My previous article raised two objections to the public display of the Ten Commandments in the United States. First, such displays can function as a veneer masking substantial disregard for the religions. Second, the claim that “Judeo-Christian” symbols are appropriate for public display on the grounds that the United States either was or is a “Christian nation” rely on nostalgia for something which never existed and the illusion of something which does not exist. Additionally, I – a committed adherent to the Christian tradition and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church – do not support the public display of the Decalogue for three additional reasons.
3. The first subset of the Ten Commandments presupposes religious convictions which should not be legislated. While the Decalogue does contain prohibitions against some behaviors banned by secular law – murder, theft, and false witness – as well as behaviors which many cultures consider inappropriate – dishonor of parents, adultery, and covetousness – these commandments are preceded by imperatives which require devotion to the God who delivered the Hebrew refugees from Egyptian bondage. The commandments which concern the relationship between religious adherents and their God are appropriate for obedience by those who worship that God, but have little public secular relevance. Holding the American public to the religious standards of the Decalogue is a continuation of the imperialist arrogance through which Western Christians imposed their religious and political ideologies on a colonized world.
4. Christians frequently impose the Ten Commandments on others while simultaneously grossly misunderstanding them. Stephen Colbert’s famous exposure of Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s desire to mandate the public display of the Decalogue even while being unable to recall its substance is quite telling. Even when they remember the wording of the Ten Commandments, Christians frequently neglect the meaning of their original Hebrew context. Popular reductions or distortions of the third, fourth, and ninth commandments to prohibitions against coarse language, skipping church on Sundays, and telling lies cheapen the Decalogue and strip it of its rich religious meaning. In fact, in the Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are not commandments at all, but statements. They are not in the imperative (“Do not commit adultery”) but rather in the indicative (“You will not commit adultery”); as such, they are a vision for an idealized religious community rather than legal restrictions on moral life. Christians must overcome their tendency to misappropriate and misinterpret the Decalogue before they even consider presenting the Ten Commandments to the American public.
5. For Christians, the Ten Commandments are not central to the ethics of the religious community. When Jesus was asked which Hebrew Bible commandment was the most important, he actually cited two: love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Both of these commandments are among the 613 obligations in the Torah, but neither is part of the Decalogue. This is not to say that the New Testament is silent regarding the Ten Commandments. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is an intentional re-presentation of the law-giving scene involving Moses on the mountaintop, whence the latter carried the stone tablets to the gathered community.
Yet the teachings of Jesus do not merely reaffirm the Ten Commandments, but rather reframe them. With the exception of the prohibition against stealing, the New Testament reinterprets each of the Ten Commandments, though not systematically. The focal point for the ethics of the Christian community is therefore not found in the ten rules that so many want to see displayed in American courthouses, but rather in the embodied teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. However, there is no discernable public clamor for the public display of the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine if the central litany of the Sermon on the Mount – the Beatitudes – was to adorn the lentils of American courthouses. The poor in spirit and those who hunger for righteousness (in Luke’s version, simply the poor and the hungry) are named as blessed, happy. Why aren’t Christians loudly calling for the Sermon on the Mount to be displayed in halls of judgment? It is because this would wreak havoc on the justice system. The Sermon on the Mount urges meekness, forgiveness, sacrificial charity, and unconditional love. We don’t want to think of justice in those categories. We want justice to be about retribution, payment, and punishment. And this is where many Christians commit the age-old heresy called Marcionism – they differentiate between the “God of the Old Testament,” a God of wrath, anger, and justice, and the “God of the New Testament,” a God of forgiveness, love, and mercy. Even though orthodox theology asserts that there is and has been only one God (and even though the God presented in the Hebrew Bible is categorically “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” [Exodus 34:6]), Christians who want to confront actual and potential criminals with a list of ethical prohibitions tend to employ the “God of wrath” to that end. Patience, compassion, and acceptance are not divine attributes we want our legal system to embody, so we display the Ten Commandments in raw, unexplained or misinterpreted form as an expression of jurisprudential morality.
For these five reasons I cannot support the public display of the Ten Commandments in the United States. As a Christian, I am persuaded that it is the duty of the Church to give witness to her perceived experience of grace, love, and redemption. As an American, I am persuaded that not only Christianity, but all religious and nonreligious ideologies deserve a voice in the public forum. But at the end of the day, the display of the Ten Commandments is not about witness. It is about rhetoric, power, and retributive justice. This I, as a believer in American pluralism and a devout adherent to the Christian narrative, simply cannot endorse.
Tasi Perkins is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Theological and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. He earned a B.S. from Cornell University (Statistics and Biometry) and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and completed a year of Th.D. work at Boston University.