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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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True Images

 

The book of Exodus describes the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the long journey through the wilderness. The people were quickly frustrated by their escape from Egypt and they turned against Moses and his god, lamenting that perhaps they were better off as slaves in Egypt! It’s perfectly normal in human nature to do this: After the exhilaration and the excitement of liberation comes the harsh reality. Faced with the harsh realities of life, most people are willing to give up even their freedom!

Idolatry is at the very heart of human existence, and we each have our own idols. Some are religious idols; some are idols of achievement; some are idols of physical appearance and attractiveness; etc. And the greatest idol, of course, is money. Almost every human being worships that idol. So when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, idolatry was confronted head on. You shall have no other god… You shall make no image… You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain… You shall honor the Sabbath… You shall not covet. Five of the ten commandments are explicitly against idolatry! No other gods… no images or statues… no use of God’s name the way idol-worshippers use the names of their gods, for magic and manipulation… honor the Sabbath – a protection against enslavement to money and earthly masters… do not covet – coveting is the root of the idolatry of money!

But when Moses went back up on the mountain to receive further instructions from God, the people quickly gave in to idolatry. He took too long up on the mountain; maybe he’s abandoned the people; maybe his god deceived them to take us out of Egypt so they can die of hunger and thirst in the desert. Build us an idol, Aaron, another god we may worship, a god we can see! This is the comfort that idols bring – they are gods we can see. Money is a god we can see. Images and statues we can see. A god who does not reveal himself and only speaks to one man – well, maybe that’s not a god we want to trust or believe in.

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The Old Testament injunction against images is something that the Orthodox Church has had to face throughout its history because icons are such an important part of our tradition. We have good theological reasons for icons, and we certainly are not bound to the commandments and laws of ancient Israel. But even though we can work our way around the commandments of Sinai, the danger of idolatry persists and is a constant temptation. And let’s face it: rules didn’t work for the ancient Israelites, they don’t work for us either. So God found another way – the way of Pentecost.

Back in the First Book of Kings we read of Elijah on a mountain. “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12) – all external manifestations of power, but God was not in any of them; God was in the small voice instead. In the ancient world there were gods of thunder and storms; gods of earthquakes and fire. All the powers of nature were associated with gods. But not the God of Israel, who preferred the still small voice. 

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But notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). A mighty wind and fire! Just as with Elijah – but with a difference, a big difference. The wind and the fire were no longer the weapons of fictional gods; they were now the message of the coming of the Holy Spirit. For pagans, the forces of nature were controlled by gods and were used to strike fear and superstition into people. On Pentecost, God chose these forces of wind and fire to announce a new way. Wind and fire, to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit to drive away evil from our hearts and to cleanse us and inspire us to new life, new hope and vision! And the Gospel gives us an even third image for the Holy Spirit: rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water, the greatest power on earth; the power that can erode whole mountains and continents given enough time! Water destroys when its fury is unleashed; and yet water is the source of all life.

Wind, fire and water – images of God’s power to transform our lives. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have appeared as a dove at the baptism of Jesus – but we do a great disservice when we turn the Holy Spirit into a bird! Not a bird, not a plane, not Superman – but the infinite power of God. Pentecost provides us with the truest images of God. Tongues of fire rested on each disciple in Jerusalem. May tongues of fire rest on every one of us today and every day: the Holy Spirit in our lives!