Actually the idea is not original with me. I got it from an unlikely source when it comes to spiritual matters: Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, a gifted novelist not known specifically for his religious insights, made some good theological sense last year in a column he wrote. He noted that there is a lot of talk lately about making the Ten Commandments visible in public places, but no one ever seems to mention the Beatitudes as having any meaning for our public life. Why not? he asks. After all, the Ten Commandments are from Moses, but if you really believe in Jesus you should want his unique teachings to get some publicity. So, proposes Vonnegut, let's put "Blessed are the merciful" signs in our courtrooms. And let's have a big "Blessed are the peacemakers" billboard in the Pentagon.
I'm intrigued by Vonnegut's suggestion. That's not to say I have problems with the Ten Commandments. Both Moses and Jesus are in the Bible I read regularly. The commandments that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai are of fundamental importance for human morality, both collective and individual. But they do have a stern tone about them, and it could be that by emphasizing the "thou-shalt-nots" of the Ten Commandments, we Christians are coming across as a bit too self-righteous. Furthermore, it has long been acknowledged by Christian theologians that at least the first few commandments-the ones dealing with worship and idolatry-are not the sorts of things we want to impose on everyone in our pluralistic democracies.
On a more positive note, it might be better for Christians-especially those of us who talk a lot about "moral values"-to let our fellow citizens know that we do care a lot about the "blessed" traits that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes: meekness, peaceableness, empathy with the poor and the grieving, a spirit of mercy-things of that sort. To be sure, we will be criticized for this, too, by the folks who don't want us to inject any of our religious views into the public square. But if we are going to be scolded by those who resist religious teachings, let's at least be scolded for promoting something that comes straight from Jesus.
When George W. Bush said, during the last presidential campaign, that Jesus is his favorite philosoper, he took a lot of criticism from the intelligentsia. I did not join in the ridicule. Jesus is also my favorite philosopher. I believe Jesus has profound things to say to contemporary America-to all of us as citizens, as well to each of us as private individuals.
Which leads me to an even bolder proposal. People like me can push for this sort of move, but no one will really pay any attention. But if the President and a well-known novelist were to team up in urging the justices of the Supreme Court to endorse the public display of the Beatitudes-well, then we might actually get somewhere. The more I think about the idea, the more I like it. President Bush, please contact Kurt Vonnegut immediately.