“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
I don’t really have much to say about this one, since it pretty much covers idolatry, and I have very little for or against that. It really doesn’t come into the laws of the country, which is what this whole series is about, so no harm, no foul.
Weeeeeell, except for one or two things.
First we have the whole issue of what exactly idolatry is. Let’s take a quick look at the idea of it, shall we? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. Seems to me like that pretty much rules out any sort of symbol that people put stock or faith in, particularly the kind that seems to generate religious zeal. Like say the American flag. If we can’t burn it because it counts as “desecration”, I think we can also pretty well say you were engaging in idolatry. So who sinned first, my good man?
Then there’s the bald eagle. That would be a “likeness of any thing that is in heaven above” last I checked. So why exactly do we have them all over our money, our federal buildings, and just about everywhere else last I checked?
Oh and hey, are we still allowed to make films and cartoons that mock major religious figures and icons? I know that “Piss Christ” seems to have gotten by without the artist getting arrested yet, but the week isn’t over yet.
My reading of the Second Commandment is deep and complex, but I’ll try to break it down with as little sarcasm as I’m capable of and then circle back to these issues.
First, God is immaterial. Not in the colloquial “irrelevant” sense, but rather in the old-fashioned “insubstantial” sense. Non-embodied. There’s no there, there. The disembodied nature of the divine represented here makes it a lot harder for most people to focus their minds on, so naturally we search for something material to relate to, but then we often make the leap from using the material object as a way of focusing on the divine spirit to thinking of the material object as the divine spirit. This Commandment exists to circumvent that process happening in the first place by outright banning those material affectations.
Second, it’s a way of scooping followers away from the other historical religions in the area at the time the Commandments came down. Consider the avatars of most (if not all) other pantheons local to where Judaism (and by extension Christianity) originated. If “any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” doesn’t cover them, I don’t know what does.
Finally, I know I’ve had this argument before (see the comments from my discussion of the First Commandment), but I’m still not convinced from this passage or many others that at this point in time or any other there was a serious declaration that “I the Lord thy God” was intended to mean “I, the Lord, thy God, and by thy God I mean all the people of Earth, not just the ones I am speaking to right now who have a major hate on against lots of other tribes for many and sordid good reasons and aren’t even aware of 75% of the world I created or the people in it.”
So looping back around to the modern political implications (which makes this a very long loop indeed), and yes, I’m going to bring up hanging the Commandments in court houses again, but only because it’s directly relevant, I promise. At what point does an image of the Ten Commandments itself become a “graven image”? Seeing as how some people treat them as holy law and worship them rather than simply obeying them, treating the very idea of not displaying them as more of an offence than breaking any of them it seems to be more than a bit ironic.
Then there’s the issues I mentioned above. Why are there attempts to ban desecration of the American flag? Because it is a symbol of our country, yes, I get that. But do we bow down ourselves to it, or serve it? We certainly pledge allegiance to it, and how is that different? How is it not a graven image? And why is it that the same politicians who are most adamant about pressing forward with anti-flag desecration legislation are often the same ones pushing prayer in schools and displays of Commandments in public places?
I’m not trying to call into question the sincerity or devoutness of the many people of faith who believe in both Judeo-Christian values and the idea that we should honor the symbols of our nation. What I am calling into question is whether there isn’t a disconnect between the stated nature of those two sets of beliefs (which are not inherently contradictory) and the attempts to restrict the behavior of others or push those beliefs into the public sphere.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Before I get rolling on the whole Ten Commandments thing, I need to make a few clarifications and disclosures. First, for the record, I am not a member or believer in any Judeo-Christian religions or traditions. My personal beliefs (or lack thereof) are not relevant to the discussion at hand, except insofar as to establish that I am not speaking as a believer. Second, I was not raised “in the Church” as it were, but my parents didn’t keep me away from it either, and my sister and I did go to Sunday School whenever we wanted. My parents let us find our own beliefs, and I grew up with the King James Bible, so that’s the version of the Ten Commandments I’ll be looking at.
