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Beware those Commandments


“God delivered all these commandments.”
Exodus 20: 1-17

At least one presidential candidate wants to put the Ten Commandments back in our schools, both figuratively and literally. It wasn’t his idea; as I understand it, in parts of the South, there’s been something of a grassroots movement to do that very thing for years now. Recently Michael Feldman, the host of public radio’s “Whad’ya Know?” offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the tax dollars spent posting the commandments would be saved if people instead committed them to memory. At any rate, the people who’d like to post the commandments at the schoolhouse door evidently hope that doing so would help this country get back on track; that is, it seems, back to the rock-solid American values of the ’40s and ’50s, before the bottom fell out of American life and everything went to you-know-where.

I have to say I don’t get it, and I’m not even sure that everything has gone to you-know-where. It’s true enough that much of popular culture is shallow, coarse and materialistic. But ask any black American old enough to have lived during the ’40s and ’50s what America was like in those days. Ask a Jewish American. Ask a gay American.

And anyway, what do the Ten Commandments mean? I’m not sure we know. Oh, we know what we think they mean, which is to say that we’ve come up with a list of rules that we call the Ten Commandments. The originals, however, were given to Jews who lived from 1200 to 1300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Do the commandments mean today what they meant then? The originals were addressed to heterosexual men: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Does this mean that the women of today are exempt from obedience to the commandments? Some scholars say the commandments were meant as a shorthand version of the 600 or so precepts of the Mosaic Law -- that is, to understand the commandments properly was to understand the Law as a whole. Modern day Christians don’t pretend to be bound by Jewish law; why then ought we to keep the Ten Commandments?

What would be gained by posting the Ten Commandments in public schoolhouses? Even taken literally, many of the behaviors the commandments cover are proscribed by modern-day statutes: “You shall not kill.” Murder is illegal in every state. “You shall not steal.” Like murder, theft is illegal everywhere. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Slander is actionable, everywhere. Some of the commandments hardly apply to children. How many elementary school-age children have, for example, committed adultery? So what would be added by posting a list of rules? As a society, we don’t find it necessary to remind school children that murder is illegal. They know it before they ever get to school.

Here’s what I think is really behind the current effort. What the Ten Commandments originally meant is beside the point. It’s not about understanding scripture; it’s about promoting so-called “family values.” “Ten Commandments” means “family values,” as in the political and social platform advocated by groups such as Dr. James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.”

“Family values” aren’t scripture; instead they are grounded in someone’s interpretation of scripture; and the interpretation makes all the difference. I’m not here to argue about family values. Parts of the family values program are praiseworthy: Fidelity, honesty and forgiveness, for example, are good things. On the other hand, the family values platform advocates capital punishment; last year the National Conference of Catholic Bishops joined Pope John Paul II in calling for an end to the death penalty. My point is simply that it is important to distinguish the Ten Commandments as they were given to the ancient Jews from someone’s political platform.

I don’t think that a list of rules -- any list -- is a particularly good guide to Christian behavior. Every rule must be interpreted by someone applying some standard. So in a pluralistic society, whose standard governs? That’s the problem, for example, with organized prayer in public schools. Organized prayer might not be so bad if certain groups could refrain from forcing their religion down the throats of other people’s children; they can’t, as they have demonstrated over and over again. Simply following the rules makes it too easy for us to switch off our capacity for critical thinking. We’re Christians, and Christians are not called to follow rules, but rather to follow Christ. If we are to do that, we must remain engaged with Christ, so as to allow Christ to guide us. We’re not called to give rules to the world; we’re called to be Christ for the world.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo..

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000