“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come not to praise this Commandment, but to bury it. For all the good that it may have done in its social graces, so has it been undone in the policy sphere.
Let me begin by saying that I am a child of the Eighties. It was a decade known both affectionately and without irony as both “The Decade of Greed” and “The Decade of Excess”. If the Sixties were a party and the Seventies were a hangover, the Eighties were the day everyone went back to work, ready to get things done. It’s like the entire country decided one day that free love might be great, but everything else worthwhile costs money, and they were going to do whatever it took to get as much of it as they could.
You want to talk about coveting? Oh, they had coveting down. The official motto of the decade was “he who dies with the most toys wins”. It wasn’t enough to keep up with the Joneses. You had to beat them into the ground and then rub their noses in it. Everything had to be bigger and louder, faster and cooler, newer and just plain BETTER. Too much was never enough, and style always trumped substance. If you don’t believe me, let me point out that this was the decade that glam rock reigned supreme, and even Poison packed stadiums (sorry, Bret Michaels, you know I’m still a fan).
Is it any wonder my generation turned out to be a bunch of slackers? We had seen what commercialism and the desire for what the other guy has (y’know, coveting) had wrought, and we wanted none of it. Well, until we had kids of our own and needed to get a mortgage, but that’s a different story. The point is, I see the social value in this Commandment, truly I do. But I fear the policy implications far more.
Consider for a moment: what exactly is coveting? Is it an action? When you covet a man’s house, do you go inside of it? When you covet a woman’s ox, do you take it from her? When you covet your neighbor’s wife, do you bash him over the head and drag her off? Or even attempt to woo her away? The truth is, coveting something may drive you to do any of these things, but it is not the same as actually doing them. In the same way I might think about giving to charity, but go buy a burrito with the money instead. Do I get good karma for the thought, even though I don’t carry out the deed?
When crafting laws, it is important to make a distinction between action and motive. Motive is an element of a crime, but it is not a crime in and of itself (which is good for me, because as Prince wrote, “if a man is guilty for what goes on in his mind, give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”) But the truth of the matter is that we do have crimes in this country that are based solely on what goes on in a person’s mind. They are called “hate crimes”.
Now I know there are those of you who are thinking “what does that have to do with coveting?” and that’s a fair question. To me they are one and the same. The motivation to commit an act is an element of thought, something that exists solely in the mind of the individual. Hatred, while it is something that we as a society should stand against, is no more or less repugnant that wanting something just because someone else has it. And just like covetousness, hatred in itself should not be a crime, nor should it be an additional element that can exacerbate a sentence.
Consider: if I were to propose a law against covetousness, such that if someone were deemed to have committed a crime out of covetousness, would that be acceptable? Would that be something that should warrant a harsher sentence than committing the same crime for another reason? If I stole your jacket “because I wanted it” rather than “because I was cold”, you still don’t have your jacket. By the same token, if a person has been assaulted, to me it does not matter why; the assailant should be punished.
When we start defining motivation itself as a crime, we are delving into thoughtcrime. For any literate person that should be enough to give them pause; for any moral person that should be enough to give them concern; for any just person, that should be enough to give them fear. Unfortunately, for politicians it doesn’t even seem to lose them a single moment of sleep.
UPDATE (12/16/12): I recently discovered The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law, which I highly recommend to everyone. Of particular relevance to this post is “Part 7: The Axes of Evil”, which discusses culpability, responsibility, and depravity in relation to crime. In the issue of hate crimes, I would consider those a matter of depravity, which is an element of the crime to be considered when determining the total punishment to be served, but again (as I stated above) not something to be charged as a separate crime. In the same way that we would consider any other element of a person’s mental state, of course we should consider their total relationship to the victim, and that includes any specific prejudice they may have IF it was a motivating factor.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
If you had to pick just one Commandment as an example of why the Ten Commandments should be used as a system of law, I would choose this one. I know others would go with the Sixth Commandment, or possibly the Eighth Commandment, but for my money it just doesn’t get any better than this. For every other Commandment I can find some flaw, some reason to say “yes, but…”, yet this one is unique in that I believe it is not only excellent as personal advice but essential for a functional judiciary.
