There’s a running gag on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report in which the fake-bluster, windbag host, Stephen Colbert, interviews members of Congress in a segment called “Better Know a District.” In a recent installment, Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland was on the hot seat, and Colbert asked the congressman about his very vocal support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings—courthouses and such. “Can you think of any other places where the commandments should have prominence?” asked Colbert, trying, mischievously, to press the point that there might be other sites (churches, anyone? a synagogue, perhaps?) where the Decalogue is more at home.
Westmoreland didn’t get it—he kept talking about courthouses—and so Colbert (a devout Catholic, interestingly) went for the kill: “What are the Ten Commandments, congressman?”
Not surprisingly, Westmoreland was stumped. He named a couple of them—sort of. It was embarrassing to watch. But it was also illuminating for what it revealed about how the Ten Commandments are routinely regarded in public discourse and even in the Church: as a list of disembodied rules intended to govern personal conduct and particularly applicable in the American civil sphere (and rules, it turns out, that many of us can’t even name). As rules, they are thought to function primarily by restricting, constraining, hampering, inhibiting. They are meant to protect us from one another in a dangerous, unpredictable world, and invoking them regularly is thought to please and appease a God who guards America’s greatness.
And so, the argument often goes, we need to display the Ten Commandments prominently—yanked from their biblical moorings, their narrative history—in American halls of jurisprudence.
Situated in their original context, however, the commandments (the “ten words,” literally) are nothing like the description above. For Israel, the law given at Mount Sinai comes as gift, as a liberating word that makes it possible for the covenant people to flourish in their life together. Where we see the keeping of the Decalogue as a way to earn God’s favor and escape God’s wrath, the biblical writers are clear that the law comes after Israel’s salvation and in response to it. As Perry Yoder has observed, “We have forgotten that Israel’s liberation was an act of God’s grace, not a necessary response to Israel’s merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God say thank you!”
Another distinction is helpful here—that between “public” and “community.” In his book, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, Wendell Berry writes that “a community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘We belong to our community,’ but never, ‘we belong to our public.’”
Thus the call for a “public” display of the Ten Commandments is exposed for the misguided proposal that it is. The Commandments don’t speak to a public; they give life within a community. What might seem to be restrictive and unrelentingly legalistic (thou shalt not this; thou shalt not that), turns out to be the parameters by which we exercise our freedom. That is, the Ten Words given in Exodus chapter 20 (and the hundreds of laws and mandates that follow in succeeding chapters) help give human freedom its proper aims, for they show us “the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long” (Berry).
This Sunday many Protestants will observe World Communion Sunday. (For our Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers, every Sunday, rightly, is World Communion Sunday). As we gather to receive the Eucharist, may we be reminded that we exist as a community of gift in which both Law and Gospel are the good news of God.