Much attention has been given to why the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings is a bad idea for political reasons. It is obviously a violation of the Constitution, which is why such efforts are being routinely struck down by judges. Little attention has been given, however, to why it is such a bad idea from a religious perspective. I would like to offer some reasons why those for whom the Ten Commandments are sacred should be horrified by this effort to display them in public buildings.
We are becoming increasingly aware that making something ubiquitous ends up making it ordinary, rather than sacred. When sights or sounds become common, we humans have a tendency to ignore them. This is clearly true of the Bible as a whole. I have been in countries where Bibles are relatively difficult to acquire, and people of faith in those countries cherish their Bibles.
Mass production and financial abundance have made the acquisition of Bibles so easy in America that there are several Bibles in most homes and one in every hotel room.
Now we find our culture paying less attention to it. This lack of attention is the problem bothering those who wish to display the Commandments, but their proposal to make the Bible more visible moves in the wrong direction.
The Ten Commandments are a part of a much larger story, which Judaism calls the Torah. This list of 10 laws, in two slightly different forms, resides at two very important places in that story. In Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments act as an introduction for the Israelites to the Mount Sinai experience of receiving law from God through Moses. In Deuteronomy 5, they act as an introduction to Moses’ grand formulation of the covenant between God and the Israelites, on the eve of their entry into the Promised Land.
The epic of exodus, wilderness and Promised Land has been a living story for Jews and Christians for thousands of years, a story which illumines our own lives and leads us to God.
The Ten Commandments turn out to be not a list of laws at all, but a vital organ in the body of that living story. Excising this organ and hanging it on a courthouse wall is an act which denies its part in that body. If the Ten Commandments are to be displayed anywhere appropriately, it can only be in a synagogue or church, in the midst of a community of faith committed to reading and living the whole story of which it is a part. (I am thankful to Carol Ochs for her insights in Our Lives as Torah: Finding God in our own Stories.)
The sacred task of religious education belongs to parents and communities of faith, not governments. Why are we so willing, even eager, to relinquish this task? Judaism and Christianity have managed to preserve their sacred traditions for approximately 3,500 and 2,000 years respectively, passing them on from parent to child. When Caesars and kings have joined in this cause, the results have always been disastrous.
The forces of chaos threaten us, and our world has become more frightening since Sept. 11. Understandably, we are desperate for security.
The Torah story does not promise an easy sense of security, but it does offer a mystifying sense of presence in the wilderness and in the Promised Land.
If we want to do something with God’s commandments, the Torah has good advice for that.
“These words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children and speak them, when you sit in your houses and when you go on the way, and when you lie down and when you arise. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes. Write them upon the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-8).
It is interesting that the Jewish traditions which have taken these instructions most literally have not done so in such a way that the words of God’s commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4) are visible. They have known all along that sacred words have power when they are an intimate part of our lives, not when they are put on display.
Mark McEntire is an assistant professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. This article was reprinted with permission from The Tennessean.