Today it’s the Ten Commandments. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the journal “The Nation,” has this to say about these “thou shalt nots”: “When you consider that God could have commanded anything he wanted—anything!—the Ten Commandments have got to rank as one of the great missed opportunities of all time. How different history would have been had God clearly and unmistakably forbidden war, tyranny, taking over other people’s countries, slavery, exploitation of workers, cruelty to children, wife-beating, stoning, treating women—or anyone—as chattel or inferior beings.” One the one hand, I get her point. On the other hand, I would say that Katha Pollitt is a bit more optimistic about human beings than I am. God could have given a million very explicit, unequivocally clear “thou shalt nots” and we human beings would still do many of the things that we “shalt not do.”
But the real problem with thinking about the Ten Commandments as a list of rights and wrongs is that it misunderstands who God is, and what this moment in Israel’s history means, and what God is up to with us human beings. When we turn these commandments into a list of dos and don’ts from God, we turn God into some remote guy in the sky, who’s making up lists and checking them twice to see if we’ve been naughty or nice. And we turn ourselves into creatures who do not have the capacity to think, feel, discern and behave ethically without being told exactly what to do at every turn. This is not who we are. This is not who God is.
The story Israel tells is that God is first and foremost God a liberator and healer. God is the one who hears the cries of the oppressed and responds by changing their situation. God is the one who overcomes the chaos, makes a way out of no way, creates dry land and provides a habitable space in which all of creation, and all people can thrive. God has freed these people from their slavery in Egypt. But, here’s the thing. Here’s what’s at stake in this story. Even though the Israelites have left Egypt, Egypt is inside of them. They have internalized the rules and the ways and the oppressions of this place where they have been in bondage. They weren’t living the good life; they were being exploited and abused, but there was a certain kind of security and predictability in it for them. They adjusted to their unjust circumstances, without even consciously knowing that they were doing it. This is the reality—the worlds we make and participate in make us. The systems we are part of—whether it be family, or our local communities, or the organizations we belong to, or the nation—these systems shape us, they make us, and they form us in a way to live. We can make our peace with things the way they are. Or not.
God will not make peace with Egypt’s ways or the ways of any nation that values profitability more than people, promotes racism, lives in fear of the stranger, and is blind to its own greed and unjust ways of living. God has taken these people out of Egypt, and now here in the wilderness, God is working to take this nation out of these people. But why does God choose these particular people in this special way? As the story in Exodus says, the whole earth is God’s and all that dwells in it. All people belong to God. And God has all kinds of ways to use all kinds of people to make the world a place in which all people thrive. This whole weekend, the O+ Clinic has been set up in Bethany Hall, and artists who can’t afford healthcare have been seeing doctors, nurses, therapists, and other healers for free. The hands of these healers are the hands of God. The gifts of these artists are the gifts of God. Their lives reflect the purposes of God.
But God chooses these particular people to live in full consciousness of God and God’s purposes, because God has special concern for the oppressed, for people living at the bottom of the social heap. And it is precisely their experience of oppression that makes them ripe for God’s purposes. Over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, the Israelites are asked to remember that they were slaves in Egypt. Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget how you suffered. God assumes that this memory will motivate them to choose a different way to live than the way they knew in Egypt. God assumes that their struggle and their liberation from it will open up their capacity for a new vision and a new way of living, and for creative resistance to destructive socio-economic and political patterns. God has chosen these people to incarnate, to put flesh on God’s love and intention for humanity. Walter Brueggeman writes: God is engaging them in a radical experiment to determine whether non-exploitative, neighbor-embracing social relationships can be sustained in the world. That’s what God is up to with them. They are free and God is forming them to use their freedom well.
The way we think about freedom in America is in terms of individual rights. The right to have a gun in case you need to kill someone before they kill you. The right to free speech irrespective of whether you speak truth or lies. The right to pledge your allegiance to whatever groups you choose, even if they paint swastikas on synagogues. Freedom in America means getting away from external restrictions, being unhindered, remaining unaffected by the plight of people who are not in your small circle of concern, being able to do whatever you want.
God knows us. God knows our capacity for good and for ill. And God is invested in giving shape to our desires and our freedom. God is on a mission to heal the world, and to develop an ethical humanity to share in that healing. The Ten Commandments are one of God’s ways Gods shapes that new humanity. One of my college professors described the Ten commandments as permissions—ten permissions given in two parts. The first four permissions are to love and serve God more than you love and serve anything else because God is the source of your life, and God loves you, and God’s love for you makes it possible for you to love yourself. The last six permissions are to love and serve the neighbors God has given you because God loves them, and God’s love in you calls you, and makes it possible for you to love them.
By the time Jesus enters the scene, there are hundreds of commandments with detailed elaborations. The list is way longer than the list Katha Pollitt came up with. And Jesus boils it all down to these three permissions: love and serve God with all that you are and all that you have. Love and care for yourself. Love and care for your neighbor. And the whole thing is about being in relationship, and using our freedom to embrace and nurture all the sacred interconnections we are created for. With the Israelites, we are part of God’s radical experiment to prove that human beings are capable of creating and sustaining non-exploitative, neighbor-embracing social relationships in this world. Not because God has given us lists of dos and don’ts to follow, but because God is love, and God’s love is a power at work in us. God is foolish enough to trust that we can be re-made by divine love, and live out this costly love in the world. And God is faithful enough to make it so.