Truth and Meaning: The Place for Commandments
A Michigan legislator has introduced a bill allowing the ten commandments to be posted in our public schools (SB 423). Many people object to such efforts, not necessarily because they disagree with the commandments themselves, but on the grounds that such displays infringe on our guaranteed freedoms of religion in this nation.
You may wonder, though, even if someone were not Jewish or Christian, why would they object to displaying the document, since it presents such an seemingly acceptable list of rules of conduct. While acceptance of the ten commandments may seem inherently obvious to some, perhaps even most Americans, they run fundamentally counter to my beliefs and the tenets of my personal faith. I view the posting of the Ten Commandments in my public spaces as an attempt to impose a religion on me and on all those people who do not hold with those commandments’ underlying assumptions and emphases.
So, while I respect anyone’s desire to live by these rules, let me explain why I do not.
1. Have no other gods before me — I do not believe in the Christian god…or the Hebrew god, or the Muslim god, or any other religion’s specifically delineated deity. I believe that everything everywhere and in all times comprises godness, including each of us. Therefore, I hold all of existence sacred before the gods of the New Testament, the Old Testament, the Qur’an, or any other text. Verdict: I reject this commandment as inconsistent with my religious omnitheism.
2. Do not make graven images/idols — I refuse to be threatened by and intimidated into worshiping what this commandment identifies as a self-proclaimed “jealous god.” I bow in commitment to love and to doing everything I can to make this and all worlds better places. I need no golden calf. I worship the vision of beloved community, a future where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is respected. Verdict: I reject this commandment as irrelevant to my religious beliefs.
3. Do not take the name of the lord in vain — I respect others’ beliefs, and ask only in return that my own beliefs are respected. I cannot promise to remain respectful, however, when followers of the biblical god curse me and seek to infringe on my freedom of belief by presuming that theirs is the only true religion of my country. I cannot stand mute and allow some to murder, torture and oppress others all in the name of their god. Verdict: I reject this commandment as unfair and disrespectful of my religious beliefs.
4. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy — I reserve the right to determine the times and places that I consider holy, whether it is in a church or a forest, on Sunday morning or any other day of the week. My sabbath occurs not when I am on bended knee before a god, but when I kneel to feed a hungry child or give hope to the hopeless. Verdict: I reject this commandment as unimportant to my religious practice.
5. Honor your father and your mother — I honor my father and mother because they earned my honor by doing their duty as parents, not simply because they procreated. I take pride in my parenthood, not because I made someone pregnant, but because I love my children and raised them to be loving and responsible adults. A person earns honor by loving all of the children of the world, whether they are a biological father or mother, or not. Verdict: I reject this commandment for its misdirected emphasis from the real meaning of parenthood.
6. Do not murder — The Bible abounds with killing sanctioned by god. This commandment includes only a proscription against killing one’s own kind (murder). I reject ALL killing, whatever its form or its supposed justification. Verdict: I strongly reject this commandment as biased and weak in its failure to respect the sacredness of all persons.
7. Do not commit adultery — I believe in respecting the bond of love, which also includes the right of ALL people who love each other and wish to commit to each other to be married and to receive the rights and privileges of married couples. Supporting the institution of marriage should also include making it available to all consenting adults, and ensuring that families have the resources they need to stay healthy and happy. Verdict: I reject this commandment as inconsistent and hypocritical.
8. Do not steal — Every person deserves to own the product of their labor, which goes beyond mere possession of objects or payment of salary. A just society commits to economic as well as legal justice, and does not permit a privileged few to steal wealth from the efforts of the masses. Verdict: I reject this commandment for failing to address the evil of greed and the preventable scourge of poverty.
9. Do not bear false witness — Not lying must also include a commitment to seeking the truth. Too many religious people refuse to examine and weigh evidence regarding their beliefs, which is the worst form of lying — lying to yourself. Verdict: I reject this commandment as failing to encourage free thought and the use of reason.
10. Do not covet anything that is your neighbor’s — Loving your neighbor must mean more than resisting jealousy. Loving your neighbor means that I am willing to sacrifice for my neighbor, that I am willing to love my neighbor even if he does not reciprocate that love, and that I am willing to defend the rights of that neighbor regardless of our differences. Verdict: I reject this commandment for failing to address the greater important message of compassion and our ministry to each other.
The ten commandments — as well as every other list of rules suggested by other world religions — have played a part in the development of human society. But, these ancient lists bear little significance to modern society. And their posting in public places, which brings with it an implicit endorsement by the state, is inconsistent with our commitment to the free exercise of religion.
I applaud you if you live by the ten commandments, or the five pillars of Islam, or the analects of Confucius, or the noble truths of Buddhism, and have crafted your personal moral code from these teachings. Unitarian Universalists make all of these codes, and more, available in our churches and fellowships. We educate our children about all religious traditions and in the critical thinking skills needed to craft their own principles. But religious texts should only be made available in public academic settings if they are going to be open to the same free inquiry and analysis as other writings, and not as inherently representative of the beliefs of all Americans.