The Cumberland County Board of Education recently endorsed the idea of posting the Ten Commandments in our schools. These commandments would be placed on “Freedom Walls” along with other historical documents central to American history. Taking the lead from Tennessee state policy signed into law by Governor Haslam this past April, our Board of Education voted unanimously to allow schools to post the primary dictates of the Hebrew scriptures.
In expressing the need for the public posting of these commandments, Crossville resident Star Stone cited, along with the benefits to character development and good citizenship, that “...in light of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut, I believe it wouldn’t hurt to remind us that ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
Putting aside the complicated issues related to the separation of church and state, it is hard to understand how the posting of Jewish law from thousands of years ago can help our students today. Apart from the religious faith, history, and community structure through which such “laws” only make sense, posting the Ten Commandments, or any other religious “law,” appears simply as an act of desperation on behalf of a culture which many feel is falling apart.
The Ten Commandments, many believe, are what American society, in terms of its legal and moral framework, has been built upon. There is, of course, some truth to this claim. Similar voices contend that if we were to “get back to the commandments,” all would be well once again. But these laws, when understood in their proper historical context, lay out a framework not for 21st century democratic capitalism, but for an ancient theocracy where economics, faith, legal order, and social justice were all of one piece.
The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20 and expanded in Deuteronomy 5, are God’s law given to the Israelites upon liberation from Egyptian bondage. They make up, in fact, a core component of the counter-narrative and social structure that God had laid out for the Israelites as they formulate a new community of freedom. The Ten Commandments, and a whole host of other “laws” — the Torah — provide a foundation through which a faith community and economic order will be developed based upon concern for the neighbor, social justice, and communal sharing. Thus, God’s law cannot be understood apart from Egyptian realities.
In Egypt, the Hebrews were forced to work in the brickyards twenty-four hours a day. They were compelled to labor harder and harder with very little assistance (see Exodus 5). But, under God’s law, there would be sabbath time, a divinely ordained break from production. Stealing, murder, and coveting a neighbor’s possessions would not violate the dictates of private property, but would sabotage the community-based value system of neighborliness. The law against adultery and the honoring of mother and father further point to a social structure in which community — not the individual — is the primary building block of the society.
It is easy to understand why Board of Education members would vote to support the posting of the Ten Commandments in our schools. In a society of autonomy and rabid individualism, where all forms of authority are laughed at and mocked, we need something — anything — to affirm a basic moral order. There is a creeping chaos that has come to define our national life which is hard to deny, but even harder to reign in. A growing national desperation longs for order, and perhaps, the thinking goes, the Ten Commandments could provide such order. A tough and complicated call for sure, but maybe there are things that the commandments could teach us?
The commandments might be a jumping off point from which to consider our national idolatry. The idols of rabid consumerism are destroying our families, community structure, and God’s creation. We have long since mocked the idea of not killing with our history of Native American genocide, African American enslavement, today’s daily drone strikes in the Middle East and never ending gun-related deaths throughout our nation. Coveting is the engine of our economy while adultery and broken families have long been a social norm. Additionally, there is no time for sabbath if we truly want our economy to grow. The demands of the free-market allow no rest, nor moral consideration, for the weary.
So, the benefits to posting the Ten Commandments in our schools or other public buildings remains to be seen. In our nation of great religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity the posting of Jewish law must be accompanied by the posting of other religious law, or none at all. Instead, a national dialogue in regard to the foundational beliefs of America might be in order. Through such dialogue, perhaps we would discover that we actually believe very little in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we would discover that we actually believe in very few hard and true “laws” at all. But such revelations, if true, might lead us to a critical point of confession, followed by a time of national revisioning.
Could America be honest both about its history — what we have done, and our current situation — what we have become? The Ten Commandments, once they are taken seriously, and thus taken down from the public square, might provide the opportunity for such a discussion. Without this discussion, we go forward at our own peril.
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This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.