God in the Courthouse

Among all the ancient stories and accounts in the Judeo-Christian tradition, none is more precious to Jews and Christians alike than the story of God’s covenant with the people of Israel through His gift of the Ten Commandments. After years of a perilous and exhausting journey in the wilderness, Moses, the leader who had brought the people out of captivity in Egypt, came with them finally to the foot of the great Mount Sinai. It was here that God gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments of Covenant by which to live if they were to be his people and he their God. Some might be surprised to hear that God first gave them the Commandments – not on stone tablets, but in his own awesome voice. In the midst of clouds of smoke, of lightning and thunder that shook the mountain, God spoke to the people.

The Ten Commandments were these: (I have abbreviated them)

  • You shall have no other gods before me.

  • You shall not make yourself any 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 take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

  • Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

  • Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.

  • You shall not murder.

  • You shall not commit adultery.

  • You shall not steal.

  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  • You shall not covet (anything that is your neighbor’s).

Well, put yourself in their place.

There you are, after a long journey, settling down to a meal and a long rest, when suddenly the ground under you and the very mountain towering over you begin to shake violently. Claps of thunder, bolts of lightning, blinding smoke everywhere, and then the Voice booming into their very souls. Naturally, they were terrified. No doubt no one really paid strict attention to the message. It was the medium that distracted them. They begged Moses to plead with God to never speak to them in his most awesome voice again. So, Moses went up into the Mountain and there God gave him the Commandments, this time etched in two stone tablets.

The covenant is sacred, particularly to the Jews, for the message God sent with the Law. God said, “Give this message to the house of Jacob, the children if Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle’s wings to bring you to Myself. Now, because you came to me, if you will obey my voice and keep the agreement, the covenant I have for you, you shall be a special treasure to Me above all the other people of the earth for all the earth is Mine. You shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation showing all the rest of the world how to live.”

You remember the rest of the story – when Moses came down to the people bearing the tablets of stone, he found that, in their impatience (Moses had been on the Mountain for forty days) they had made a golden calf and were worshipping it, dancing and singing, and making sacrifices before it. Moses, in his fury, threw the tablets to the ground, smashing them.

Tradition has it that, after haranguing the people for days, and threatening them with all manner of retribution from God, the people pleaded with Moses to return to the Mountain and beg His forgiveness. Which Moses did, and God quietly gave him another set of Commandments, which Moses carved in new tablets, then returned, apparently uneventfully, to the people.

Interestingly enough, the second set of Commandments are significantly different in many respects from the first and are seldom, if ever, referred to. It is the first set of Commandments that school children of Jewish and Christian faith are made to memorize from an early age, and which town officials, governors, and even Chief Justices, sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution of the United States, are determined to establish in public places.

Let’s focus on Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court, though there are Commandments and prayers popping up all over the country as Christians discover the extent to which tacking up the Ten Commandments brings out a carnival of cameras and reporters offering an opportunity for the parading of the faith. Justice Moore is a close associate of most of the prominent right wing and Christian fundamentalist leaders and right wing organizations in the United States. He is the author of some maudlin poetry and of several articles, including one titled “Putting God Back in the Public Square.”

Having first installed a copy of the Ten Commandments on a wall behind his bench, clearly and illegally visible from the jury box, Justice Moore dragged two and a half tons of marble carved with the Commandments into the public space of the Alabama courthouse. This was done in the middle of the night (Justice Moore saying that it was done after normal working hours, so as not to involve state paid workers).

On November 18th, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that the marble monument must be removed within 30 days. It was removed and put out of sight, giving fuel for the fight to all those now proclaiming that agnostics and left-wingers have succeeded in putting God in a closet. In defense of his actions, and of his continuing defiance of the law, Justice Moore claims that he is doing nothing more than acknowledging God’s place in our nation. He stated in a recent interview, “The Ten Commandments are the divinely revealed law”- the Ten Commandments represent the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”

Let’s begin a counter argument -just for the sake of the separation of church and state – with the recognition that there are several versions extant of the Ten Commandments. We don’t have the time to lay them all out, but with just a little research one can find several Jewish versions (including that of the “second set of tablets”). Then there is a protestant version, and a version found in the Douay edition of the Bible used in the Roman Catholic Church. Which version, one must ask, would be the proper version to display in public locations?

That which Justice Moore had carved in marble is the version found in most traditional Christian Sunday schools. It is, therefore, not simply an acknowledgement of God but an acknowledgment of a particular understanding of God taught by a wing of one of the world’s many religions.

Moore (and, let’s face it, millions of others) claims that the Ten Commandments are the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. Actually, if one is able to examine them academically, rather than from a faith stance, it is clear that the Ten Commandments have a far more ancient source than that of the Hebrew writers. The original source of the Decalogue was an ancient document predating the Hebrew scriptures by many years. The original Hebrew text of the Commandments is grounded in a document called, “Treaties imposed by Hittite Kings on their vassals in the 4-13th centuries, B.C.” The Hittite documents of the laws of the kings and the Ten Commandments are both divided into the same six sections: stating the name of the ruler, his status, the benefits to the people of obedience, detailed descriptions of their obligations, and sanctions for non-compliance.

