The Common Good
August 2006

Thou shalt not

by Rose Marie Berger | August 2006

Covenants always have social and political implications.

The season of Pentecost, according to many liturgical traditions, stretches from Pentecost Sunday—50 days after Easter—all the way to the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the church year. Christians generally regard Pentecost as the birth of the church, marked by the descent of the Holy Spirit that emboldened the hiding disciples to go public with their faith.

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In some Jewish traditions, however, the celebration—known as Shavuot—is associated with the covenants God made with Noah post-Flood (Genesis 8-9), Abraham and the Israelites regarding a new homeland (Genesis 15), Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19-24), and David concerning his kingship (2 Samuel 7). It’s also called the “Feast of Oaths.”

As a child in Catholic schools, I prepared for a “good confession” by performing what was called an “examination of conscience.” This primarily consisted of reviewing the Ten Commandments (as summarized in Exodus 20) and keeping a tally of how many I’d broken since my last confession. As a third- grader the sins outlined in the commandments were very exotic—adultery, murder, and of course “coveting your neighbor’s ass.” (I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was fun to say.) My primary “sin” as a third-grader was a high recidivism rate when it came to failing to honor my father and mother. Despite the rocky start, the regular practice of an examination of conscience stayed with me, deepening and becoming more serious as an adult.

ONE PRACTICE I developed over the years is to write my own “examen,” as the Jesuits call it. I root it in the Ten Commandments, but it’s tailored to hold me more accountable to my peculiar tendencies to stray.

For example, the Decalogue starts with: “I am the Lord your God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). How have I ceded my freedom to others? How have I celebrated God’s deliverance of me? Am I a witness to the liberating love of God in my community? Into what do I put the most amount of energy—is it for God?

In Exodus 20:7, God says not to make wrongful use of God’s name. Do I honor my commitments? Do I try to bend God’s will to match my own? Am I mindful of the power of my own speech and its effect on others?

As an adult, honoring my father and mother takes on a different aspect. Am I attentive to their needs, especially in aging? Do I work to deepen our relationship as it moves through time? Do I support economic values that protect the care of elders? Do I pay a living wage to those who care for the aged? Do I attend to their wisdom?

What about “thou shalt not kill”? Have I worked to stop the war in Iraq? Have I signed an anti-death penalty card? Have I diminished myself or others, causing a precious hope to die? Do I work to reduce the abortion rate? Have I allowed fear to kill off the possibilities that God offers?

There is also adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. Have I sexualized another, reducing their humanity? Do I steal from workers by making exorbitant interest off investments? Do I tell the truth about who I am to myself and others? Do I allow desire for something or someone to overshadow my desire for God? Do I continually want to live an illusion, rather than reality?

A covenant is a set of agreements made with God, others, and to certain values. This Pentecost season is a good time to review the covenants in our lives, the oaths we have made. Keep in mind that in biblical times covenants were communal, public agreements. Covenants always have social and political implications.

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about where it is appropriate to display the Ten Commandments. According to the prophet Jeremiah, the proper display for them is to write them on our hearts.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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