We have in America (and there are in many other countries as well) what is referred to as an adversarial judiciary system, one that relies in large part on people being honest about what they have seen or heard and even what they believe. While there are many critics of such a system (and the U.S. judicial system in particular), it is generally thought to be superior to the inquisitorial alternative. Certainly I believe it is, and regardless of which type of system you use, in either case false testimony would be damaging to the proceedings.
In the broader context of society, I also think that it is worth keeping this Commandment in mind in daily life. I can’t help remembering as I reflect on this one time when I was much younger, and in a fit of jealousy I said some very untrue things about someone else; they cost me a good and close friend, and it is one of only three things I have done that I deeply regret. Words have power, and we forget that at our peril.
But is there an intersection between these two things that perhaps is the step too far? Is there a gray area that we have given over to politicians that is of society but not governance? I would argue that there is, and more to the point I would argue that it is an area that is not only expanding but being abused both more frequently and more frivolously as time marches on. I am speaking in particular of Congressional hearings.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of any sort of Congressional hearings is the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not only is the idea of grilling people about their personal lives and politics repugnant to me, it seems antithetical to the very idea of what America stands for. More to the point of the Ninth Commandment, like the Salem Witch Trials that Arthur Miller compares them to in The Crucible, there was a strong compulsion on witnesses to implicate others, even if it meant doing so under false pretenses. Once again, it would seem to be the antithesis of what America and our government should stand for.
Over the decades Congressional hearings have delved into other areas of concern ranging from Watergate to Iran-Contra, and those have been important matters that needed investigation. Did Toyota need investigating by Congress? Arguably, since there was a Federal agency involved, although I think that was more posturing for headlines than any real effective action. But the one that bothers me most is when Congress starts investigating steroid use in athletes.
Aside from basically encouraging perjury (“hey, how would you like the opportunity to destroy your own career? No?”), I don’t see what point there is in Congress even being involved in this. Again, it seems more a matter of either pandering for the cameras or, even more ominously, honestly believing they have a right and a mandate to be involved in every aspect of American life simply because they are… well… politicians. And we put them there.
So yes, I believe very much that you shouldn’t tell lies about other people. It has cost me personally and it costs us as a society. But I also believe we need to think very long and hard about when and how we ask the sorts of questions that might elicit lies from others. There are some things that are properly none of our business, or if they are our business, there are proper forums for handling them. When the cost for telling the truth outweighs the risk for telling the lie, people will lie. And in that case, how much of the burden for that lie falls on the ones who put them in the position of feeling like they needed to lie in the first place?
“Though shalt not steal.”
When making the case for basing legislation (or even an entire criminal or civil code) on the Ten Commandments, this is usually right behind the Sixth Commandment in being cited as to why it would be a good idea. After all, the reasoning goes, who among us could object to a law that says “don’t steal”? Sure , we might quibble a little about the specifics (there’s a big difference between shoplifting and grand theft: auto, for example), but the basic concept is sound.
And yet… what is theft, exactly?
I believe the Merriam-Webster definition is particularly instructive in this regard: “1. a. the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it; b. an unlawful taking; 2 obsolete : something stolen”. Isn’t it interesting that both current definitions involving personal property include words like ” felonious” and “unlawful”, and it’s an obsolete use to say something as direct and simple as “something stolen”. It becomes even more interesting when you follow that particular line of thought over to the definition of “steal”. I won’t pull every part of the definition I found intriguing and useful, but here’s the very first one: “to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice”.
So where am I going with all of this? It’s an old argument, and one that a lot of folks have written off before as crazy, but pause for a moment and think about it. If someone came to your door and demanded money, and if you didn’t give it to them they would come back with guns and take it by force, would you call that theft? And yet that’s what taxation is, in a nutshell. There may be a few more steps in between the nice ask and the men with guns (they’re called “police”, by the way), but the end result is the same.
