In 1971, Ottowa, Canada’s Five Man Electric Band released the song ‘Signs’, a lament over the amount of posted rules and regulations proliferating in modern life. The chorus complains:
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign!?
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign!?
The song has had a real resonance for me since moving from Ireland to Montana. The US in general has a lot more roadside advertising than Europe. But in my local area, one sign in particular seems to be everywhere. On the 20-mile drive from Bigfork to Kalispell, I have counted at least nine of them, putting even McDonalds to shame. Several are on buildings or posted next to the road. Many are on private property, and a sizeable number are displayed on the walls of churches.
It is the Ten Commandments.
The particular sign I keep seeing is available from a website (advertised on the sign itself), www.gods10.com. A quick perusal of the site makes clear that the mission of 'God’s 10' is to ‘draw men’s hearts back to God and to restore the relationship with God and to re-establish the foundation for a relationship with God and with one another.’ Practically, this involves 'God’s 10' helping churches ‘in each state in the United States to establish God’s Word in a visual manner.’
As a theologian who works in theology that is practical and contextual, I’m always interested when I see the biblical text used publicly or politically, as well as where it is used and how. Inherent in that is also an interest in which parts of the biblical text are not used- and again, extrapolating why.
So, why the Ten Commandments? Why display them and not some other biblical text? The website does not say. There is a section that explains what the Bible is and how it is laid out, but the site does not explain why the Ten Commandments are felt to be of particular importance. Perhaps, from their perspective, the answer is self-evident; obviously those behind the website see the Commandments as very important indeed, perhaps an essential underpinning of the Christian faith.
My take on this is that the website is an extension of a tendency within evangelicalism toward public witness, with a nod to another tendency within certain expressions of evangelicalism which desires to ‘reclaim’ public space for God. This evangelical understanding believes that, regardless of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by the government, America has a very specific and definitive Christian foundation that other religions and the outright godless have been seeking to erode. In this sense, the First Amendment has become, not a protection of religious liberty, but a hindrance to it. The visible diversification of American public life, with many faiths seeking a more equitable and diverse public face to religious expression- not to mention those within American society who wish to have as little public religious display as possible- are seen as ‘un-American’, a threat.
The argument made by these certain evangelical expressions is that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all law and ethics. The Commandments are deemed an essential part of secular law. Therefore publicly posting them- particularly in public buildings like schools and courthouses and on public property like town squares- is not ‘establishing religion’ but re-asserting a lost historical understanding of America's (supposed) Christian underpinning. This argument holds no water for those who point to the establishment of America as more a product of the Enlightenment, with the First Amendment a key protection against a tendency to establish any one religious idea as preferable to any other.
What can be seen here is that these arguments are as much about divergent understandings of American history as they are about divergent readings of the biblical text. I’d also argue that they are an expression of dismay at the loss of assumed privileges by white Christian evangelicals regarding the loss of prominence of their one specific vision of Christianity in public life. The website’s use of the words ‘draw men... back to God’; ‘to restore’; and ‘to re-establish’ are further evidence of this.
But getting back to the subject of the Ten Commandment signs, for me as a theologian, I’m intrigued as to why Christians would feel that the first introduction to Christianity for people deemed unbelievers would be the Ten Commandments and not something from Jesus. This was the opinion of the American author Kurt Vonnegut who, near the end of his life, wrote:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes, but often with tears in their eyes, they demand the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I’ve haven’t heard any of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount- the Beatitudes- be posted anywhere. 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? 'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? Give me a break...
Vonnegut makes a very good point, even if he ignores- or was ignorant of- the evangelical belief that the biblical text is a unified whole. But his point about the absence of Jesus from much of the rhetoric regarding public display of the biblical text is one worth dwelling on.
To be fair, when looking at all the various versions of the ‘Ten Commandments’ sign available from the website, Jesus does get to talk on a couple of them, but always along the bottom of the sign, not in the main body. There is John 3:16 on one, which is no surprise. John 14:6 (‘I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’) is also fairly unsurprising.
