The (Radical) Politics of the Ten Commandments
By Ana Levy-Lyons
The Ten Commandments get a bad rap. They get publicity these days mostly (if at all) through infamous politicians trying to erect them in public spaces – the likes of Roy Moore (who preyed on teenage girls to avoid committing adultery with married women), Lynn Westmoreland (who was unable to list the actual commandments during a Colbert Report interview), and Gerald Dial (who beclowned himself by suggesting that posting them outside of schools could deter mass shooters). These public figures use the Ten Commandments for distasteful political ends that are transparent to those outside of their circles. More painfully, the Commandments have been used by some leaders on the right to justify broader theologies of oppression and discrimination. As a result, the feeling-tone of the Ten Commandments in our culture is old, cranky, dusty, backwards, and repressive.
On the left, meanwhile, the Ten Commandments get demoted to the “ten suggestions.” They get mercilessly roasted by comedians like George Carlin. Hardline atheists like Sam Harris relegate them, along with the rest of religion, to the “cesspool of mythology.” At best, the Ten Commandments tend to be viewed by liberals as ethical principles on which we all already agree and which require no religious imprimatur. But what people on both the right and the left are missing is the countercultural firepower of the Ten Commandments. They are not enforcers of the power structures of our society; on the contrary, they are tools for resisting oppression, both external and internal.
The Ten Commandments emerged out of a people’s experience of slavery. Whether historically “real,” mythological, or somewhere in between, the story of oppression and liberation from Egypt shaped the psychic memory of the Israelite people. And as they regrouped in the desert after crossing the Red Sea, they had to create a new society from scratch. How should they organize their new world? What would it take to create a culture free from the kinds of oppression, violence, cruelty, and excess that characterized the world they’d left? How could they ensure that they would never again become slaves themselves, nor enslave others? The Ten Commandments were conceived/ received as an answer to these questions.
The Commandments open with a radical definition of God. God speaks from Mt. Sinai directly to the people and introduces Godself as “YHVH” (in Hebrew, יהוה). These four letters form the Hebrew verb “to be.” This is not a God representing any earthly or even natural power. This is Being itself. And this manifestation of Being characterizes itself in one way: as the force that “brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of slaves.” The word for Egypt (mitzrayim) has some important layers to it. Jewish mystics read it as meaning both the geopolitical entity that enslaved the Israelites and also more generally as a site of constriction or oppression – a narrow place, even within ourselves. The one thing we are to know about the God who speaks from top of Mt. Sinai is that it is the force that liberates us from oppression, both political and spiritual.
The first commandment teaches us to have no other gods but that force. This is the umbrella for all the other commandments and it can serve as a guiding light for the religious left. Most of the problems we face in our world today stem from serving “other gods.” We have the obvious ones – the god of money, the god of power, the god of prestige and success, the god of pleasure. We have the less obvious ones – the god of culturally-defined beauty, the god of what-other-people-think, and the god of getting-to-choose. And each of us has private, secret other gods – a parent’s voice in our heads, a fear of failure, a fear of success, alcohol or other drugs, or simply another person. To demote these other gods, even slightly, is to transform in profound ways. It requires that we change the way we spend our time, the way we consume, the way we relate, and the truths we speak. Each commandment teaches one way to center YHVH in our lives.
Beyond personal practices, the commandments also guide our collective behavior. This is where their origin in a story of oppression renders them politically radical. In the Scripture text, God speaks the commandments in second person singular – to the community as a whole, as one entity responsible for keeping them. The commandment “do not steal” prohibits individual theft, but it also teaches us to build a society in which theft is not built into our economic structures. The commandment “do not kill” prohibits murder, but it also exhorts us to create systems that do not kill through poverty, racism, and the proliferation of weapons. The commandment to keep a Sabbath day requires us to ensure that our corporations pay a living wage so that everyone can afford to rest one day a week.
A vision with the power to galvanize diverse movements and effect transformation today must not look like the religious right, but it must not look like the secular left either. It must actually make demands of its communities. It must be both universal and particular. It must embrace a sweeping hope for a world based in love and, at the same time, it must say something specific and religiously-grounded about what such a world will look like and what it will take to get there. The Ten Commandments, designed as the ally of the oppressed and the antitoxin to slavery, offers exactly such a vision. The religious left would be wise to take another look.
Ana Levy-Lyons is an observant Jew who is senior minister of First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn. She is the author of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments.