A Letter to the Editor on the Posting of the Ten Commandments

Someone posted the Ten Commandments in a prominent place on his own property in our area. He was subsequently described as "courageous" in a letter to the editor. This is my brief response:

It doesn’t take courage to post the Ten Commandments on private property, as one person recently commented. That’s a right guaranteed by the first amendment which most people enthusiastically support and defend, including me. I wonder though, if this is the symbol Christian people really want to display to reflect their beliefs? There are three versions of the Ten Commandments, which were based to some degree on the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1795 – 1750 BC), and they don’t all agree with each other (Exodus 20; Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 4). Which one do you post?

The only commandments relevant to American law are the ones prohibiting homicide, theft and perjury, which are laws almost everyone wants enforced, for good reasons. Who, for instance, in our day wants to prosecute people for worshipping a different god, making a graven image of him, working on the Saturday Sabbath day, taking the Lord’s name in vain, not honoring their parents, committing adultery, or coveting another person’s property? We all know what happened when such laws were enforced by the church, now don’t we? We live in a democracy, not a theocracy, and for good reasons. The last one about not coveting reflects the ancient barbaric practice of a thought police, something which is still being enforced in some Muslim countries where people can be prosecuted for what they think!

Besides, what about some other commandments that aren’t listed but could be, like: “Thou shalt not buy, beat or own slaves,” “Thou shalt not treat people differently because of the color of their skin,” “"Thou shalt not treat women as inferior persons, nor shall you rape them or force them to marry a man they do not want to marry," “Thou shalt not kill or torture heretics or witches,” “Thou shalt not conduct Holy Wars,” or “Thou shalt not trap or abuse animals but treat them humanely.” I think those additions would’ve been very helpful down through the ages, don’t you?

Even if we regard the Ten Commandments as moral rules, aren’t they too restrictive? Is there any room for mitigating circumstances or exceptions? The history of ethical thinking reveals there are a great many exceptions to straightforward commands such as these. Is religious art a graven image to avoid? Should we always honor or obey our parents in everything, even if one tells us to do wrong or who molests us? One commandment states we should not kill, yet we see plenty of divinely sanctioned killings in the Bible, even genocide. Should we always tell the truth under all circumstances? I think not, and so do many religious people. I just think better symbols are available, that’s all.

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