The Ten Commandments are ten doors to the heart of God. They have a sequence, a grammar, as a matter of fact. They are not laid out arbitrarily from one to ten. But each of them in its own right is a door, and although each door leads to the same place, to the heart of God’s love, it matters which door you use. How you see the whole depends on where you enter.
The First Commandment
Most enter through the first commandment, the front door: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It seems, well, polite and proper, to enter in this way. The commandments begin here for a reason. Calvin, as he ramps up to his main argument in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, acknowledging that one might begin the argument with humanity rather than divinity, says that, nevertheless, it is better, more decorous, to begin with divinity: “Yet, however the knowledge of God and of ourselves may be mutually connected, the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first [God], then proceed afterward to treat the latter [humanity].” Most expositions of the Ten Commandments follow this same line of thought. Better to begin at the beginning. Enter through the front door. There is much to be said for this, but not here. I would like to recommend other doors, the doors less traveled through.
The Sixth Commandment
A couple of years ago a nephew handed me a book in a bookstore with the off-hand remark: “You might like this.” Like most people who receive more book suggestions than they can use, I hesitated even to take the book in my hand. When I did, it turned out to be a small volume, published by the Free Press, not well-known as a publisher of books on the Bible, with the odd title, Losing Moses on the Freeway. The author is Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times. The subtitle announces the topic: The 10 Commandments in America. It is one of the most original takes on the commandments in recent memory.
The book is a example of what must be a very small genre: Ten Commandment memoirs. At least this is how the book begins, with a powerful, autobiographical chapter devoted to the First Commandment called simply, “Mystery.” It is the story of good intentions gone horribly wrong, of learning what it means to worship other gods. Hedges, at this point in his life a Harvard Divinity School student, took up residence as a youth pastor intern in Roxbury, a hardscrabble neighborhood of Boston. He came hoping to bring his liberal Christian values to the neighborhood; by the time he left he has come to embody the street-wise values of the neighborhood. Violence for violence. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. Eventually he had to flee for his life. Reflecting on that time, he says:
All this was a long time ago. It was a time I dreamed of being good. But this was the idolatry of self, the worship not of God but of my virtue. I had to learn my own complicity in oppression, my own sinfulness, how evil lurked within me, how when I was afraid I could turn on the weak and powerless (36).
For Chris Hedges, the front door, the door marked, “Have no other gods before me,” was not open. But in the darkness, other doors opened:
The church was my last refuge from God. In the shattering of that moral certitude, I looked for forgiveness. Idols promise us power. God does not. Before God we are all powerless. We are all afraid. It is in this fear, this darkness, that I found God, even as I thought I was fleeing God (36-37).
Leaving the neighborhood, he smashes a bottle against the door of the church he had served, “leaving the light, and entering ‘the thick darkness where God was’ (37).”
The front door closed, the door through which Chris Hedges re-enters the commandments is the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not kill.” In the book, he walks past all the other doors in the sequence in which they are given in the Scriptures, but whenever he can, he steers us towards the Sixth, in particular to the lessons of war–to the murder at the heart of humanity. In his chapter on the Second Commandment, he tells us a story of coming on an ambush in El Salvador. A young soldier lays dying in the road, shot through the back of the head. Hedges asks the question, “Can we really accept that sixteen-year-old soldiers, press-ganged into the military, are a regrettable sacrifice in the progression towards a new world or the kingdom of God? ” He answers his own question in terms of the commandment: “Idols, not God, require [such] sacrifices” (49).
With the passion of someone who has looked into hell and returned to tell of it, he comes back again and again to war. On lying: “War entails the greatest deception, the greatest lie” (59). On keeping Sabbath: “Sabbath is not about rules. These are imposed by institutions which seek conformity and control. Religious authorities in the wars I covered… legitimized the abuse and murder of others outside the faith. They sanctified war” (75). On family and friendship: “We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade. In short we begin to worship death. And this is what the God of war demands of us” (99). And on the Sixth Commandment itself: “War is a state of almost unadulterated sin” (104).
Enter the commandments through the door of the Sixth Commandment and you will see everywhere, in every other commandment, warnings against the many ways we justify and authorize killing. We put religion in the service of war. We kill for family and friendship. In violating the one commandment, we distort all the others. In the last chapter, Hedges pleads with America, then in the early and optimistic phase of the war in Iraq: “All the explosions and attacks in Iraq, symbols of our might and power, are steadily corrupting the soul of our nation, deforming and maiming the young men and women who will return home to us broken, disillusioned and haunted by the murder and killing we made them commit.” The door of the Sixth Commandment is a prophet’s door. Hedges is such a prophet, calling us to see the violence in our hearts.
