Guest Commentary: Who commands the Commandments?

May 13, 2008 at 7:23 pm

The Ten Commandments belong in communities of faith, not in public places.
So it was affirmed again a few weeks ago, this time by U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley, Jr. in an ongoing attempt by the religious right to place them at the Grayson County’s courthouse.

How long will we have to fight this battle? I’m baffled by religious people, especially fundamentalists who call themselves Baptists, who want our Jewish and Christian teaching tools posted in public places. Do they distrust churches and synagogues to promote these instructions on our own?

Or do they consider the Ten Commandments a kind of good-luck charm that will magically make everything come out right? Or do they want to portray them like the ominous warning on cigarette packs: Do this and die?
Are they wanting to reduce the Ten Commandments to a national symbol, like the flag or the eagle?

And are they aware of the irony that we Christians number the Commandments differently than Jews, the first recipients of the tablets? If we can’t even agree on the numbering, how can we agree on their meaning? Or the irony that it’s Christians rather than Jews pushing their public promotion?

I’m a big fan of the Ten Commandments. They are a divine gift to a people in need of direction.
I’m not a fan of reducing them to a billy club to beat others over the head, or to a tug-of-war rope, or a threatening symbol to those who, for whatever reason, do not share our affirmation of them.

The Commandments are to be internalized by people whose lives are shaped by God, to be applied to our own lives or the shape of our faith communities rather than as a universal warning. As Jesus said, “take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye.”

I wonder if Ten Commandment pushers recall that these sacred words came to an oppressed people recently led from slavery in Egypt? The God whose agenda undergirds the Commandments empowered people to have courage, challenge authority, risk comfort and claim their inheritance as beloved of God.  So while these Commandments speak of setting boundaries, at their core is a spirit of liberation (which happens to have the same root as the oft-maligned word “liberal”).  

“No other gods before me” is simply not a law that can be required universally. Some people don’t believe in a God. (In many cases, I also don’t believe in the God they describe.) But if there is God (and there is) then this Sacred Center must be number 1. Work, home, church, Bible, our nation, our self-interest can’t be God. We can’t inscribe “In God We Trust” on our money, then use it to fund the lesser god of war. It’s all or nothing.  
Still want to push plastering these Commandments everywhere?

The “no graven image” Commandment seems doable, until we realize its concern is reducing Mystery and creating shadow gods — distorted, one-dimensional representations of the Holy One to be controlled and used to our advantage. Does this sound like any group you know?

“Taking God’s name in vain” addresses much more than cursing. God’s name, which is God’s presence and power, can be conscripted for vain or misguided purposes in countless ways. As Jesus said later, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” So God warns: Don’t drag me into your self-serving agendas.

And so it goes with all the Commandments — remembering the Sabbath, honoring parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying, coveting. There’s the short Commandment; then there’s the rich, full, agenda-altering truth to be discovered and applied in fresh, faithful ways by believing communities.

That’s why it’s so important for all who claim the Ten Commandments as our guide, present company included, to do a regular review of who sets our agenda, how we are living within the Divine boundaries, and if we’re more talk than trust.  

God told Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”  
Laws written on hearts trump laws nailed to courthouse walls any day.

Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland
Baptist Church at Grinstead Drive
and Cherokee Road. Contact him at