The use of John 8:34 (‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin... If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed’) is intriguing, and seems to begin the process of building a link between the person of Jesus and the Commandments. This process is made explicit with the use of Matthew 5:17 on one of the signs (‘don’t think I have come to destroy the law... I have not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it’). It is even more explicit with the quoting of John 14:15 (‘if you love me, keep my commandments’).
However, this then raises the question: what are the commandments of Jesus? As a Jew, Jesus was well aware of the canon of the Jewish law, particularly the Commandments’ basic elucidation of right and wrong.
The difficulty for the ‘God’s 10’ argument for the seeming supremacy of the Ten Commandments is that the Gospels don’t portray Jesus using the Jewish law as it was popularly understood then- or now. Rather, we see Jesus making it more complex, more nuanced. The Gospel accounts constantly portray Jesus confronting those who felt they had an inside track as to God’s requirements for righteousness and salvation.
The one account we have of Jesus interacting directly with the Ten Commandments is in Mark 10, when a rich young official enquires of Jesus how to attain perfection. Jesus reiterates the Commandments (‘you know what the commandments say: “Do not commit murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false witness. Do not cheat. Honor your father and mother”’). The young man presses Jesus (‘I have obeyed all those commandments since I was a boy’). The text says that Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him’. ‘You are missing one thing,’ he said. ‘Go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.’ At this, the text says, ‘the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he was very rich’, to which Jesus declares to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for rich people to enter God’s kingdom!’
Jesus here makes clear that true love is not in keeping the law- or indeed in declaring the law- but in declaring and living a new law: the law of love- love for one’s poor neighbours, to the point of ultimate self-sacrifice.
And it is this kind of love- the overriding message of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus- that the Ten Commandment signs, I believe, completely miss. The closest they come is in the use of John 15:12 (‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’). But again, this quote is appended to the bottom of the sign, under the prominent display of the Commandments.
And there is the rub: the central message of Jesus- the love of God for humanity and the coming of the Kingdom of God- was not merely a quick addition to the Ten Commandments. It was a new creation, a new revelation, a new beginning, a fulfilment beyond any previous understanding of the mind of God.
The fact that Christians do not- cannot; DARE not- publicly display signs that say ‘Go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me’, proves the scandal of the Gospel, even for those who call themselves Christians. We dare not say what Jesus said. We dare not do what Jesus did. Better just to post a list of do’s and don’ts. The do’s and don’ts are easier; they catch the unbeliever up short. The words of Jesus invite the (so-called) unbeliever and the (so-called) believer equally. For all the talk of Christians that Christianity isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts, the unseemly haste with which we’re quick to post lists of do’s and don’ts- and always 'OUR' list of do's and don'ts- makes me think that we don’t really believe that.
The Orthodox Christian mystic St. Cosmos of Aetolia (1714-1779) expounded on these words of Jesus thus:
If you want to find perfect love, go sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, go where you find a master and become a slave. Can you do this and be perfect?
You say this is too heavy? Then do something else. Don't sell yourself as a slave. Just sell your belongings and give them all to the poor. Can you do it? Or do you find this too heavy a task?
All right, you cannot give away all your belongings. Then give half, or a third, or a fifth. Is even this too heavy? Then give one tenth. Can you do that? Is it still too heavy?
How about this: don't sell yourself as slave. Don't give a penny to the poor. Only do this. Don't take your poor brother's coat, don't take his bread, don't persecute him; don't eat him alive. If you don't want to do him any good, at least do him no harm. Just leave him alone. Is this also too heavy?
You say you want to be saved, but how? How can we be saved if everything we are called to do is too heavy? We descend and descend until there is no place further down. God is merciful, yes, but he also has an iron rod.
The law is, and always will be, a ‘sign’; ‘do this, don’t do that… Can’t you read the sign?!’ The sign might point to perfection, but it will never make us perfect.
Perfection, Jesus said, was in love.
The love of Jesus is not a 'sign'; it is the 'way'.