So what justifications do people offer for why this isn’t, in fact, theft? First there’s the suggestion that “you owe it to the community”. An interesting thought, and one that I’ve never quite understood. If I offer something for use by “the community” and then demand payment post-facto, that is by definition illegal and immoral; either I state a charge upfront or there is no charge. And yet the oft-cited reasons I “owe it to the community” are for the roads, police, fire department, etc. which I have either never used, never wanted, or never been billed directly for so that I can determine whether I am interested in the service at that cost. As for the schools I attended growing up, what about the taxes my parents paid? And what about the sales taxes I paid on goods I purchased? And again, why was I never given a choice as to whether I was interested in those services in the first place?
But of course, that is often the second argument I hear as to why taxation is not theft; “you had a chance to vote”. I’ve already expressed my opinion on voting, but in this specialized case I’ll narrow it further: this is blaming the victim. If I voted and didn’t get the guy I wanted, I’m being robbed for policies I don’t agree with, except for the ones I do. How is that fair? If I voted and I did get the guy I wanted, I’m being robbed for policies I do agree with, except for the ones I don’t. How is that fair? If I didn’t vote at all, I’m just getting robbed, but I get lectured about how it’s my own fault for not voting, and how is that fair?
Speaking of blaming the victim, there’s another argument that ties into both of the ones above: “You choose to live here.” This is occasionally accompanied by “if you don’t like it here, leave.” This is somewhat akin to saying to someone born into the ghetto that they chose to be born there, and therefore they have nobody but themselves to blame for being there. Show me a country on Earth where I won’t get robbed just for trying to live there, and I might consider living there. As I have yet to find that option, I take the best that’s on the table, but that doesn’t mean I can’t (and won’t) try to make it better, and noting the flaws is the first step.
Having said all this, does this mean I am completely against taxation for all reasons, at all times? No. In all things there must be compromise and balance if we are to live together as a society, and necessary evil is sometimes one of those things. For the common defense, for police and courts and fire departments, the things that we all need and benefit from but nobody wants to pay for until after we need them and it is too late to pay for them, taxation is a necessary evil. But being aware that it is theft, that we are stealing from ourselves and our friends and our neighbors every time we tax, will hopefully keep in check the desire to “do more good”. There is very little good that can be done when the root lies in breaking a Commandment, even though we all know where that paved road leads.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Ah, the juiciest Commandment. If everybody followed this one, where would Jerry Springer’s career be? Where would most of daytime TV be? Come to think of it, most of our entertainment seems to revolve around breaking this one, so obviously it hits a sore spot for a lot of us, even the folks who aren’t married. But should it be enshrined in law?
The first and most important question is, what exactly is adultery? Don’t be too quick to answer that one. Throughout history and in different jurisdictions, even in the U.S. today, the definition can vary. In North Carolina as recently as 2010 it was as simple as premarital sex. The penalties for adultery have historically ranged from the well-known shunning (think of a certain scarlet letter) to the much more serious and permanent stoning deaths that have occurred in some countries even into the 21st century.
Now, before anyone accuses me of being a libertine (I am not; I am a libertarian, big difference), I would like to point out that I am simply arguing against making adultery as such a criminal offense. So far as I see it the government has no presiding interest in the goings on in private bedrooms. But there is a role to be had for the government relating to this Commandment, one that is both simple and just.
I asked before, “what is adultery?” My answer would be, “a violation of the marital contract.” Now that may sound to some to be somewhat akin to the famous definition of pornography (“I know it when I see it”), but in fact it is much more direct and simple than that. Each couple, when they marry, takes certain vows, and in so doing they enter into what is commonly accepted (one might even refer to it as being common law) as a binding contract. Those vows may differ from couple to couple, but that does not make them any less binding than if my lease is different than the lease you have with your landlord. In the same way that if I have a dispute with my landlord, we can choose to resolve it privately, or either one of us can choose to take it to court.
