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Thursday, March 11, 2010  

The Ten Commandments x2
Part 2
Part 1

Previously I discussed the Ten Commandments under the aspect of "commandment minimalism"--the ten as a kind of bare-bones ethic for a small community in the ancient Near East. But there is another tradition of interpreting the commandments that Christopher Hitchens gestures to--in invincible ignorance, as ever--and that needs to be explored as well. For the sake of ease I'll call this tradition "commandment maximalism." It has roots in the Old Testament prophets but finds its classic formulation in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus folds sexual fantasies into adultery and anger into murder. Paul takes a similar approach in Romans, saying that the commandment against coveting is essentially infinite and unfulfillable.

This is not, as some have had it, a matter of life-hating spiritual acrobatics. The argument behind the Sermon on the Mount, if that's the right word, is that the neighbor has an infinite value. Even inviting a wrong against her--and actions pre-exist in desires, as we all know--is a serious matter. In strictly human terms Jesus is indulging in hyperbole when he calls fantasies a form of adultery, but Hitchens would not find this an instance of religious totalitarianism if he weren't on some level compelled by the logic. If Jesus had said "Anyone who thinks of an elephant will be consigned to Gehenna," he would be merely eccentric. By targeting lust and anger, Jesus is alluding to the fact that real fantasies are, in fact real. Only a psychopath or a narcissist is entirely at ease with his fantasy life.

For a concise and thorough treatment of the commandments from a maximalist perspective, Martin Luther's Small Catechism is in my experience unequaled. Luther finds in every commandment not just a prohibition (which would be emphasized in a minimalist reading) but a positive injunction.

On murder: "We should fear and love God, so that we do no bodily harm to our neighbor, but help and befriend him in every need."

On false witness: "
We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything."

On this reading, the commandments don't merely establish the parameters of a decent social existence, they express the heart of who we are, what our relationships entail, and what the value of the other truly is. Hitchens of course blusters that such commandments can't be fulfilled. Once again, I wonder how he got the idea that we hadn't grappled with such things. Indeed, the commandments on this maximal reading cannot be fulfilled. They require a perfection of love for each other that we are not capable of attaining. What, then do we draw from this truth? That perfection is a kind of cosmic torture imposed by a wicked omnipotence (sometimes Hitchens sounds like the most hopelessly religious soul alive, projecting his endless self-loathing on a deity he professes to disbelieve)?

This may be so. Maybe these ideals of behavior and disposition are so much neurosis, foisted on us by the overbearing admirers of a Galilean carpenter. Maybe our neighbor has no reality beyond his body and his property, certainly not a reality that enters our own hearts and minds. Maybe the howling of the hungry is of no ultimate consequence so long as their goods have not been stolen and no one is actively murdering them. Maybe we can be perfectly good friends to people whose marriage bonds we inwardly long to interrupt and despoil. Really, I'm the last person you should look to for insight on these things--I'm just a hobbled little man who goes to church and feels he needs forgiveness for all kinds of things.

And that's the nub. Insofar as you are compelled by the vision of commandment maximalism--that your neighbor is of infinite worth and that everyone is your neighbor--you are inevitably driven to think of yourself as a sinner in desperate need of forgiveness. This is not, as Hitchens would have it, a bug. It is a feature. The Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus contain a good deal of moral wisdom, but I daresay that they are not the only such sources and are far from the most rigorous (Luther believed, at one point, that passing gas was a sin--a topic on which both Testaments are mercifully and tastefully silent). What they do offer, as far as I know uniquely, is the possibility of a dynamic relationship with a God who chooses people, blots out their sins, and calls them to ever-widening compassion and commitment to one another and the whole world.

What I previously described as commandment minimalism corresponds more or less with what the 16th century reformers called the first use of the law--that is, to restrain uncivil behavior. What I am calling commandment maximalism covers both the second and third uses of the law. Insofar as we recognize the truth in the proposition that we must not only refrain from murdering other people but come to their aid however we can, we recognize that we have failed to do so. This is the second use of the law: to condemn sinfulness in order to drive us to grace. The third use of the law is for what we call regeneration: it leads and focuses the actions we take as people who have received grace and forgiveness. It provokes us to throw our arms around ever more of God's creation. That we cannot fulfill the commandment then drives us not to despair but to joy at the depths of charity we might experience in trying to fulfill it anyway.

Notice that none of what I've written in these two posts depends on a specific understand of who wrote the commandments and for what purpose. I am not a Ten Commandments fetishist. The antics of Roy Moore have more to do with trying to show who's boss in our country than with anything having to do with God. If I had to pick a set of Old Testament laws to obsess over, I'd probably go with Leviticus 19, but tastes differ. Rather my point is that there is a richness in these commands that is easily overlooked, especially if you have a prior commitment to overlooking them. Thinking nothing of it, Hitchens dashes off his own additions at the end of the article, without knowing that most of them are already anticipated by the traditions of interpretation he has shown so little interest in:

Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color [1,2,4]. Do not ever use people as private property [4,7,8]. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations [6,7]. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child [6]. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature—why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them? [3, among others] Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly [1,4]. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife [8,9]. Turn off that fucking cell phone—you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us [um...]. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions [1,2,3]. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.

I object to the part about renunciation, since no god and no religion is identical with a single commandment--something a Trostkyite-cum-neo-con should understand--but otherwise this is not especially radical stuff. And if by "swallow[ing] your moral code in tablet form" Hitchens means that human morality needs more than a few Hebrew sentences to be complete no one I know could possibly disagree. That's what the Talmud and the New Testament and the church Fathers and Mothers and all that bogus theology I had to read was for. If what he means is that human society can do fine without such moral insights, well--keep Christopher Hitchens away from my oxen.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:46 PM
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