Take Two Stone Tablets
and Call Me In The Morning:
The Seemingly Endless Controversy Between the Ten Commandments
and the American Legal System and Why It’s Getting Old
It’s funny how sometimes in life the smallest things; the slightest whiff of a scent, a short stretch of musical or poetic lyric, or a seemingly innocuous split-second sighting sends you on a journey of deep thought and introspection. The more I encounter these moments, the more I believe that they are truly gifts from God that He uses to show us how wondrous His world, and this life that He’s given to us truly is. These moments, however, are not without their sobering touches, as they often show us that as humanity, despite the great advances and strides we as a civilization have made during our time on the third rock from the Sun, sadly, we’ve still got quite a ways to go, especially in that ever so tricky field known to us as common sense. One such moment happened to me quite recently that has taken me on an introspective journey where the path now leads to this keyboard where I now transcribe my findings. So allow me, if you will, to share what I’ve found, and perhaps it can take you somewhere, too.
It began as a trip up to Johnson City, Tennessee to attend and celebrate the college graduation of my younger sister. During our time up there, we decided we wanted to do a little sightseeing and so our party, consisting of myself, my mother and father, and my great aunt, meandered over to the exceedingly charming little hamlet known as Jonesborough, the oldest town in the state of Tennessee. During our time there, we attended a performance at the International Storytelling Center, perused the local shops, and took in the sights. There was one moment, however, upon our entry into Jonesborough that stayed with me throughout our time there and afterward, even until this very moment. While passing the courthouse in Jonesborough, I noticed a lovely bronze plaque mounted upon the outer wall next to main entrance. This plaque proudly and prominently bore the image and text of the Ten Commandments. It was a thing of artistic beauty and also a bold statement, and there in that moment, the synapses in my brain began to fire off as thoughts began to race and my introspective odyssey commenced.
I’m quite sure that many of us can remember in recent years how the public posting of The Ten Commandments upon public buildings, especially courthouses, has become nothing short of a hot button issue, as many singular atheists and atheistic groups have mounted protests, levied legislations, and barked and screamed incessantly, demanding that such things be taken down upon grounds of a violation of separation of church and state. They have hemmed and hawed quite vehemently, as if Moses brought down the Bubonic Plague from Mount Saini instead of laws. More and more, though, it seems that anything remotely religious seems to become kryptonite for the irreligious. I have one question to ask these people: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?
Please excuse that outburst, but I fail to see the sense in such an argument. Yes, the Constitution of the United States does within the Bill of Rights hold an amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion and establishes a separation of church and state. However, those who believe that stamping the Ten Commandments upon the walls of a small town courthouse is going to transform America into a dystopian theocracy are missing the big picture even more so than the proverbial broad side of the barn. What was it that Moses brought down from the mountain again? Oh yeah…Laws.
Simply look into history, not even religious history, but just simply history and one will find that the Ten Commandments are held as one of the oldest legal documents known to man, because at a basic level, that is exactly what the Ten Commandments are: a documentation of laws. So would it not stand to reason that the walls of a structure built for the purpose of the upholding of law should be able to be decorated with imagery serving as homage to one of the earliest known recordings of a written law? Of course, there are those who would argue that the Commandments are simply religious rules and not actual laws and that the public display of such is simply the posting of religious propaganda progressing to the institution of a state religion. But when one considers the contents of the Commandments, are they not common sense rules regardless of where one stands theistically?
When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees in Matthew 21 and is asked what the greatest commandment of the Law is, he responds with this: “And He said to them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)
In this statement, Jesus compresses the entire Decalogue into two master commandments, with the first referencing the first through fourth Commandments, which refer to man’s relationship to God, and the second referencing the fifth through tenth, which refer to man’s relationship to his fellow man. Now even from an irreligious standpoint, commandments five through ten are simply common sense ethics. Honor your parents, do no murder, commit no infidelities, do not steal, be truthful, and do not jealously covet after that which belongs to another. These are simply common sense ethics: rules to be obeyed in respect to a higher power, a code written intrinsically within us.
As for the first four Commandments, those dictate the manner of what our relationship to said higher power should be. Now even in an irreligious sense, this is still a powerful point. Even for those who do not believe in God as a higher power, it is still a known fact that there is still always a power higher than that individual; and in speaking from a legal standpoint, such would be local municipal, state, and federal governments, which also hold laws for us to obey. These laws, dictated by an earthbound and mortal but still very real “higher power,” are made to keep the peace and justice and are meant to be followed. So in relationship to higher powers, what can the first four Commandments tell us outside of the realm of religion? Let’s go down the line from one to four:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you , or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:2-11; ESV)
So let us look as the four outside of a religious sense and through a more patriotic window. As Americans, we have the blessing and the privilege to call ourselves citizens or residents one of the greatest nations on Earth, a nation with a glorious history and a commitment to justice. Yes, our country has made mistakes along the way, but what nation has not? Still, even with the less glamorous chapters in our history, ours is still a great nation we have the honor and privilege to call our own, and with that privilege comes an obligation to follow the laws of our nation, laws that call for our gratitude through personal action as Americans. So first off, as Americans loyal to our country, we possess a fierce love and loyalty to our homeland, and therefore should let nothing betray that loyalty. Furthermore, we should hold no body within the nation as greater than the nation itself and not seek to drive to secede it from the nation nor to supplant the federal government with it. And we should not speak of our country blasphemously. Now here I do not mean to say that the country should never be criticized. That is a completely erroneous supposition. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers who said “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” And the Bill of Rights gives us the right to redress the government. Speaking our concerns and misgivings when we feel our government is in the wrong is no form of anarchy, but rather the workings of our patriotism at its finest. But consider moments when we have seen our nations name sullied by its own people: like the members of the Westboro Baptist Church exclaiming that the deaths of American soldiers were judgment against America for its toleration of homosexuality, or the Reverend Jeremiah Wright publicly exclaiming in a sermon “Not God bless America, God damn America.” Such things are nothing short of blasphemous to our nation.
