Posts Tagged commandments

Hoping for More Ethical National Conversation? Read the Instructions

In the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 25, parents everywhere will be frantically assembling toys to be presented to children just a few hours hence. Along about 2 a.m., some mom or dad will remember an old adage: “When everything else fails, read the instructions.”

Speaking of instructions, we continue to have important national conversations about the place of morality in our public life. What if we did a non-partisan, year-end inventory of how well our public servants have measured up alongside the Decalogue, God’s Big Ten, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5? In other words, if we claim to be a nation founded on ethical principles, let’s read the instructions, the Ten Commandments! Time and space will not allow us to elaborate on each, so let’s primarily focus on the first three statutes as a yardstick, and assume that the reader can take it from there.

The first two Commandments assert that we are to have no other gods besides the one true God. God alone — nothing else and no one else should be worshiped. Idols can be physical objects, mental or metaphysical concepts, ideologies or ideas. How many times do we hear our elected officials exalt ideology, nation, flag, political party, personal ambition or capitalism above the true Lord God?

After many years of pastoring churches, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that for many of us —politicians included — scripture is a Rorschach test. We see what we are predisposed to see. Instead of using God’s instruction as a grid to read our personal preferences, we use our personal preferences to read God’s instruction.

But God is not a magic wand to be brandished for personal gain. George Bernard Shaw once said, “God created us in his image, and we decided to return the favor.” Listen up, politicians. We do not manage God. If our Judeo-Christian scriptures do not at some point convict and challenge us, that’s a pretty good sign our god is self-created. Anne Lamott said it best: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And that leads naturally to the third Commandment. “You shall not take the LORD’S name in vain (use it wrongfully).” Frankly, this mandate would be much easier to obey if it only referred to cuss words. But it’s more. The statute actually warns us not to take God’s reputation (name) and drag it through the mud. Someone recently asserted that alleged inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor is analogous to Joseph’s relationship with the Virgin Mary. There it is. The sacred, dragged through the profane — big time. It’s not enough that politicians break God’s law; they hide behind scripture, as if knowing some Bible verses (out of context) excuses bad conduct. Is it asking too much that our nation’s leaders not use God’s name as a good luck charm?

The story is told that Mark Twain once listened impatiently as a speaker droned on and on about a desire to visit the Holy Land. The pompous fellow said he wanted to climb Mount Sinai and from there recite the Ten Commandments. Twain, who did not suffer fools gladly, finally interrupted, “Had you ever thought of just staying home and keeping the Commandments?”

Here is a humble, year-end, public policy suggestion. Let’s stop worrying so much about getting the Ten Commandments posted on courthouse lawns and focus instead on getting them inscribed in our hearts and integrated into our collective national behavior. New Year’s resolution: Let’s read the instructions.

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THE TOP TEN WORDS – A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
October 5, 2014

Who would have thought that a primitive document that is 3,000 years old, born in a culture that was in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, a culture that the educated, influential, literate world hardly noticed, would end up being a football kicked around in the culture battles of the most advanced technological society on the face of the earth!I

Yet a battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or in public school classrooms has raged or simmered off and on for at least a decade. One Kentucky lawyer, trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Ten Commandments were mainly secular, argued that references to God in the Ten Commandments were minimal. This prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he had actually read the first four, the first of which begins, I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the display of public monuments of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, the nine justices produced at least ten opinions. Sounds like a Baptist church!
On the extreme right wing of the debate are organizations such as The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, whose purpose includes doing away with the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and replacing it with the Ten Commandments. And while they are at it, they promote the death penalty for all murder, adultery, and homosexuality, a position that does seem to contradict the sixth commandment, but let’s not be picky!

Thomas Cahill, who has written a wonderful book entitled The Gifts of the Jews, makes the remarkable comment that there is no document in all of the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. He goes on to explain that other cultures do offer similar ethical guidelines, but here is the difference: they are always offered in a legal framework (i.e. if you do such and such, then this will be the consequence). That is not the case with the Ten Commandments.

Neither are they what we might call a Martha Stewart list of ten ways to make life happier and healthier. You know, the Ten Commandments are not a case of God looking at humanity and saying something like, I do wish you would get your act together! Why aren’t you eating silky braised chicken with pearl onions and mushrooms for lunch? Where is your collection of hand-painted Venetian glass? And while you’re at it, where did you pick up those extra pounds?

II

So let us pause for a few minutes to consider what is so special about these Ten Commandments. What has made them remain alive and well through all the centuries?

