Sunday, April 7, 2002

One God
No substitute for God
Hold God's name sacred
Save a day for joy alone
Honor your parents
Don't kill
Don't dishonor your marriage
Don't steal
Don't lie
Don't be envious
(Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5)

I can't help but wonder that this code could cause so much controversy. These are the basic principles that make living in community possible. Which of these rules would we eliminate and why?

Perhaps it is because this particular code has been given to us by the Jewish religion and people who think they must disavow religious claims on their life feel compelled to reject it out of principle. This is a good case in point for reflecting on what religion is all about anyway. In the first place, God is not defined in the code. Religions agree that God is not capable of definition. Whether we call the Ultimate Principle God, Tao, Allah, Jehovah, Wakantanka or Brahma makes little difference. This code is ethical, not religious. If there is a theological point in the code, it is that our human tendency is to try to make temporal things ultimate in our life which is the meaning of idolatry. It doesn't matter whether we make family, work, pleasure, friendship, material possessions, popularity, power, church (yes, I said church) or a flowering stick ultimate in our lives, if we place our ultimate allegiance to anything above our ultimate allegiance to God we commit idolatry. Eastern religions in particular emphasize that our human dilemma is grounded in our inappropriate attachment to things that are impermanent, another way of talking about idolatry. One of the most profound explanations I've studied on this principle is found in the famous Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita which is a treatise on sacred duty in the field of honor or disciplined action within the context of devotion. These principles govern spiritual discipline in all religions.

The second point I would make is that this code, and other similar codes, for there are others and this one may have been derived in part from the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylonia in the 18th Century B.C.E. (Before Common Era) found inscribed on a column at Susa, these codes are outgrowths of people struggling to figure out how to make community life possible. They are products of that great stream of Ancient Wisdom and they are universal in nature. It really doesn't matter what is their source and I am perfectly ready to believe they are God-inspired. If there is a creator God, it doesn't make much sense that God would create people and not help them discover how to live and get along in the world. Even creatures of the animal kingdoms have their "codes" which are instinctual that help them get on the best they can to their maximum benefit. We humans, being much more complex beings, have fewer instincts it seems and we puzzle over and are capable even of rejecting what is in our best interest and try to invent rules to suit ourselves that will make room for our inappropriate attachments.

I am fascinated by anything science or religion can teach me about our human condition and living in community. Community is our key to survival. When the concept of community is in so much disrepair with the danger of war raging in so many places, I can think of nothing more important than some code for how to get along together. The movie spectacular, The Ten Commandments, keeps showing up on television during religious holidays. People are hungry for a religious experience, even Hollywood style. Think about the story for a minute. A group of culturally similar but distinct nomadic tribes with a history of being at war with each other, probably not dissimilar to some of those found in parts of our world today, find themselves squatting in exile in the land of a neighboring superpower which eventually conscripts them into forced labor. After some time, a charismatic leader helps them revolt and they stage a trek back to their land of origin but it takes them a number of years. (They are nomads, after all and have to stop frequently to pasture their animals, marry, give birth, die, etc.) Along the way all the old tribal animosities surface and they must forge some sort of unity in order to survive in the wilderness. The code of conduct they developed, or were given, the Ten Commandments, helped them set boundaries for community survival and mutual benefit.

When I was serving a mission church in Sioux City, Iowa, we developed a ministry to a group of about 15-20 children between the ages of ten and sixteen or so living in the vicinity of our barrio neighborhood who were unsupervised and at loose ends during the day while their parents worked in a nearby meat packing industry. They were of Southeast Asian, Hispanic and Native American origin and the Asian children were Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian so we had quite a disparate group. We met together once a week for games, snacks and some sort of organized activity and they wandered in and out of our mission at other times. They called our once a week meeting The Monday Club because that was the day we met. Things generally went pretty well but they were prone to occasional bouts of mischief and there was not a small amount of ethnic bickering in the group.

One day our weekly activity was a visit to the public library which was an easy walk a few blocks away down the main thoroughfare. I made a small parental type lecture about good behavior before we left which they paid a minimum amount of attention to but the visit turned into something of a rout anyway. I was so annoyed by their rude and disruptive behavior that when we returned to the mission I announced that that would be the last field trip until they had agreed on a code of conduct and demonstrated in the group that they could follow it. I talked with them occasionally about religious things so one of the boys suggested we post a list of the Ten Commandments on the wall. I said, fine, if that would help and could anyone tell me what they were. No one really knew much apart from not lying, stealing and killing which they all were pretty familiar with so I said that I thought it would be a good idea for them to think through their situation and come up with their own list. We had a group discussion about why I was so upset and with a little coaching on my part they easily conceded that their behavior had caused me to be mad, sad, scared and embarrassed. So the list started out that way.

Don't make anyone

So much for the negatives, I said, but I thought it might be even more productive if they could outline what they though good behavior might look like. This one took a bit longer because they, like most people, tend to think about rules in terms of what not to do. The first thing they came up with was their concession to me because they knew I was a pastor although they weren't exactly sure what that meant since none of them had any religious experience with their families, or minimal at best. But it had something to do with God, whatever that was, so the first rule was "Love God". The rest they really did come up with on their own. It was in their hearts from many different sources even if it wasn't always in their behavior.

"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. . ." (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

This is the list they came up with next.

Love God
Be a friend
Show respect

Is there anything else really that we can say? Can we possibly do anything that causes pain or suffering to another single person in the world or even harm to ourselves if we live by this simple code? We would, in fact, do an enormous amount of good, not only for the world, but for ourselves. Because the root of showing respect to anyone else or for anything else in the world begins, I believe, in respect for oneself. Knowing that oneself is worthy of respect and wanting to give that same respect to others. Wars are fought over ideology, theology, partisanship, greed, lust for power. We do not make war on those we respect, with whom we wish to cooperate, with those we call friend. It is only when we build separations between ourselves and others due to our "inappropriate attachments" that all the misery in the world is created, all the unjust and unnecessary suffering. It is lack of respect that sets us against one another and makes community impossible.

Our Encounters with God are by definition individual and personal. But for an Encounter to bear fruit, it must be worked out in Community. In the Genesis creation stories, after God created the world, God created community. It is not good that we live alone, but it is not easy to live together. As Ann Landers said, "Whenever I hear about two people never having an argument, I submit that one of them is unnecessary." As Scott Peck said, it is community and our struggles to reconcile with our enemies that makes us mature spiritually.

In the beginning, God made a garden.
In it put everything, lovely and true.
Rivers were flowing, flowers were growing,
But the most wonderful thing there was you.