Hang Six

Christians should talk about the Six Commandments, not Ten. Just post those and constitutional contraints fade away.


The Ten Commandments are back. Indiana's state legislature has voted to allow them to be posted in schools and other public buildings. Several other states are considering similar bills, all but assuring that the Ten Commandments issue will continue to surface from time to time in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Civil libertarians say the Ten Commandments must not be displayed in public places because this constitutes state endorsement of religion. Proponents counter that reminding citizens of divine law will help rebuild the nation's character.

What's intriguing is that, in theological terms, Christianity should have Six Commandments, not Ten. Jesus deliberately snipped out four of the commandments, endorsing only six. The six he favored are moral standards that could readily be posted in any public structure, without violating the line between church and state. It is the Six Commandments, not the Ten, that ought to be central to this debate.

First the political background. A 1980 Supreme Court decision barred most displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, on the grounds that this violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which mandates, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Since 1980, proponents have been looking for a way around the ruling, as part of a movement that calls itself Hang Ten. The Indiana statute seeks to satisfy legal concerns by saying that the Ten Commandments should be displayed along with other historical documents such as the Magna Carta. If displayed in conjunction with secular documents, the Hang Ten movement maintains, then the Ten Commandments would be received as primarily historical, not explicitly Judeo-Christian.

It is unknown whether the Supreme Court would allow an Indiana-type commandments statute to stand. In recent years, federal judges have warmed somewhat toward faith in the public square. William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, maintains that the Constitution prohibits government only from endorsing religion or restricting free expression by minority faiths: "The Establishment Clause does not require that the public sector be insulated from all things which may have a religious significance."

But even if courts were sympathetic to the Indiana law, test cases and years of litigation would be required. Then, even if a Hang Ten statute were upheld, a backlash would surely result, on the part of those who would rightly fear that what was being hung was really a promotional device for evangelical Christianity.

That's the political rundown. What about the theology?

One irony is that if the Ten Commandments commend to the public a religion, the faith being touted is Judaism, not Christianity. The Ten Commandments are found in the Hebrew Bible--what Christians call the Old Testament--which forms the core of Jewish holy writ.

Christianity honors the Old Testament, but views it as amended by the New--and in the New Testament, Jesus consciously rejects the Ten Commandments, replacing them with the Six Commandments.

The story of the Six Commandments comes when a young man asks Jesus what a person must do to obtain entry to heaven. Jesus replies, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." (Christ often simply said "life" to mean "eternal life," implying that the spirit world is the reality and the physical world is the veil.) Instructed to "keep the commandments," the young man then inquires, "Which ones?"

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