Viewed through this lens, the role of the government becomes not one of deciding what does or does not constitute proper behavior, or even what does or does not constitute a proper marriage, but simply one of performing two tasks the court system is eminently and explicitly designed for: determining the validity of a contract, and adjudicating the proper performance of contractual obligations. If “forsaking all others” was a part of the marital vows (as it commonly is, in some form or other) then adultery would be a violation of that contract, and would be grounds for a termination of that contract, presumably with favorable terms to the aggrieved party.
In this world I envision, so-called immoral behavior would not, shockingly, go up. I say “so-called immoral behavior” because I’m a big believer in expressed preference. I’ve known too many people who talk a good game about their morality but don’t live it, and often those are the same people who want to pass laws to force others to live by that same moral code. What I believe is that if you think something is wrong, don’t do it. It really is that simple. Note that I didn’t say it was easy, but then the right thing rarely is. Still, as I was reminded in a talk recently with the Anglican Anarchist, we were given free will for a reason. If you aren’t free to choose to do the wrong thing, there is no value in doing the right thing.
If the government is not dictating morality, it is up to us, as individuals and as a society, to determine what morality is. We can preach it in our churches, teach it in our homes, argue it in our coffee shops and town squares, and when and if we decide to marry, we can draw up the contracts that suit us as individuals and couples best, without someone else deciding for us what our marriage will mean.
“Thou shalt not kill.”
Of all the Commandments, I personally would have put this one at the top. Maybe I’m funny that way, or maybe I’m just not quite the omniscient being and there are other factors in play I’m not aware of, but it does seem to be a rather important one. Setting all of that aside however, it is at least straightforward. “Thou shalt not kill.” It has also been translated as “Thou shall not commit murder”, which is a very different thing entirely, and it makes a big difference which is the correct statement when looking at this from a public policy perspective. There are two distinct yet equally important reasons for this, one of which I can come down in agreement with the “not commit murder” version, and the other I come down on the “shalt not kill” side, so I’m a bit torn.
For the first reason, there’s the question of “what exactly is murder?” I know that sounds like a silly question to some, maybe most, but it is an important question, not just in jurisprudence but in society. Is murder any time you shorten another person’s time on Earth? If so, I can’t agree with that definition. Put bluntly, if you threaten me or mine, I will not hesitate to use any and all necessary force to affect our defense and escape. That’s not to say I prefer to use force nor do I look forward to the day, but I reserve the right, and while I may regret the necessity of the act I will never regret the act itself.
Likewise, I am a great proponent of the idea that a person’s life is their own, to live as they see fit and only so long as they wish to. If they require assistance in leaving a life they no longer find tolerable, I will not hold someone liable for providing that assistance. Maybe that makes me a bad person in the eyes of some, but that’s what I believe and I stand by it.
So having ruled out those definitive cases, what about the questionable ones? What about the issues of negligence, unintentional action, and incitement? Those I am comfortable at least putting in the custody of the judicial system, as they are questionable, and are worthy of being weighed by a jury. While I can see in each one of those without stretching a case of either vindication or at least a far lesser crime, I can also easily see a case of murder. That is why we have an adversarial judicial system, to sort out such murky cases, and to (ideally) ensure the innocent are not punished along with the guilty.
But the truth is that the judicial system is also something we have to look at when we consider this Commandment, because it is a part of the government, and at least in America the government represents us all. The actions the government takes are, if not literally than at least symbolically, the actions we all take, and if we do not at least raise our voices against the immoral actions than we are equally culpable of them.
I have made my feelings on the death penalty clear before, but here we have another consideration to make. If the State is, collectively speaking, all of us, then every action taken by the State is an action taken by us. That includes every execution carried out by the State. If you believe that the proper interpretation of this Commandment is “Thou shall not commit murder”, you cannot in good conscience ever question any execution carried out, or else you must oppose all of them, and as I have pointed out before the inherent imperfection of man is such that the latter is inevitable. Even if you believe the death penalty is just and can be (and is) applied justly, and therefore it is not murder, do you believe the proper translation is “thou shalt not kill”? If so, you must oppose the death penalty on those grounds alone. As a wise man once wrote, “you can’t eat meat and look down your nose at the butcher.”
