Articles of liberty

The late Justice Antonin Scalia once said, during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, “I think 90 percent of Americans believe in the Ten Commandments. And I bet 85 percent couldn’t tell you what the 10 are.”[1] He was probably right. The question before the court was whether certain displays of the Ten Commandments in public spaces violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It’s a complicated question, and the Court’s rulings so far have boiled down to an equally complicated “depends.”

The Ten Commandments have not been in the headlines much recently, although the State Senate in Alabama voted again, just last week, in favor of allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Gerald Dial, stressed the importance of placing the symbol on public property, including at public schools, because it could cause a potential student shooter to rethink their attack plans. “I believe that if you had the Ten Commandments posted in a prominent place in school, it has the possibility to prohibit some student from taking action to kill other students,” Dial told the Alabama Reporter. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols to “be displayed in a manner that complies with constitutional requirements, including, but not limited to, being intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display.”[2]

I don’t know if the Senator hopes that students walking by such a display in the hallway on a daily basis will over time absorb the good words or if he envisions an armed invader who might lay eyes on the words, “You shall not murder,” and suddenly realize that the plans he had been hatching in his heart went against the will of God. I honor and respect the Senator’s desire to help shape communities and individuals who respect life and law, but there are many more things he and his colleagues can do to reduce violence, things that students, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials have supported for years.

The Ten Commandments have gained weight as cultural icons, displayed as yard signs in front of suburban homes and as stickers on the tail gates of trucks, but as texts that actually inform the moral reasoning of people and communities they don’t seem to get much play. Tom Long suggested that for many proponents of their public display, “the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.”[3] For such an understanding of the Decalogue, the piece of granit on which the words are to be engraved cannot be too monumental. It appears that we have forgotten that the gods of Egypt and Babylon were heavy idols, and that the God Jews and Christians worship is the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and brought them back from Babylon.

What we have come to call the Ten Commandments are words of great weight, but they are not burdensome. They weren’t given to weigh people down, but to equip them for a life in freedom as people of God. They are words spoken by God to the people whom God freed from bondage. They begin with a preamble, and it doesn’t say, “I am God. Here are ten rules. Obey them.” The first word declares, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

They had escaped, and they were clear on only two things. They would no longer submit to the brick quotas of Pharaoh’s empire. And the Holy One who had freed them was the great new fact and force in their life. It was this God of liberation and promise who had demanded of Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” and now they were free. “Let my people go,” the Lord demanded, “that they may serve me.”[4] The Holy One had broken the oppressive bonds of Egypt, and now, at Sinai, God offered to make the exchange of bondage for bonding permanent in covenant – in a constitution of freedom that would allow the former slaves to flourish as God’s people in the land of God’s promise. The words God spoke at Sinai are as much declarations of freedom or articles of liberty as they are commandments:

Because the Lord is your God, you are free from serving other gods. Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. Because the Lord is your God, you are free to rest on the seventh day; free to honor covenants between generations and spouses; free to live without killing, stealing, lying, or coveting; free to live in covenant and not in bondage.

The freedom of God’s people is not spelled out as autonomy, but as loyalty to God, as a commitment to the promises and purposes of the God who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Ten Commandments aren’t a set of ten memorable and somewhat intuitive rules to make life better for everybody or to ensure greater morality in a society where many believe morality is on the decline. They belong entirely within the story and history of God’s covenant with Israel, a covenant God opened to Gentiles through Jesus, so all may know the freedom of the children of God. The commandments belong with the people who continue to tell the story, the people who continue to hear it and live it in synagogues and churches.

Posting the Ten Commandments in our children’s classrooms or in the hallways of their schools won’t help them learn that killing and stealing are wrong. But they might learn something else, something very destructive for the life of our communities. Martin Marty wrote several years ago that the fights about posting the Ten Commandments, with the first commandment ruling out the beliefs of many children in classrooms or of many adults in court, are, in the end, not about religion. “There are plenty of places to post the Ten; the reason [significant numbers of people] want them in public places … is about who belongs and who doesn’t, who gets to set the terms and who has to adhere to them.”[5] Turned into cultural icons on the walls of our schools, between the flag and the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments may teach some of our children how to tell our children who are Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, “We were here first and you have to play by our rules!” As cultural icons, the Ten Commandments are in danger of becoming symbols of supremacy and oppression, the very opposite of their purpose as articles of liberty.

The display of the commandments in order to have them visible and continuously before us is a good idea, just not in court rooms, public schools, or metro offices. The best places for posting the Ten are in the settings where the mighty acts of God are proclaimed, where the story of Passover and the story of Easter are sung and told and studied, where God’s people gather to enter the story of redemption in order to live it more fully. The best places for posting the Ten are synagogues and churches.

How, then, will the commandments shape life in our schools and communities, State Senator Gerald Dial might ask, if we don’t give them a prominent place in those public spaces? The commandments impact our schools and communities through the people who receive their moral and spiritual formation in churches and synagogues, the people who hear all these words God spoke and continues to speak, the words at Sinai, the parables of the kingdom, the words of resurrection and discipleship.

God frees us from the powers that hold us in bondage – from the exploitation and abuse in Pharaoh’s brick yards to the oppression by guilt, fear, and shame. God frees us and draws us into the covenant of freedom – men, women, and children, students, parents, teachers, and state senators: Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods; we are free to participate in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation, wherever we are.

Folks in our schools have been on my mind in recent weeks, and I’ve often thought about Calin, Duke, and Kyla, and other young people who are preparing for baptism. What does active shooter preparedness mean for followers of Jesus? They will have to sort that out, and I hope we can help them do that important work – important for them, for the church, and for the world and its future. I was reminded of going to confirmation class when I was about their age. We studied the catechism then, something that has gone out of style in Christian formation, mostly for good reasons. So, thinking about what our children and the rest of us are facing, I reread the passages dealing with the Ten Commandments, and I was touched by the wisdom and care I found expressed there. I’m reading from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 105 What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?

A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor— not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds— and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword. …

Q. 106 Does this commandment refer only to murder?

A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder. …

Q. 107 Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?

A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods. We are free to find fullness of life as servants of God.


[1] See Dahlia Lithwick, “The Two Tablets: The Supreme Court picks through the rubble of its Ten Commandments jurisprudence”


[3] Thomas G. Long, Living by the Word, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, 17.

[4] Ex 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3 See Walter Brueggemann, “The Commandments and Liberated, Liberating Bonding.” Journal For Preachers 10, no. 2, 1987, 15-24.

[5] Context, August 2005

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