Like many other sections of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the story of Job, which comes from the ancient people of Ur, and the stories of Creation, which date from several ancient pagan sources, The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, have their origin, not in the laws of God but in the laws of ancient kings and pagan literature.

Objective biblical scholars have been aware for a long time that the Hebrews borrowed freely from the oral literature and traditions of their neighbors. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many of our laws and rules for living in human community have their origin in proclamations centuries old (like the 18th century B.C. Code of Hammurabi) which simply continue to make sense. Whether they make sense because they are, in essence, the laws of Nature or laws of a God, is a matter of faith beyond the scholar’s realm.

What about the Bible? Justice Moore, his supporters, and publicity-seeking town officials everywhere insist that the Ten Commandments are the law of God because God gave them to us. And, if you read the Letters to the Editor every day (as I do, to regularly test the effectiveness of my blood pressure and beta-blocker medication) you will see the same blessedly non-rational claims.

How do we know the Ten Commandments are the Law of God? We know because God gave them to us. How do we know God gave them to us? We know because the Bible says so. How do we know the Bible is true? Because God says it is – in the Bible. In the language of philosophy and logic, that’s called tautology – using a statement as if it could prove itself. The Bible is true because God says it is true in the Bible.

Another argument for the display of the Ten Commandments in the public square, the courtroom, or the classroom in spite of the First Amendment, is that they are the basis for social moral behavior; they offer ground for not stealing, lying, committing perjury and so on. Surely we all agree that that’s a good thing. The reality is – as might be apparent to anyone actually reading them – that the first four of the Ten Commandments have nothing to do with ethical or moral behavior. They are purely religious in nature, expressive of belief in a particular god at a particular time.

Justice Moore says that his installation of the Commandments was done so as to acknowledge God and our duty to God in the public realm and in our lives. But these are not the Commandments of a “God” in the abstract, perhaps the theologian Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” or Henry Nelson Wieman’s “Creative Interchange.” The God of the Decalogue is a particular God, clearly identified as the God of a particular people of faith. The wording is, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

Interestingly enough and, again, often overlooked or ignored, this commandment suggests that there are other gods, but this particular God is primary. Images of other gods are forbidden. No other gods are to be worshipped.

By posting the Ten Commandments in public places or installing them graven on a three ton slab of marble in a courthouse (of all places), a government, a court, or a school is in effect proclaiming to citizens and students that the God portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is the only valid God. By installing the Ten Commandments, any government or authority is making a strong statement against religious tolerance. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Wicca, and hundreds of other religions – to say nothing of agnostics, humanists, and atheists – are not to be recognized or given equal status. Why? Because they are not true to the Bible. And the Bible is the Word of God.

Those of us who are open to other understandings of the nature of the reality in which we live continually have to remind ourselves that it is virtually impossible for most people even to consider the possibility that the faith in God and Christ derived from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is not the only true faith.

Homosexuality is a sin. Why? It is a sin because it is called a sin in the Bible. And why should we care what it says in the Bible? Again here is the tautology – because the Bible is the Word of God.

The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution as interpreted over and over again by higher and lower courts, guarantees that individuals will have freedom of religious expression; that government and its agencies will not, in fact, “acknowledge” one religious faith as more valid than another, and that same Amendment guarantees that government and its agencies will not promote religion over secularism.

And what of all this emphasis on The Law? When Jesus was pressed to identify the most important of all the Commandments in all of Jewish law, he said, “Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” A fixation on the laws of religion is the expression of what William James, in his “Varieties of Religion Experience,” called “morbid” or “unhealthy” religion. Adherence to mere religion can displace the religious, crowd out any possibility for that spirituality which embraces wholeness and diversity and views all life with love and compassion.

A caution is in the story of the 1934 Baptist World Alliance in Berlin. Delegates arrived with anxiety about the new Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi Party. But many came back from that conference on religion in the world with favorable views of the coming new Reich. As the Alliance formally noted, “It is reported that Chancellor Adolf Hitler gives to the temperance movement the prestige of his personal example, since he neither uses intoxicants or smokes.” A year later, Hitler burned down the Reichstag, declared a one-party state, and imposed a law that excluded Jews from government.

Still, a pastor in Boston gave the Nazis high marks for the enforcement of public morality. “It was a great relief,” Pastor John Bradbury said, “to be in a country where salacious literature cannot be sold . . . The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries.” The new Germany would soon burn great masses of Jewish people.

We will not convert the like of Justice Roy Moore to reason, tolerance, or understanding. But we must maintain a holy fear of them and of their single-minded, exclusionary faith and, out of that fear, be “eternally vigilant.”

Those whose minds cannot conjure with the possibility of a God or faith in any form but their own will not, in the long run, find it beyond their reason to fashion a government grounded in that faith alone. It is, in fact, already the fondest dream of many.

Sir James Frazier, the compiler of that marvelous book of religious literature, “The Golden Bough,” wrote:

We cannot foresee, we can hardly even guess, the new forms into which thought and society will run in the future. Yet this uncertainty ought not to induce us, from any consideration of expediency or regard for antiquity, to spare the ancient moulds, however beautiful, when these are proven to be outworn. Whatever comes of it, wherever it leads, we must follow the truth alone. It is our guiding star.