It may seem odd that I would have no problem with killing in my own person, or even with someone ending their own life, and I have as much as said I would help someone to end theirs if asked, yet I am opposed to the State taking life in the form of the death penalty. Like most things, it is contextual. I would not kill except as a last resort; I believe that a person has a right to make their own choices about their own life, including when to end it; and if it came down to it, I am willing to assist someone I care about to do what they feel they must even when they don’t have the strength to do it themselves. That does not mean I enjoy it, nor does that mean I prefer it. And when there is another option, I will always take it. For me, that is the heart and soul of this Commandment. There is almost always another option, and it is incumbent upon us to find it.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
I remember when I was a kid, you pretty much couldn’t go anywhere on Sunday because everything was closed. Not just shorter hours mind you, but closed. I’m not sure if this was because of blue laws or just tradition, but I do remember my dad being put out about it more than once. Everybody rushed to the grocery store on Saturday because you weren’t going shopping on Sunday. The idea that the Supreme Court could get behind a government mandated day of rest boggles my mind, but then, I guess I figured I left being told when to take a nap behind when I graduated from kindergarten.
So what does all of this have to do with the Fourth Commandment? Surprisingly, not much. Maybe it’s just my libertarian prejudices peeking through again, but I don’t see anything to object to in this Commandment, so long as those who are believers read it the same way I do. Yes, it’s quite clear about mandating a day of rest, and I am always a fan of taking a day off, but a careful reading shows that there are lines as to exactly just how far that prohibition on work extends.
I see a lot there about “thou shalt not do any work” (the believer), “nor thy son, nor thy daughter” (the believer’s immediate household), “thy manservant, nor thy maidservant” (any hired laborers you have around), ” nor thy cattle” (any beasts of burden you own), ” nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (any guests or outsiders in your home). Pretty much to me this reads as “don’t try to weasel out of this on a technicality, just accept that you won’t be getting any work done today and set the day aside”. That doesn’t extend to “everyone in the world, whether they believe in your religion or not, has to set the day aside”, especially since it specifically denotes the stranger “within thy gates”, not “the stranger who lives down the street”.
Something even more positive I can take out of this is an argument for property rights. It might be seen by some as a bit of a stretch, but follow me on this one. That one clause about “nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” is an assertion of the supremacy of a person’s beliefs within the domain of their home. If I enter a person’s home, I’m not converting to their religion, but I am giving tacit acceptance to the social norms they live by. If I’m not comfortable with those norms, I’m free to leave at any time, but by no means do I have a right to try to force my views on them.
I’ve always been a big believer in the idea of “my house, my rules”, and that knife cuts both ways. Come Sunday, if I visit the home of someone who holds the Sabbath holy, I’ll abide by the conventions they consider appropriate, and if they decide to come over to my place, I’ll expect them to do the same. Of course there is a certain give and take in a polite society, and if I am aware that they are prohibited by their beliefs from engaging in work on the Sabbath I won’t ask them to pick up a hammer and help me out with a project, but by the same token I’ll expect them to respect my belief that there’s nothing wrong with me going ahead with what I’m doing (although anyone who knows me knows that’s unlikely on any day, but you get my point).
UPDATE: By special request, my thoughts on mandated rest – I’m a big fan of taking a break every now and then (as my wife will gladly attest to). However, I’m also a big believer in personal responsibility, and it just rubs me the wrong way to think that people would need to be told, or even forced by their beliefs, to take a day off. There have been times in my life, particularly when I was younger and still acting, when I was working seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. It was exhausting but exhilarating. Was it the right choice to make? I don’t honestly know. I certainly wouldn’t do it now. But there are times now when I have to work every day of the week to keep up with my job and school, and if one considers writing for this blog to be work (which by the definitions of this Commandment I believe it would be) I work every day of the week, and if I didn’t I would never have enough time to get everything done. Even if I did get everything done, my six days of working every week would be miserable, and I would prefer to just spread some of that work into the extra day.
