Some Christian lawyers – some eminent judges – have said and still say, that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all law.
Nothing could be more absurd. Long before these commandments were given there were codes of laws in India and Egypt – laws against murder, perjury, larceny, adultery and fraud. Such laws are as old as human society; as old as the love of life; as old as industry; as the idea of prosperity; as old as human love.
All of the Ten Commandments that are good were old; all that were new are foolish. If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: ‘Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men… He would have left out the one about graven images, and in its stead would have said: ‘Thou shalt not wage wars of extermination, and thou shalt not unsheathe the sword except in self-defense.’
If Jehovah had been civilized, how much grander the Ten Commandments would have been. All that we call progress – the enfranchisement of man, of labor, the substitution of imprisonment for death, of fine for imprisonment, the destruction of polygamy, top packaging design companies the establishing of free speech, of the rights of conscience; in short, all that has tended to the development and civilization of man; all the results of investigation, observation, experience and free thought; all that man has accomplished for the benefit of man since the close of the Dark Ages – has been done in spite of the Old Testament..
~Robert Green Ingersoll, What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide? The Millennium Project.
The 10 commandments strike me as archaic, unhelpful and ill-fitted to the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Still relentlessly promoted by the Religious Right, a modicum of objective scrutiny suggests it’s time for a new and improved edition. If I were pope, head of a Protestant sect or a televangelist, I’d lead the way for major changes. I’d upgrade from ten negative, general and bossy shalt nots to a set of positive, specific and helpful common decencies. The decencies would be commitments from within, not commandments from without.
Since I’m a bit elderly and probably not in line for a leadership role in any religion, I’d better not wait too long. Or, delay at all. I’ll do it right now, here at Ezine.
Monuments and Religious Freedom
Many religious people get quite irate when articles of their faith are questioned or when secularists object to intrusions of religion on public life. Consider, for example, the situation in Oklahoma concerning the placement of a 10 commandments monument, by a religious group with the endorsement of state officials, on state capital grounds. This display led to protests and legal challenges, which culminated on June 30, 2015 in a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court directing removal of the monument. The Court held that its location violated a provision in the state’s constitution that no public money or property can be used either directly or indirectly for the benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination or system of religion. As concerns the historic purpose claims by the defendants, the Court found the 10 commandments to be obviously religious in nature and an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths.
The governor of Oklahoma immediately declared her intent to defy the order. Not long ago, Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was ordered to do the same by a federal court, refused and was removed from office. The monument was then removed from the state capitol steps where Moore, in the middle of the night, had directed the monument’s placement. (The same Roy Moore, re-elected to his old job, is currently defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s by encouraging county clerks in Alabama not to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of the Court’s ruling granting equal rights to same sex couples.) Most recently, a decalogue on public property in front of a high school in New Kensington, Pennsylvania was ruled legal just days ago by federal judge because, and I’m not making this up, the plaintiffs could not prove that they were sufficiently offended by it.
Challenges to decalogues or other religious monuments such as Jesus statues on government property are the lifeblood of Religious Right organizations, leaders and commentators, particularly national media outlets like the fair and balanced Fox News network. The latter were quick to declare that the Oklahoma court decision was an assault on religious freedom. Similar protests have been heard when devout shopkeepers discover that there are limits on their rights to deny service based on faith claims. Also, many Christians are flummoxed when secularists challenge tax exemption of church property, the granting of public funds for chaplains and the inclusion of a god reference in our currency and Pledge of Allegiance. Christian politicians who insist on prayers at government meetings and public schools feel victimized by secular objections to such practices.
History Or Evangelism?
In the Oklahoma case and elsewhere, religionists claim that their icons, such as the 10 Commandments, are historic, not religious. Such claims make one wonder: Do those making such statements understand the nature of the 10 Commandments? Polls have shown that most people asked to name the commandments can’t recall more than a couple, usually the ones forbidding stealing, murdering and coveting. Yet, Christians assert that every one these ancient rules are the foundation elements of our modern laws and the U.S. Constitution.
Therefore, It seems time for another look at the 10 Commandments. In the 1940’s, I had to memorize these rules. Let me tell you about my early experiences in this regard.
My Early Years
I was raised in Southwest Philadelphia in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. All of us little Catholic devils soon learned that we faced ghastly retribution in the afterlife if we died with a mortal sin on our souls. Mortal sins were (and probably still are) the Catholic equivalent of capital crimes, though most are punishable only in the next life. Preparing for that life while trying to do the right Catholic things in this one is the focus of being Catholic. Every believer discovers soon enough that he wants to go to heaven; no Catholic who takes the faith seriously wants to end up in the alternative destination.
We Catholic children at St. Barnabas learned that breaking a commandment was a mortal sin. We also learned that we had to get mortal sins off our chests (souls, actually) before perishing – die with one on your soul and you’re hell-bound. Period. No appeals, no clemency, no pardon – only everlasting doom! The nuns made it their business to remind us on a near-daily basis how important it was to avoid committing or, more practically, having these dreadful spiritual crimes forgiven, while alive, via the confessional box. Otherwise, we’d spend eternity in hell. Sister deChantel forecast a high probability that this was precisely where I was headed, unless I reformed my ways. She seldom resisted adding this zinger: And you won’t like that one bit, young man, I can tell you that.
As children, we of course believed everything the nuns and other adults led us to believe – about angels, devils, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, goblins – all of it. If I’d been brought up in ancient Greece I might have believed in Greek gods, but there I would have known they weren’t real. Not so with the god described by his agents at St. Barnabas. In the 40’s and 50’s, the Inquisition may have been over, but the nuns had not gotten word. Amongst my friends, non-conformity to religious norms, rituals, beliefs or traditions was not an option. In my neighborhood, nobody liked a wise guy. We went along with what we were told. And yet, we didn’t think about god very much, not even when marched into church on Sundays or during religion classes throughout the week. Church services and religion classes were times for fantasies, daydreams or planning fun things when church or school let out.