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ABC’s Nightline has been running a series on the Ten
Commandments in which they explore the issues and dimensions of each
commandment in contemporary society. Tonight’s commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
The series is interesting and, in many ways, inclusive. After all, the Ten Commandments form
the ethical basis of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims draw
inspiration from them and, throughout history, developed the insights of the
commandments in theological, moral, social, and legal arenas. They are very important spiritually,
morally, intellectually, and culturally.
But for all their inclusiveness, their interpretation is
often the source of division. It
is one thing to say, “Thou shalt not….” and it is often a completely different
thing to figure out how the “shalt nots” relate to human experience. For, despite the moral idealism of the
commandments, everyone knows that human beings actually do the “shalt nots.”
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a good example of the
problem with the commandments.
Martial fidelity is a practical way of honoring and respecting one’s
partner. To be faithful–even when
one might not “feel” like it–is a fundamental way of respecting another human
being by taking into their feelings, emotions, and commitments before simply
acting on one’s personal inclinations.
To stop and think about the effects of one’s actions on a larger
community (in the case of adultery, thinking about a spouse and children) often
inhibits bad choices. That’s a big
part of morality–to reflect on one’s actions in advance and to consider the
communal consequences of behavior.
Moral frameworks–like the Ten Commandments–provide guidelines for such
reflection. And, as such, they
form a vision for what constitutes the good society–a society that honors God
The problem comes with the obvious fact that human
beings–even reflective and caring ones–don’t always act in a way that honors
God and neighbor. We both
flaunt and break the commandments on a regular basis. So, what does society do with the violators?
Throughout history, religious groups have tried to enforce
the Ten Commandments through legal means.
We might all agree that theft and murder are wrong and that thieves and
murderers should go to prison. But
what about the “lesser” commandments–like adultery? In Jesus’ day, women caught in adultery could be stoned–and
that is still the case in many countries around the world. In early American history, adulterers
could be whipped, jailed, divorced with their permission, or forced (as in The Scarlet Letter) to wear a public
mark of shame.
To point up the problem with adultery is only the
beginning. What of those who
swear, lie, or worship other gods?
Should society make swearing a crime? Idolatry? Being angry at your parents? Where
does this end? In some sort of
Taliban-style legalism where the religion police enforce a literal
interpretation of each of these Ten Commandments? Do we rank the commandments in order of importance? The bad ones get the most
punishment? The minor ones get
overlooked? The Ten
Commandments–for all their moral grandeur–quickly descend into an ethical
quagmire of angels dancing on the head of pins.
The answer is obvious:
Very few people take the Ten Commandments literally. We contextualize them, trying to
discern the origin, intent, and purpose of these commandments in order to
create a way of life that demonstrates the deeper wisdom of these teachings. And we recognize the human disposition
toward breaking them–and, to a greater or lesser degree, we offer forgiveness,
understanding, and reconciliation toward one another in regard to the Ten
Commandments. And religious
communities argue about how much forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation
is appropriate in any given denomination or tradition.
Taking the Commandments out of context is spiritually and
politically dangerous. To hold up
these ten commandments–in Hebrew they aren’t even called “commandments;”
rather, the Hebrew word is “terms”–to hold up these ten terms of the moral law without reference to the larger intent of
the words leads to legalism, violence, and repression. God intended for the Law to be joyful,
and not a curse. Indeed, Jesus–a rabbi himself–made this point. When asked what was the most important
of the commandments, he replied:
“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
That is the summary–the intended wisdom–of the Ten
Commandments. The ten terms of the
law should bring us to the basis for a good life: love. Is
it loving to murder, steal, curse, violate our vows, lie, envy or demean
another? That should be the first
question of morality–and it is what the Ten Commandments teach.