As far as mandating a rest for one’s servants and animals, I believe that in a proper libertarian system, the problem would take care of itself. First, slavery would not be an issue, as it would be outlawed. People would have the right to make whatever contracts they felt were appropriate, as noted above. And if you work your animals to death, eventually you won’t have animals at all. I know that sounds rather cold blooded, but there is an alternative: the principle of shame. Shame is a powerful motivator, and if a community finds the actions of one person to be outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, but within the bounds of legal behavior (the grey zone, if you will), simply refusing to associate with them and letting them know why can often change their behavior very quickly. It works very well in those societies that practice shunning and the like. It also preserves the element of free will; if you really think you’re in the right, keep doing what you’re doing, just don’t expect me to agree.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
Okay, even I can’t misinterpret or twist this one. It’s pretty much straightforward. I’m not even going to demand a strict interpretation of “JHVH” as the name of God being the only thing that can’t be taken in vain, because that’s just being silly. So in what ways does the Third Commandment affect the broader tapestry of our society? I see it as being in three ways. First, in those who embrace the ideology of the Judeo-Christian framework but then don’t live up to it in the laws they support; second, in those who make any sort of oath using a Torah, Bible, or other holy book derived from the Commandments and then violating that oath; and third in potential conflicts between the Third Commandment and the First Amendment.
For those who subscribe to this particular set of ideals, even without looking more broadly than the Commandments themselves I think there’s a fair bit of potential for conflict. Setting aside any jokes about politicians and adultery, there’s still plenty of arguments to be made. The weakest is regarding taxation, which some have argued is equivalent to theft. I’m not looking to make that argument here (although I may when I get to the Eighth Commandment), but I am putting it out there for consideration. More importantly there’s the question of all the people and politicians who make a big show of their faith and yet also make a big show of support for the death penalty. I’m not sure exactly how they square that with the Sixth Commandment, but that’s another one I’ll discuss further when I get to it. For now, I’m just asking questions.
As far as the taking of oaths, I know it was a requirement at some point to swear on the Bible when taking the stand or taking office, although I’m not sure if that was law or tradition with the force of law, nor am I sure if that is the case anymore. If a non-believer were to take an oath using the Bible, is that a violation of the Third Commandment? What about the many, many times that people have taken oaths, whether it be of office or simply when taking the stand in court proceedings, and then broken those oaths, but they were believers? I assume those are cases where the Commandment was broken. But what if they had no intention of breaking the oath at the time they took it?
Or what if they didn’t want to use the holy book because they felt it was in some way disrespectful? I mean no disrespect to anyone when I say invoking the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran would not influence my feelings about an oath, except perhaps to make me uncomfortable taking it in the first place since I see no reason to mix religion with public matters. But for believers, if there is a stigma, does it attach to the person who took an oath under duress or to the person who created the duress?
Finally, on the subject of non-believers, duress, and taking the lord’s name in vain, we have the issue of the First Amendment and how it intersects with the Third Amendment. Please note that I didn’t just say “free speech”, I very deliberately said “the First Amendment”. The issue here is one of freedom of religion as much as it is one of free speech and of the press. When we still censor the use of the phrase “god damn” on the chance that someone might be offended, and even more extreme forms of language and self-expression are suppressed with a ruthlessness that some third-world dictators might admire, there can be no question that there is an intersection between free speech and freedom of religion. But where do we draw the line? The presumption of “public airwaves” is that they are owned by the public as a whole, and not by any one segment of the public. So the question then becomes, do we appeal to the lowest common denominator of lasciviousness or the lowest common denominator of righteousness? Think carefully before you answer, because while your answer may be rooted in a desire not to hear someone use “Jesus Christ” as a curse, it may also mean not allowing someone to display an image of Mohammad either. “Freedom of religion” does not equate to “freedom of YOUR religion”.
“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.