By Ted Braun
The Cumberland County Board of Education took a significant step in its meeting this past January. In a unanimous decision it authorized county schools to include the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Constitution of Tennessee in a display of historically significant documents.
The inclusion of the Ten Commandments in this list, however, raises some important questions since it is a document that has a primary religious context. The commandments appear twice in the Bible in its Torah section, the first five books that dealt with the formation, nurturing, guidance, and teaching of the newly freed Israelite community that had escaped from years of Egyptian captivity.
The Israelites had now entered into a new covenant or partnership relationship with the liberating God that Moses had introduced to them. The relationship with this God was to be a singular and exclusive one. There were to be no other gods, no images, no idols, no alternatives, no competitors. That is why the first several commandments dealt with the exclusive nature of this religious relationship.
The other commandments dealt with the ethical dimensions of their new community life. Liberated from the 24/7 character of their previous life of work and slavery in Egypt, they were now to observe a weekly sabbath day of rest, remembrance, and renewal. They were also to bring all of the other spheres of life into this new relationship under God—their relationship to other family members, neighbors, and their wider community.
It's important to remember, also, that the commandments come out of a time-bound period of perception and understanding. For instance, their context was a patriarchal one, with women being considered the property of men. That is why one of the commandments refers specifically to coveting a neighbor's wife or his other property—his house, fields, slaves, or animals.
Other parts of the Ten Commandments raise crucial questions today that are ignored by their mere display—questions that need discussion and debate. What does not killing or murdering mean in an age of perpetual war, drones, and gun violence? What does not coveting mean in an age of commercialism, consumerism, and advertising? What does not stealing mean in an age of corporate and individual wealth, greed, and inequality?
The function of Torah (teaching, guidance, and nurturing) in the Bible and in the religious community is never a settled matter, but always an open and continuing process. New times bring new insights. There is always a temptation to reduce this ongoing Torah to law and a regime of legalism.
The Ten Commandments need discussion and contemporary formulation and contexting. This is not the task, however, of our schools, and cannot be accomplished by the mere displaying of the commandments. The Cumberland County Board of Education needs to drop this religious task from its authorizing action.