Now that I’ve gotten all of those provisos out of the way, let’s move on to the easy stuff, shall we? I mean, unlike the Bill of Rights the Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward, right? Well… actually no. Setting aside any controversy about their use, the Commandments themselves have a long and interesting history of not being as clear as they could be.
For this first commandment, what throws me is that I hear a lot of people try to defend the idea of “One True God” using this, even though a proper reading of this Commandment doesn’t lend itself to any such interpretation. Far from it; every reading I can make of it suggests multiple gods, in multiple possible configurations. If you are willing to completely abuse the English language I suppose you could make that reading, and I’ll include that one in order to let folks judge it for themselves, but I’d love to hear someone explain to me how you honestly get to a non-tortured version of “one god” from this.
So here’s what I’m reading: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; sounds like an acknowledgement of other gods. How to interpret that in the context of Judeo-Christian belief? Like so:
Polytheism – Reading it as “there are many gods, I am just the most powerful and most deserving of worship.” You can actually envision a full pantheon of deities that includes one superior figure demanding to be held in full respect above the others quite easily. Odin All-Father, Zeus, or even Osiris (before that whole death-rebirth thing, but that’s a whole other Christian mythology comparison) could handily fit into this role, although in fairness I don’t see this being likely in the full context of the other writings and material around the Commandments.
Kathenotheism – Reading it as “there are many gods or spirits, I am just the most powerful/the others are simply aspects of my glory.” While it would take a little bit of stretching to get it within either the strictest bounds of the definition of kathenotheism or else the strictest interpretation of the Commandment, I still think it takes fewer mental gymnastics than the idea of using this to support monotheism. So imagine it with me: there are still gods or spirits of fields or seasons or what have you, but they are all subservient to the One True God. This isn’t strictly polytheism in that a migrating/herding culture would only worship one subservient spirit at a time and would still always be worshiping the highest deity as the supreme being. Another possibility would be seeing each of these lesser spirits merely as manifestations of the One True God, which takes us into functional monotheistic territory, but is still very different from what is typically described as the monotheism that is derived from the Ten Commandments.
Henotheism – Reading it as “Maybe there are other gods, maybe there aren’t, but I am YOUR god, and there aren’t any others worth bothering with.” This is the one that I think is most likely, and I think a lot of scholars have probably trod a lot of this ground already to be perfectly honest. Henotheism basically is the idea “I worship my god, you worship yours”. Henothesists don’t deny the existence of other gods (or at least the possibility of them), the just don’t particularly care. Considering the origins of Judeo-Christianity in a part of the world that had multiple other, older, much stronger pantheons in existence, I find it difficult to believe that any new religion would have evolved and declared right out of the gate “oh, and by the way, no god exists except for the one we worship, and it’s not the fantasy creatures you’ve been making sacrifices to, because seriously? Animal heads?” Having the stones to say “my god can beat up your god” when you’re on the wrong end of the slave lash is already pretty impressive.
Monotheism – Reading it as “There are no other gods. I am the only one. Don’t notice the man behind the curtain.” As promised, I shall now explore this possibility. While as previously mentioned I find it difficult to believe any new religion would declare right out of the gate that everybody else’s beliefs are completely false, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before in history, so that’s not a complete stopper. The big issue I take with this interpretation is that it doesn’t make sense in terms of the text. If you drop the last clause entirely the Commandment becomes “thou shalt have no other gods”, which is what the assertion of monotheism is. The existence of that clause has to be accounted for, and it can only happen one of two ways, either temporally or through precedence. I’m fairly certain there is no one making the argument that the tribes that eventually became the people of Jerusalem had no religion of any kind before the events described in Exodus. So then the only remaining possibility (as I understand the proper use of the English language) is one of precedence. One does not have to acknowledge that other gods DO exist, only that if they did, they wouldn’t be worth bothering with (see Henotheism above).
I realize that invoking “the usage of the English language” in this case is pretty weak considering the number of translations that the source material has been through, but as long as people insist on using interpreted texts as the basis of their arguments and politics, I’m going to be a stickler. And that’s what it’s all about in the end for me: there are people in America who rely on the Bible to make political decisions, and even want to hang the Ten Commandments in public spaces. But these same people have radically different interpretations of what these texts mean, not just in terms of their personal beliefs but the public sphere as well.