Then the Sabbath commandment; how would that possibly fit? The Sabbath was meant to serve as a reminder of God’s love for His people and all He did for them and for His creation of the world. It is meant as a time of remembrance and reverence. So what do we have similar to that? Well there’s Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, to name a few; days we as a nation have set aside to remember and commemorate with patriotic reverence the history and struggle of our nation from our birth to today, and the remembrance of those brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to defend what our nation stands for, both those still with us and those who gave their lives to a greater cause, a greater power. Those days command our respect and our remembrance, as do the laws of our land. So besides from a patriotic standpoint, how else may we approach this concept?
Let us now look at this from a purely ethical standpoint, not in the sense of a loyalty to any sort of king, queen, or country, but from simply ethics. Whether it comes to us based in religion or not, we all hold a basic sense of right and wrong, though as we can tell in looking at the world, some use that sense a great deal more than others. But all the same, it’s something that is intrinsic to all of us. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis expounds upon this concept namely as a Law of Nature or Law of Right and Wrong, and also points that people will acknowledge it even in denying it.
“But the remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and there is no such thing as Right and Wrong—in other words, if there is no Law of Nature—what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like everyone else?” (Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis; pgs. 6-7)
Aside from an intrinsic knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, there is also within us something that seems to direct us to the right action. Some may try to attribute this to education, conditioning, herd instinct, or other such origins, but to deny this directing impulse, this moral compass, is to deny the faculty of moral choice, one of the very factors that make us human. Lewis further expounds upon such here:
“Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same. And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,’ cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be the note.” (Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis; pg. 10)
This intrinsic knowledge of right and wrong, of fairness and unfairness, of justice and injustice has been with the human race for ages. Look in the laws of ancient civilizations, including the Mosaic Laws accounted in the Torah, Code of Ur-Nammu, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, the Hittite laws, the Assyrian laws, but let us focus for now on one particular ancient legal documentation held as one of the most advanced in history, the Code of Hammurabi. Developed during the reign of King Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BC), the Code consists of a collection of 282 case laws covering such fields as economics, marriage and divorce, criminal and civil law, and the proper conduct of business. Penalties were decided according to the nature of the offense, the statuses of the involved parties, and often fell under the system of lex talionis (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), a concept also seen in the Mosaic Laws of the Torah and other ancient legal documentations. These systems dictate a system of fairness and justice, albeit a harsh one, but just the same calls for an adherence to the Law and for individuals to treat one another with fairness in respect to a higher power; a higher authority. That concept has gone on through history and is still with us today in our society and the Ten Commandments are an expression of that commitment to fairness and justice that we are called to have toward one another and the respect for the higher laws and powers we are compelled to live under.
It is true that our nation is a melting pot, even more so today than it was in the days of Ellis Island. We are now a mix of many races, faiths, beliefs, and orientations; growing more diverse with each passing day. Though we may not all believe the same thing, perhaps we can all agree on the fact that all of us are called by the simple Laws of Right and Wrong to respect one another and to treat one another with fairness. In keeping with these laws, we are to walk a line in our lives in respect to the laws of our land, the laws of our beliefs, and the laws of our morals. There is right and there is wrong and we are called daily to choose right before wrong, service before selfishness, humility before pride, justice before injustice, and love before hatred. We are called to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, and what are the Commandments but a guide of how to achieve such?
So in now returning to a religious sense, how do we of the Christian faith best defend these commandments? The answer will not be in militancy or in screaming louder than the opponents, but in following them, living them, and allowing them to be expressed through ourselves as what they truly are, the dictation of guidelines for a life of justice, morality, and love; by remembering the immortal words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Always preach the Gospel, and when necessary, use words.” By showing that we truly believe them to be the standards we hold them as and live them, by mounting them as the expressions of our lives, and by showing love, fairness, and justice to our fellow men and women, regardless of their race, faith, or orientation, we will show them far more prominently than any public display ever could. By practicing this in our daily lives, perhaps then, more will be led to the Author of the Commandments and allow Him to become the Author and Finisher of their faith.
This is a blog entry submitted by Adam McBroon, a Guest Blogger.
Guest Blogger post are the ideas, beliefs of the guest blogger. They may not reflect the view of Steve Patterson or Courageous Christian Father.