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Politics of Scripture

Between Moralism and Moral Vision: Rediscovering the Decalogue—Exodus 20:12-16 (Amy Merrill Willis)

Having experienced the Ten Commandments through the lens of moralism and legalism as a child, they can appear oppressive and controlling. Re-reading them with fresh eyes in adulthood, however, we can discover previously unexpected anti-authoritarian and egalitarian contours.

12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Like many Americans who grew up in a religiously observant family, my relationship with the Ten Commandments goes back a long time. And, like most long-term relationships, it’s had its share of ups and downs and modulations, good times and bad times. But in many ways, I think that relationship models some basic truths about the commandments themselves and about American religion. So I offer here something along the lines of a narrative exegesis, a memoir, and some intuitive political theology about the Big 10, all rolled together.

As a kid of about 8, my first distinctive memories of the Ten Commandments had to do with my slightly older sister. She wanted to memorize them and, as it happened, our teenage brother had a song he had learned at summer camp when he was about our age. He sang it through for her a couple of times and my sister mimicked him repeatedly the next few days until she had it down cold. It wasn’t too much later that I had to memorize them for school, but I just did it by rote. I couldn’t remember the fun and catchy song.

As a relatively earnest Roman Catholic kid in a Catholic parochial school, the Ten Commandments played a significant role in my moral formation. In preparation for Confession, teachers regularly gave us lengthy reflection guides based on the commandments. Some of the questions were completely inappropriate for us as fifth and sixth grade kids, asking, for instance, if we had committed adultery (#6 in the RC tradition, but #7 for Protestants). The question was delicately worded, running something like this, “Have you done anything to violate the sanctity of another person’s marriage?” Uhhh, what?! Ok, not so helpful. However, the questions about honoring God and parents, stealing, and bearing false witness were relevant enough and merited serious reflection. It didn’t hurt that Sister Beatrice—our fire-breathing, ruler-wielding nun from Ireland—dispensed the fear of God along with the study guides.

The Ten Commandments helped to form my moral compass. At that time, they were only about personal conduct, a check-list for good behavior, but one that I had internalized to a great degree. The goal of the commandments was about being good, staying right with God—and scary Sister Beatrice—and, most of all, avoiding Catholic guilt. This is the reality of simple moralism: it tends to be utterly self-centered.

When I went off to college, the Ten Commandments went with me, but our relationship just wasn’t the same. A new awareness dawned on me in English Literature class one day and, well, we grew apart. I was studying William Blake’s scathing critique of institutional religion in “The Garden of Love.” The first few lines read:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And ‘Thou Shalt Not’ writ over the door;

And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.

Blake’s message was clear: the absolute language of the commandments—and of biblical law more generally—was oppressive and controlling. The church, which had adopted this biblical legalism, was restraining my self-expression and separating me from my natural-born loves. Blake and the other Romantic poets spoke to a nascent anti-authoritarianism welling up in me. In some small way, I began to resist the absolutist framing of the commandments.

But there were other, positive, experiences. I attended a Presbyterian church one Sunday where the Decalogue was read in unison by the congregation after the Confession of Sin and the Declaration of Pardon—the Ten Commandments as liturgy! Although not seen often in mainline Presbyterian churches today, this is an old practice that seeks to embody John Calvin’s three uses of the Law—the pedagogical, the civil, and the didactic uses. While the first use moves sinners to recognize their sin, the civil use works to restrain evil by prohibiting and deterring bad acts. The third use of the law, however, is to instruct us in what is good. It emphasizes the positive and pro-active elements of keeping the law.

Focusing on the larger social and moral vision of the commandments has allowed me to rekindle the relationship. In his book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Michael Walzer reminds us that the laws are embedded in a larger narrative context from which they should not be separated. That story contains significant egalitarian and anti-authoritarian elements which are reflected in the commands themselves. To begin with, God speaks to all of the Israelites and reveals the commands and the laws. The Israelites, as a whole, are responsible for creating and maintaining justice. Unlike Hammurabi’s law code, the commandments cannot be claimed as the work of any one king or political regime. Indeed, the narrative is decidedly critical of human monarchies, but if Israel has a king, he is subject to them in the same way that all of the Israelites are subject to them.

As part of this anti-authoritarian narrative, the Ten Commandments and the Sinai Covenant outline a social and moral vision of an alternative community, what Hebrew Bible scholar Patrick Miller calls a good neighborhood. The Ten Commandments, as it turns out, do not simply dictate an individual and private moralism. Instead, they establish the basic fence-post issues that mark out a moral space within which the Israelites will live. This space or neighborhood consists of a web of moral relations. The first five commandments establish the relationship between the Israelites and the powers that be, namely, God and one’s parents. But the second half of the Decalogue speaks to social relations, the relationship between the Israelite and his neighbor. Recalling the narrative and covenant framework of these commandments, a covenant creates or repairs a deep bond between unrelated parties. The Ten Commandments mark out the boundaries in which these bonds will be repaired after the dehumanizing and shattering experience of slavery in Egypt. They establish a neighborhood that can be called good because it is different from, an alternative to, the imperial politics of Egypt, Assyria, or Babylonia.

Miller’s reading of the Ten Commandments as social vision grows out of Calvin’s third use of the law. Thus Miller would have us see that the sixth commandment (in Jewish and Protestant numbering) is about protecting life, the positive action that grows out of the negative injunction “you shall not murder” (20:13) Moreover, this commandment, with its particular Hebrew verb for “murder,” rather than the general term for “kill,” subtly undermines absolutist interpretations. The sixth commandment makes fine distinctions, not blanket ones. It invites the community to ponder the difference between these two actions and consider which scenarios might be labeled as murder and which might not (e.g. vengeance killing and killing in cold blood are murder, but not killing during war).

The seventh commandment (20:13b) is not simply about restraining your sexual appetite: it is more significantly about guarding the boundaries of a neighbor’s family life. Finally, the tenth commandment (20:14) is about nurturing appropriate desires and the repercussions of an inordinate desire or jealousy of the neighbor. Successfully accomplishing the previous four commandments depends on the tenth commandment. Coveting is an internal disposition rather than a direct and external action against the neighbor, but coveting creates the circumstances that can ultimately lead to the violation of the neighbor’s life, family, and property.

Of course, there are many aspects of the Ten Commandments that demand careful attention. The problems of the public use of the commandments in a religiously pluralistic society keep me from being too glib. I’m not terribly thrilled with the fights over the public display of the Decalogue created by groups who want to privilege their particular brand of Christianity over and against all other religious expressions. Yet I remain convinced that the commandments contain the right amount of ambivalence and tension on matters of private and public use, obedience and anti-authoritarianism, absolutism and egalitarianism so as to make them of continuing importance to political theological reflection.

Can I convince you to memorize them? There’s a fun and catchy song that can help.

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