Consider for example my most-likely interpretation of this, what may fairly be considered from a religious perspective the most important Commandment (hence why it comes first): the henotheistic perspective says there may or may not be other gods, but they aren’t worth worrying about. “I worship my god, you worship yours”. Sounds so perfectly American. Shoving your beliefs in the public square and insisting “that’s what America was founded on, and you should thank us for it”? Not so much.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Boy, that’s a mouthful, ain’t it? And it covers so much ground in so little space. Enough ground to keep us arguing over exactly what even one clause means over two hundred years later, and there are three distinct clauses that cover three, arguably very different, aspects of life. So why do all of these fall in the same amendment? And what does it all mean, anyway?
For me personally, it’s not just a matter of “these are the most important things, so let’s put them all first.” The entirety of the Bill of Rights was adopted at the same time, so there’s no reason to say any one amendment is more important than the others, and it’s kind of curious to try to mash together a bunch of unrelated ideas and hope they hold together (unless you think the Founding Fathers were the world’s first DJs. Come to think of it… dibs on that name.) There’s a common thread there, if you look past the surface and consider what the purpose of each of those acts is, and what their deeper meaning is and was at the time of the founding of our country.
I believe the First Amendment is about freedom of thought and the expression thereof. To be able to think or believe something is essentially meaningless in a society without the legal capability to express that belief, and each of those clauses covers one of the primary means by which people of the time communicated with each other. Whether from the pulpit or in the pews, by voice or the printed page, or even simply gathering in the town square and letting their voices be heard, these were the ways that people could let their thoughts and beliefs be known. So what are the implications for our modern society of that interpretation?
For starters, I believe that a strict literalist reading is just silly. To restrict the realm of free speech only to the items identified by a two hundred year old document is to assume that not only were the Founding Fathers great authors and statesmen, they were also prognosticators able to see the advances of technology yet to come and said, “Verily, that internet looks most interesting, but mayhap we best restrict the freedom of expression only to those technologies that exist in our day and age, lest we somehow bungle the whole experiment. Harrumph, harrumph.” (Because that’s exactly how they talked.)
Next, note that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion“. That means that any law like prayer in schools, hanging of Commandments, or anything else that is an official state recognition of religion is out. This also covers pathetic dodges like attempting to make religious shrines “secular” monuments. By the same token, any attempt to restrict people from “the free exercise thereof” is also banned, so stopping folks from displaying a manger scene on their own property is as unconstitutional as banning a sign that says “God hates fags.” You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but it cuts both ways. That’s the way I read it.
Also, while it’s been said before, I think it’s worth noting and reinforcing that the First Amendment is not there to protect popular speech. That’s easy; if the majority of people like what you have to say or believe, and in particular if the people who trod the halls of power are comfortable with what you are saying and how you say it, then you have nothing to fear in terms of what you say or do being restricted. It is the unpopular speech, the vile speech, the speech we would prefer not to have to endure in our comfortable lives that most needs protection. Whether it is jerks who claim military service they never gave or idiots who deny the Holocaust, we need to protect and allow all speech. Let us not forget that there was a time in our country’s history when speaking out against slavery, or in favor of equal treatment for people of all ethnicities or genders, was equally offensive in polite society and the halls of power.
Finally, and this is the big one, expression is merely the final extension of thought. To give freedom of expression without freedom of thought is like saying “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” (thank you Henry Ford.) Being given the choice between “yes” and “yes, please” is no choice at all. Likewise, hate crime legislation is wrong on two points: first, it presumes we can know the true thoughts and motivations of another person. Honestly, I don’t know why I do the shit I do half the time. I’m supposed to understand why other people do things? And even if I did, the First Amendment gives us the right to believe what we want. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it. If the way someone expresses those beliefs is a crime, then let them be punished in accordance with the crime they committed, but not for the thoughts in their head.
Unless we’re okay with making thoughts a crime.