The Tenth Commandment
One could enter the commandments through any number of other doors: lying, theft, adultery. A year or so ago, having decided to do another series of messages on the Ten Commandments, I chose perhaps the least promising door, the back door to the commandments, the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not desire your neighbor’s household” (or anything else that belongs to your neighbor). It’s almost an appendage to the commandments. It is the “as yourself” in the Summary of the Law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The “as yourself” is not a commandment really, but neither is it an assumption that one can make. We often don’t love ourselves properly. We want not what we have and are but what our neighbor has and is, and out of this desire we violate not only the Tenth Commandment but the others too. It is the door not of a prophet but of a priest, not of condemnation or of judgment but of healing and of grace.
As students of the commandments have always understood, one of the best ways to get at what is proscribed in the commandments is to think about what is, by implication, required by the commandments. The reverse of the corrosive desire proscribed by the Tenth Commandment is the value described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” “Content” here is autarkes, “self-sufficient,” a word chosen, one imagines, with the full knowledge that it was even then laden with centuries of reflection. Just what is this “self-sufficiency?” How do we get it? If the Tenth Commandment is, essentially, “Don’t long to live someone else’s life,” the culture that surrounds us says to us daily, “You can, no, you m
ust, be someone else.” These questions, asked and answered in various ways in the age of Paul, are questions being asked still. Indeed the notion of autarkeia or, rather, the interplay between autarkeia, “self-sufficiency,” and epithumia, “desire,” is arguably the moral dilemma at the heart of our culture. We prize the one and live the other. We claim the virtue of lonely self-sufficiency, the cowboy virtue of ascetic self-determination, and, at the same time, we gorge ourselves daily on enormous quantities of cleverly designed inducements to desire. We live in a binge and purge culture. If the Tenth Commandment is, essentially, “Don’t long to live someone else’s life,” the culture that surrounds us says to us daily, “You can, no, you must, be someone else.”
It is this aporia at the heart of our culture that makes the door of the Tenth Commandment an accessible and illuminating door through which to enter the commandments. Seen through the door of the Tenth Commandment, the First Commandment can be seen as a protection against the destructiveness of false desire. It is not desire itself that is wrong, but the desire to be someone else–to be one’s neighbor. Desire has an order, a hierarchy. We rise to the level of our desire. The desire for God elevates us; the desires proscribed by the Tenth Commandment pull us down to the level of whatever it is we have our little hearts set on. We become no more than consumers. We play our prescribed role in the economy. We serve the corporations who sell us stuff. We lose our souls.
From this perspective we can just as easily walk through the other commandments. Take idolatry, the Second Commandment. Idolatry, seen through the Tenth Commandment, is the mistaking of what we desire for God, as Chris Hedges painfully discovered. Nothing is more endemic to, or destructive of, Christian community in the twenty-first century. Whole churches and theologies are based on wishful thinking, where the wishes are those prompted by the same desires fed to us each day by advertisers. You want a new car? Just wish for it. God wants whatever you want. The engine of life is desire. Desire becomes our god.
In a similar way, the Tenth Commandment opens up the two commandments about truth: the Third Commandment and the truth about God and the Ninth Commandment and the truth about our neighbor. Where desires control our lives, what we want of God is power. To have the name of God is, we hope, to have power over God, the power to invoke God for whatever purpose we desire. Whole theologies of prayer are built on this twisted frame: pray in this way, and God will do what you want. The Ninth Commandment on false testimony exposes our desire for our neighbors. How we testify testifies to the condition of our souls. In this case, we do have the power. Our words can bind or set free. Which we choose to do is a measure of what we want, whether build up or destroy.
And so the Tenth Commandment systematically opens us to the central pathologies of our age. By entering the commandments through this door, we lay bare our hearts. We may never have killed or stolen, but violence and theft are in our thoughts and worse. This, in fact, is precisely the strategy of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said…, but I say to you, if you look at a woman to desire [epithum sai] her, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” Through the door of the Tenth Commandment, we begin to see the way daily life twists and distorts our souls, the way, being guilty of one of the commandments, we are guilty of them all.
But these are only three of the doors that open into the vast significance of the commandments. There are another seven, or if you count the summary of the law, another nine. Each of them enters the same space but through each of these doors one sees the whole differently. Imagine entering through the door of theft, the Eighth Commandment. How do we steal from God? What do we steal beyond stealing a life when we kill someone? There are thefts of God’s prerogatives, of our parents’ honor, of our neighbor’s husband, of our friend’s good name.
Or entering through the Third Commandment, how do we take God’s name in vain in the act of murder? How does the theology of the name of God in the Old Testament intersect with human beings as the image of God? And so with every commandment, each a door leading to the heart of God. What this tells us is that the Ten Commandments are not really ten; they are one. They are the faces of love, the aspects of the faithful life. It is in the pondering of these aspects, the considering of the commandments from various angles, that we see their underlying unity. And it is in this pondering of the commandments, and not the posting of them on courthouse walls, that we are renewed.