Editorial on the Ten Commandments

Jeff Garrison

Published in the Presbyterian Outlook, September 29, 2003


They’re marching in Alabama again.  This time the destination is Montgomery and those marching are supporting Judge Roy Moore’s fight to keep a granite monument of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse.  On August 27, the statue was removed.  It appears Moore and his supporters have lost, but they promise to continue fighting.  Sooner or later, the United States Supreme Court will have to step in and rule, but so far they’ve refused to handle this hot potato.

I’d sleep better if the Supreme Court decided such statues acknowledge a foundation of Western law and are thereby an appropriate symbol that doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.  Of course, there are a variety of interpretations of what the founders of the Republic meant by such a separation.  As one who swore off the study of jurisprudence for theology, like the Supreme Court. I’ll pass that potato on.

Instead, let’s consider what the Commandments are all about.  The Big Ten provide a boundary by which we live as God intends.  “The Decalogue prohibits what is contrary to God and neighbor and prescribes what is essential about it,” according to Roman Catholic Church teachings. Theologians distinguished between two tables of the law, the first table dealing with how we relate to God and the second addressing our relationships to others.  Put together, the two tables set the context for a society that honors God and other members of the human family.  The Ten Commandments are understood theologically as life-giving.   In ancient times, Jewish Rabbis put a drop of honey on the tongues of those studying the law to remind them that God’s law is sweet, not bitter.

A few generations ago, Christians spent more time studying catechisms.  These documents went into great detail behind the meaning of each Commandment.  If you read the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Churches, you’ll discover “Thou shalt not steal” includes no deceptive advertising.  And in the new Catholic catechism, acts leading to the enslavement of another human being are treated as violations of the commandment.  In other words, we should be careful misrepresenting a used car or purchasing goods produced in a sweatshop.  “Thou shalt not kill” also means more than not murdering someone.  Martin Luther equated failure to feed the hungry, when you had the ability, to murder.  Likewise, “bearing false witness” is more than telling the truth.  The Westminster Catechism used in Presbyterian Churches extended the commandment to include backbiting and vainglory boasting, sins prevalent throughout society.

I could go on with examples of how we ignore each of the Ten Commandments, but I won’t.  Instead, we should understand those even if we have monuments by all courthouses or on every street corner, we won’t necessarily become better citizens.  It’s odd that about the time many churches de-emphasized the study of the catechism, granite and bronze memorials started popping up around the country.   In the 1950s, thousands of monuments were dedicated in the aftermath of Cecil B. DeMilles’s blockbuster flick, “The Ten Commandments.”  Today, we’ve lost the fuller understanding of the law while trivializing it into something chiseled on a rock.  With the law publicly displayed, we pat ourselves on the back and brag about our piety while forgetting what the law is all about.  Perhaps we should thank the ACLU.  Maybe the publicity generated by these lawsuits will force us to understand that the commandments are not an image to be viewed but a law to be studied and, as both Moses and the prophets insist, written on our hearts.

Before marching off to Montgomery, take time to study the Commandments.  In the larger scheme of things, having a granite slab out in front of the courthouse won’t make a bit of difference.  What will matter is how we apply the commandments.  If we write them on our hearts, as the Hebrew Scriptures encourage, rest assured they’ll be safe from an ACLU lawsuit.


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