What inspired you to write this book?
I have a religious background: my father was a Presbyterian minister, and I went to seminary. I was receptive to using the Bible as a way to find meaning and value in life. But what really inspired me was Krzystof Kieslowski's film, "The Decalogue." It was so refreshing and thoughtful. So I decided to set out and use each of the commandments as a lens or prism to look at this society that I'd been away from for 20 years (working as a war correspondent in over 50 countries) and was now returning to.
How are the Ten Commandments relevant to American life today?
Well, the Ten Commandments are relevant to any society that hopes to nurture and sustain community. They're the basic precepts by which community can be held together. When they're violated, communities disintegrate. That's why they resonate 6,000 years later. If you look at the ethical code that almost any religion creates, they're strikingly similar to the Ten Commandments: the Buddhist Wheel of Life, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with its questions about whether you'd lived a good or honorable life.
Many of the measures of [having lived a good life] are beyond law. It's very hard to legislate honoring your father or mother for instance. It's hard to legislate against idolatry. These are the moral or ethical questions raised in the commandments, and I find them particularly interesting because almost all of them are beyond the scope of law itself. I suppose they could be legalized if we allowed people to narrowly interpret them. But that would desecrate the commandments completely. That wasn't their purpose.
You are a well-known war correspondent. But you also have a seminary degree. What is the relationship between the two?
As someone who was raised in a Christian household, I always felt that my role was to empower, or give a voice to, the dispossessed, those people who are neglected and marginalized in our society. At first I didn't see how that fit with journalism. I published my first piece when I was in college, but I went on to seminary to be an inner-city minister because I felt that was a stronger profession of my belief. In my second year of divinity school, though, there was a guy named Robert Cox who'd been the editor of The Buenos Aires Herald, who was also a very devout Catholic. He'd been editor during the dirty war in Argentina, when 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, and every morning he'd put in a box on the front page of the paper the names of the people who'd been disappeared the night before. He showed me in a lot of ways what I think good journalism is and should be. He also pushed George Orwell on me, and so I went off to Latin America with Orwell as my mentor, and the belief that this was as close as my generation was going to come to fighting fascism.
That was really the bridge. I'd come to the understanding that the mainstream church had walked out on the urban poor a long time ago and that liberal Christians would speak on behalf of oppressed people but had very little contact with them. They'd go to Nicaragua for a week and pick coffee, but they'd never get on a subway to the Main Mission Extension housing projects, where people were living in appalling conditions. I found that to be self-aggrandizement on the part of liberal Christians, and not about real commitment.
This seems similar to what you write about in your first two chapters on idolatry. You use the example of your idolizing your own virtue for going into inner-city Boston. You say this form of idolatry gives people self-definition, "frees them from moral choices," and determines right and wrong for them. Do you see that sort of idolatry in other American experiences of religion?
I think so many people go to church to worship their own virtue. That's what they're really worshipping, which is an idol. I had a professor in divinity school who called all these people "honorary sinners." I think there's a feeling of self-righteousness that people get out of [going to church] that I find really repugnant. I very rarely go to church, even though I grew up in it, because I just get so angry at the sermons.
What did you mean by idolatry "frees us from moral choice"?
Many people try to turn the Bible into a kind of manual, by which we no longer have to make moral choices. I think this drains it of its life and power. And part of much of my anger at the Religious Right comes on precisely this issue. They are selling us a kind of civic religion, by which they claim not only to know the will of God, but to be able to act as agents of God. And once you believe that, you become dangerous, not only to yourself, but to everyone around you.
We can all carry out an act of compassion once, and then spend the rest of our time being selfish and mean, but deluding ourselves into thinking we're good people because we've carried out one good act. I think oftentimes those grand acts are very easy to carry out. What's hard is to carry out that daily sacrifice, which parents know, in terms of raising children. Where every day you're sacrificing bits and pieces of your own time, even your own pleasure and happiness, so that another person can have life. And it's that constant level of self-sacrifice that I think saves you from the idolatry of self. It's hard, grinding work, but that sort of self-sacrifice is what frees us from idolatry and finally allows us to love.
Moving on to another commandment, how do you keep the Sabbath?
Well, for me keeping the Sabbath is understanding that all the work you do during the week is not the ends but the means to the ends. The ends are the time you have with your friends and your family and your community. The Sabbath means always setting aside time, not only setting aside time, but making sure they're the priority. That's something that I had to confront as a foreign correspondent, because I was never home. That's what the Sabbath is about. It's not about the rigid guidelines imposed by an institution, which often misses the point. The point is about sacrificing time and energy and space to nurture and create life on its most elemental level, which is with your children or with your spouse, or with your partner or with your friend.
|We don't choose the commandment that is most important in our own life, but that commandment chooses us.
The commandment to "honor thy father and mother" is obviously one that means a lot to you personally.
Well, I grew up in this small, poor farm town in upstate New York. My father, although not a rabble-rouser in any way, was openly supportive of the civil rights movement in the early 60s, and eventually the anti-war movement. He took a lot of heat for this in the town, and as a young boy, I felt the sting of that. I was very aware that people were angry at my father, and I remember at school people insulting my father in front of me. But it taught me a very important lesson, which is that when you make a moral choice it always entails risk, and you can't expect to be rewarded for it. Indeed, a lot of people hate you for it.
My father was a very gentle guy, and he lived by example, which I think is finally probably the only way to impart morality. So I think everything I did in life was measured by those standards. When my book "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" came out in 2002, it was inevitable that I would be asked about the war in Iraq. I could have sidestepped the issue, but I thought that would be a kind of moral cowardice. Being a news reporter who challenged the Bush administration about the war created a situation that made the company I worked for, The New York Times, extremely uncomfortable. And this culminated with the commencement address I gave at Rockford College where I was booed off the stage. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal had this feeding frenzy, and I was called into the paper and given a formal reprimand.
I remember sitting there: not without nervousness, but realizing that I was faced with a choice. I could be loyal to the institution, or I could be loyal to my father. But I couldn't be loyal to both. Of course there was no question in the end where my loyalty lay. And I realized as I walked out the door that what my father had really given me, on the most fundamental level, was freedom. Freedom not to be ruled by idols. And for me, what I do and what I did, is how I honor my father.
What were your thoughts on the Supreme Court decisions on the posting of the Ten Commandments in public?
I don't think the Ten Commandments should be displayed anywhere near a courthouse. That is to miss the whole point of the Commandments. They're guideposts by which we can maintain and sustain community. They're not the basis of a legal system.
Which do you think is the most important commandment?
I would say that each commandment deals with two themes: the danger of idolatry, and the importance of self-sacrifice. These issues come up in each one. It's also been my experience that we don't choose the commandment that is most important in our own life, but that commandment chooses us. People individually struggle more with one than another -- with violating one, or with suffering the consequences of a commandment being broken. We can't protect ourselves from envy, greed, or always avoid the impulses that make us struggle with different commandments. The Episcopal bishop I wrote about [in the book] never asked to have to struggle with the commandment about murder -- he never asked to be sent to Vietnam, and to later have to deal with the issue of killing after he, as a platoon leader, had to kill the wounded so as not to give away the location of the platoon that set up the ambush. He never asked for that to dominate his life, but it does. So for him, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is the most important commandment.
For me...I would say the most important commandment is honor thy father and mother. Because the deep religiosity and morality of my father had the most powerful imprint on my life. And everything I do, even to this day, is designed to meet the standards he set, although he's been dead ten years. That's all I care about. I just want to be worthy of being his son. So for me that's the most important commandment.