct the Decalogue (the “Ten Words” in the Jewish tradition, a.k.a. the Ten Commandments), but I think he misses a lot. Here’s my alternative take on it…

First, the functionality of the Decalogue has been questioned in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, with some seeing the Commandments as binding laws (or even the foundation of modern law… a concept I find dubious myself), while others see the Commandments as mitzvahs (sometimes translated as commandments, but the word doesn’t really mean what we think of in the English language, but rather something more a kin to loving guidelines that set us free from the tyranny of desire and selfishness).

Secondly, the interpretation of the Decalogue is very much up for grabs, including the numbering of the commandments themselves. Jews and Christians (including several different traditions of Christianity) all number the commandments differently and interpret them differently.

Third, if you wanted in a nutshell to explain what the Decalogue was about in its original context, it was an instruction from Hashem (I’m using the word “Hashem” to reflect the respectul tone that many Jews use in referring to the Almighty. Hashem means simply “the name.”) to a tribe of nomadic peoples in the ancient Middle East. These commandments (as well as the other Mitzvah of the Torah) were given to provide a new meaning and identity to this tribe, as well as to set the ethical groundrules of good living. In fact if you look at the commandments, the first part of the commandments related to preserving the unique Jewish identity and faith (most particularly monotheism, which was a radical theological development at that time), and the second part of the commandments relate to the concept of ethical living in the context of community. However, one commandment (the Sabbath) really serves both functions, providing for a day of rest for ALL people (including even the slaves and hired hands… I know Kurt says this is proof of the backwardness of scripture, but if one reads this in the context of culture this was revolutionary as it said that even slaves were entitled to the basic of human kindness and treatment. Obviously this is still far from where religious ideas in humankind would someday come… i.e. St. Patrick whose writings are the FIRST in human history to condemn slavery as an immoral practice) while at the same time connecting this human need for rest to a theological purpose.

I know Kurt is not religious (as I’m sure many of my readers are too), but I would encourage folks who are not religious to not throw out the baby with the bathwater here. While the Decalogue (as well as the rest of the Jewish and Christian traditions) has some seeds of oppression in it, there are also the seeds of liberation in these traditions as well.

I also readily concede that those who trumpet the Ten Commandments fall short of the standard of them, most notably in the commandment of “You shall not kill.” But hypocrisy of the adherents of an idea does not negate the idea (otherwise we would have to trash the Declaration of Independence, because the man who wrote “that all men are created equal” owned slaves). I think a much better approach is to call upon those who claim to follow the Decalogue, to actually follow it (and the other teachings of scripture).

However, I would go a step further. As significant as the teachings of the Decalogue are, I think a more developed and fuller and more humane scriptural teaching is that of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon Jesus clearly spoke against poverty, against violence in all its forms, against hatred, against lust and the subjegation of women, and much more.

I know that not all people will approach things from a religious angle, but many (even most) human beings will approach things from that angle. Attacking the religious views of another will not bring about a more peaceful and ethical world and it will not bring about understanding. I still think a better approach is to seek to understand the views others and then to seek to find common ground.

One last thing, for my conservative readers out there — I have a thought for y’all. Instead of erecting unconstitutional and needlessly divsive monuments to your beliefs on public property, why don’t you instead build monuments in your hearts? The power of these teachings is not found by being engraved in granite but rather by believing them and living them and teaching them to your children. In fact I would go as far as to say (I’m borrowing from the Buddhists here) that when one enshrines a religious teaching in granite, you are for all practical purposes killing the teaching.