I’ve been thinking a lot (and writing a bit) about the Ten Commandments as of late, ever since the legislature of the State of Oklahoma has seen fit to follow the example of Texas and install a monumental homage to Mosaic ethics and Hebraic religion on the Capitol grounds. My first objection to this plan is straightforward and obvious, Oklahomans should know better than to follow the example of Texans. Given that this is a controversy over Biblical passages, here is one which might be considered on point: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” Stiff-necked, indeed. Texans are almost as arrogant as New Yorkers, even more hypocritical, and vastly more self-righteous. It is little wonder that the Bush/Rove political machine first arose from the fragrant muck that is the Texas socio-political milieu.
Seriously, though, it would be a huge mistake for Oklahoma to blindly follow where the Texas has trail-blazed in this matter. I’ve no problem whatsoever with the state telling me that it is unethical and criminal to commit murder or theft or perjury. Indeed, it seems perfectly self-evident that any peaceful and well-ordered society must have laws against such things. That said, every other command set on this stone is either theocratic, outdated, or else better left to individual conscience. The commandments against apostasy, idolatry, and blasphemy run directly against the values embodied in the First Amendment, and the proscription against graven images is (ironically enough) violated no less than three times on the Texas monument itself. One wonders whether the engraver paused when inscribing the second commandment to ponder the eagle and flag that he had already set in stone. One also wonders whether he was working on a Saturday, given our society’s approach to all things sabbatarian. It should be clear to the thoughtful and well-informed observer that only three or four of these commandments carry weight in our own society, and thus this monument (no doubt unintentionally) conveys the message that divinely ordained laws dictated by God Himself may be blithely disregarded in our modern cultural and political context. Without a theologian on hand to explicate the fine-grained distinctions between the various covenants and dispensations, this message is difficult to put in its proper Christian context. Presumably it would be breaching the wall of separation to assign a chaplain to this task, but I’d not put it past the Oklahoma legislature at this point.
Even more disturbing than the obvious irrelevance of most of these commands outside of the context of an ancient tribal theocracy, though, is the unmistakable endorsement of Old Testament ethics which a reasonable observer cannot help but infer from a monument such as this one. Guess what the punishment is for breaking most of these commandments — go ahead, guess. Now guess again, but try to think of something harsher than your first guess. (Hint: It may help if you watch a few videos of execution by stoning).