ABC's Nightline has been running a series on the Ten Commandments in which they explore the issues and dimensions of each commandment in contemporary society.
The series is interesting and, in many ways, inclusive. After all, the Ten Commandments form the ethical basis of the world's three great monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims draw inspiration from them and, throughout history, developed the insights of the commandments in theological, moral, social, and legal arenas. They are very important spiritually, morally, intellectually, and culturally.
But for all their inclusiveness, their interpretation is often the source of division. It is one thing to say, "Thou shalt not...." and it is often a completely different thing to figure out how the "shalt nots" relate to human experience. For, despite the moral idealism of the commandments, everyone knows that human beings actually do the "shalt nots."
"Thou shalt not commit adultery" is a good example of the problem with the commandments. Martial fidelity is a practical way of honoring and respecting one's partner. To be faithful -- even when one might not "feel" like it -- is a fundamental way of respecting another human being by taking into their feelings, emotions, and commitments before simply acting on one's personal inclinations. To stop and think about the effects of one's actions on a larger community (in the case of adultery, thinking about a spouse and children) often inhibits bad choices. That's a big part of morality -- to reflect on one's actions in advance and to consider the communal consequences of behavior. Moral frameworks -- like the Ten Commandments -- provide guidelines for such reflection. And, as such, they form a vision for what constitutes the good society -- a society that honors God and neighbor.
The problem comes with the obvious fact that human beings, even reflective and caring ones, don't always act in a way that honors God and neighbor. We both flaunt and break the commandments on a regular basis. So what does society do with the violators?
Throughout history, religious groups have tried to enforce the Ten Commandments through legal means. We might all agree that theft and murder are wrong and that thieves and murderers should go to prison. But what about the "lesser" commandments -- like adultery? In Jesus' day, women caught in adultery could be stoned -- and that is still the case in many countries around the world. In early American history, adulterers could be whipped, jailed, divorced with their permission, or forced (as in The Scarlet Letter) to wear a public mark of shame.
To point up the problem with adultery is only the beginning. What of those who swear, lie, or worship other gods? Should society make swearing a crime? Idolatry? Being angry at your parents? Where does this end? In some sort of Taliban-style legalism where the religion police enforce a literal interpretation of each of these Ten Commandments? Do we rank the commandments in order of importance? The bad ones get the most punishment? The minor ones get overlooked? The Ten Commandments, for all their moral grandeur, quickly descend into an ethical quagmire of angels dancing on the head of pins.
The answer is obvious: Very few people take the Ten Commandments literally. We contextualize them, trying to discern the origin, intent, and purpose of these commandments in order to create a way of life that demonstrates the deeper wisdom of these teachings. And we recognize the human disposition toward breaking them -- and to a greater or lesser degree, we offer forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation toward one another in regard to the Ten Commandments. And religious communities argue about how much forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation is appropriate in any given denomination or tradition.
Taking the Commandments out of context is spiritually and politically dangerous. To hold up these Ten Commandments (in Hebrew they aren't even called "commandments;" rather, the Hebrew word is "terms") to hold up these ten terms of the moral law without reference to the larger intent of the words leads to legalism, violence, and repression. God intended for the Law to be joyful, a pathway for a way of life of devotion and respect for one other, a blessing and not a curse. Indeed, Jesus, a rabbi himself, made this point. When asked what was the most important of the commandments, he replied: "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself."
That is the summary -- the intended wisdom -- of the Ten Commandments. The ten terms of the law should bring us to the basis for a good life: love. Is it loving to murder, steal, curse, violate our vows, lie, envy or demean another? That should be the first question of morality -- and it is what the Ten Commandments teach.
Diana Butler Bass is pretty much a postmodern progressive. In addition to blogging here, she also blogs at Progressive Revival and is the author of the new book, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.