“Law and Order” and the Ten Commandments

I’ve never understood the conservative fascination
with the “Ten Commandments.”

You know, those folks who think
that this is the moral foundation of democratic capitalism;
that the commandments should be on school walls;
and legislative halls;
that in these ancient commands we have the basis
for “law and order.”

Yep, I get really nervous when these ten words of liberation
that were revealed in the wilderness
serve as sacred sanction for the “law and order” gang.

I mean, think about it.

“I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me.”
Not the gods of patriotism, of national security, or the market.
Not the gods of entertainment or sport.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
Not in your national monuments, nor in your military armaments.
Not shiny automotive idols that carry you around,
nor the tiny communication idols that you carry in your pockets.

“You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
God damn it when you cheaply mouth,
“God bless America.”
God damn it when a nation co-opts the divine
as sacred sanction of its own self-declared exceptionality!

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
But how can you do that when America is always open for business?
How can you slow down the economy when economic growth is your god?
How does this jive with “shop till you drop”?

“Honour your father and mother.”
Neither dismissal in a sense of generational arrogance,
nor neglect and the quick institutionalization of the elderly,
nor financial manipulation and abuse.

“You shall not kill.”
Not by lethal ejection, nor by choking.
Not in a foreign land with Navy Seals, nor by drone.
Not your enemy, nor your neighbour.
Not by police brutality, nor economic oppression.

“You shall not commit adultery.”
You shall not reduce sexuality to conquest.
You shall not be a sexual consumer.
You shall not sacrifice covenant to self-indulgence.

“Neither shall you steal.”
Whether by privatizing public resources,
or through market speculation,
or off shore tax shelters,
or through the despoliation of the planet.

“Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.”
Not by racist and homophobic slur,
nor through violent and sexist talk of “pussy” grabbing.
Not in your advertizing or sloganeering.
Not on the campaign trail or in corporate board rooms.

“Neither shall you covet.”
This is the end of greed,
the end of that insatiable longing for “more.”
The end of consumerism.
The moral deconstruction of capitalism at its foundations.

Forgive me that my examples here are all from a country south of Canada,
but our neighbours have an election going on
that has admittedly taken up more of my consciousness than it should of late.

And I’ll bet that if you asked the “Law and Order” candidate
if the ten commandments should be at the foundation of all law,
he would undoubtedly say yes,
Then hand him the Bible
and ask him to read the ten commandments to you.
He couldn’t find the passages if his life depended on it!

So think about it.

Are the ten commandments the foundation of “law and order”
or its deconstruction?
Are they words of repression or liberation?
Do they impose a restrictive law “written in stone” as it were,
or are they a call to a life of covenantal faithfulness?
Do they legitimate blind and patriotic obedience to the state,
or are they a radical word of revolution and civil disobedience?

Maybe my categories are too stark.

Maybe not.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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