Here in this document, for the first time in history, human beings were offered a code without justification and without elaboration. In fact, biblical scholars think that they were originally just ten Hebrew words that could easily be memorized by illiterate people in the desert. Ten Words that still speak in the 21st century!

They are not propositions for debate; they are not suggestions for happier living; they are not even challenges. They are just what they seem to be, and they have been received by three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, Islam also considers them as Holy Scripture! And they have been accepted by billions more non-religious folk as reasonable and necessary and even unalterable because they come, as Cahill poetically phrased it, from the deep silence that each of us carries within.

But what do they mean? How can they bend and flex for every age and every culture? Take the prohibition on killing, for example. Those who howl the loudest about public displays of the Ten Commandments are frequently the very ones who call the loudest for capital punishment or for carpet bombing of an enemy. So how do we bend and shape the commandment about not killing to justify what obviously is killing? Commandment #6 is a challenge!
These and other obvious questions are not easily answered. Yet…we know deep down that there is something fundamentally right about the commandment! We just don’t know how to apply it! And what about the slow, unnoticed destruction of human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves? If poverty kills, as we know it does, then are we breaking the 6th commandment when we fail to support jobs programs? Are drug companies guilty of breaking the 6th commandment when they choose not to produce a life-saving drug because it will not turn a profit?

There is more than one way to kill, as we all recognize. If the divine principle behind this commandment is that all human life is precious, then we live out this commandment by supporting laws and public policy that enhance and protect the most human life and support the highest quality of life for the most people. This is always a very complex issue that is not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.

III

Now let’s slow down and take a deep breath! We are wading into some deep water here! But one thing is not so deep: through all the centuries since Jesus, the Ten Commandments have been most often used to instruct new Christians at the time of their baptism. In fact, some of the oldest baptismal liturgies ever found have the believer being baptized at sunrise, coming up out of the water of baptism and facing East, the direction of the rising sun, and reciting none other than the Ten Commandments! Think of that! At the dawn of a new day in the life of a believer, the first words spoken are the words of the Decalogue! Why? Because like the children of Israel coming through the waters of the Red Sea and receiving the commandments, the new Christian comes through the waters of baptism and pledges allegiance to a vision of reality that is rooted in God’s radical policy and deeply at odds with our dominant culture.

When a new Christian is baptized, she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve this act of God’s grace. She is raised to new life because of something God has done, not something she has done! And when we take communion, we are being gifted with new life, not because of anything we have done, but because of something Christ has done!

This is precisely what struck John Newton, the slave ship captain who was converted and wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was only too aware of what he had done, and there was nothing he could do to undo the misery he had caused as the captain of a slave ship. The pain and death caused by the infamous Middle Passage had been part of the economic system, you could say, but he knew he had cooperated in an evil system. No amount of saying he was sorry or just doing his job could atone for it.

Then he experienced the “amazing grace” of God. We might cringe at the 18th century language that describes himself as a “wretch,” but how would you feel if you had been the captain of a slave ship? “Wretch” might be too tame a word! And yet few of us would fail to identify with his classic line: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The church has always agreed with our Jewish friends that the Ten Commandments are sheer grace, a gift from God to a world in desperate need of those Ten Words. Those ten words, along with the presence of Christ, can lead us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and they can lead us home.

IV

And what is home? Ah, you know what home is! Home is any place that lives out the grace of God and accepts you just the way you are. Home is the place where you can make mistakes and still be loved. Home is the place where you can break every commandment in the book and still be forgiven. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost famously said, “they have to take you in.”

I want to remind you that this church is just such a place. To paraphrase a familiar line, “we reserve the right to be a spiritual home to anyone looking for a home.” Whatever dangers, toils, and snares may lie before you, you know that here is a place where you can face them with a church family that will support you, pray for you, and love you.

This week I received an email from an good friend named Mitch Carnell, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. That church, like this one, has a long history. It was the first Baptist church established in the south. Here is what Mitch wrote to me and to several others: “October 6, 2014, is my 50th anniversary as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston…Although these fifty years have not been without heartbreak and pain, my family and I found a home. This is a loving, supportive church family. I have nothing but gratitude for the people at First Baptist and thanksgiving for the spiritual nourishment I have found here.”

Many of you can say the same about this church. Families gather; they laugh and cry together; they tell stories; and they eat. Oh, how families eat! So let’s be family, wherever you are from today. It is dinner time…time to eat…time to be thankful…time to remember.

 

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