Some people want to post the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls because “this is a Christian nation.” But wait— if we were under Old Testament commandments, wouldn’t that make this a Jewish nation? I mean, Christians don’t have Ten Commandments: we have one: to love others as Christ has loved us.
If this were a “Christian nation” one might reasonably expect that some of Jesus’ teachings would have distinctly shaped the founding, history or character of America. What would that be? “Love your enemies?” “Blessed are the meek?” “Do not judge?” “You must become as a child?” “Sell all you have and give to the poor?” “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me?” Hmm. How about Jesus’ practices: feeding the hungry? Healing the sick, practicing extravagant forgiveness, associating with the lowly, or trusting in God’s abundant grace rather than our own effort? I don’t see anything distinctly Jesus-like about America. And hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall won’t change that.
But really, why bother? Of the ten commandments, we actually believe in just two: only murder and stealing are actually illegal; the other eight we don’t even believe in anyway! Idolatry, false witness, taking the Lord’s name in vain, Sabbath, coveting—who are we kidding?—breaking these commandments is part of our social and economic system!
But all this is beside the point. Sacred as they are, the Ten Commandments are not for the purpose of making people change. Listen: we have got to stop expecting other people to live out our faith by obeying our religious principles. We have to do the whole thing ourselves.
The Ten Commandments aren’t meant as a secular legal code like the speed limit that everybody ought to follow, for two reasons. One is that God’s laws aren’t rules or obligations: they’re descriptions of The Way Things Are, like the law of gravity or the laws of nature. God’s law is love. The Ten Commandments are descriptions of life lived in love. Further, they’re not universal obligations; they’re a religious practice, that sets us apart among all peoples, that makes us different. They’re the Jewish equivalent of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. They do not apply to the whole pluralistic world, but to the people of Israel. The thing is, they are not a legal document; they’re a marriage vow. The context in which they are given is not a legal framework, but a relationship: “I am your God, who brought you out of slavery.” They express how we will be faithful to the One who has given us life and set us free. I don’t post my marriage vows publicly. They’re not for others to obey; they’re for me, in my marriage with Beth. Similarly, the Ten Commandments don’t apply to others. They apply to us who have entered into God’s Covenant, who want to be close to God.
The commandments—both the ten and the one—are not rules: they’re a way to be faithful. Like marriage vows, they’re not something God imposes upon us, and certainly nothing we can impose on others, but a natural outflowing of our heartfelt commitment to what we care most deeply about. A rich, faithful marriage requires that we at least avoid adultery, murder, coveting, false witness and all that. But following the rules won’t create a loving relationship; it can only describe its outlines. We don’t follow God’s commandments because we “have” to. We do it because we want to stay close to God. We do it out of love.
But of course there are times when our fear threatens to overtake our love and what’s in our heart does not lead us toward God. In those times the rules do give us a starting place. They don’t make us love, but they keep us constrained in a place where we can learn to love. Obedience invites us to grow beyond acquiescence to passion.
This is why the prophets pleaded that instead of inscribing the commandments on our walls, we write them on our hearts. Rather than merely obeying the Ten Commandments, what might it be like for you to really write them on your heart, to live them, to honor the spirit and not just the letter of the law? What if they were the outpouring of your love, or at least your desire to learn to love? What if you didn’t just obey them, but practice them, more deeply every day? It’s something God would love to see.
So her are some variations on the Ten Commandments, some alternative ways of receiving and practicing them.
The Ten Truths of Moses
I All is One. There is only one thing, One Being. Don’t settle for anything less than The One. Have no other gods.
II The Beloved is greater than your knowing. Let go of your understanding of reality and simply behold it. Let go of your image of the Beloved and just love. Have no graven image.
III You can love God, but not use God. God is beyond your controlling or defining. “Don’t use God’s name.”
IV Life is a gift. (Let go. Stop playing God. Even God does not play God. Be nothing, powerless and empty-handed. Let God be God. Take time to stop doing and be. “Honor the Sabbath.”)
V You belong. You receive great gifts from those who have come before you, and who surround you, and all the living beings who provide for you, simply because you are here. Show gratitude. Honor your elders.
VI Life is sacred. Life itself is the presence of the Holy One. Do what gives life. Refrain from all that diminishes life. Do not kill.
VII The heart of life is faithful love. God is faithful. All of life is a Covenant. Be faithful. Don’t commit adultery.
VIII We are all in this together. Possession is an illusion. Resist the temptation to think of yourself as separate from others, or of others as a resource, or yourself as more deserving than they. Seek to bless others rather than to take anything from them. See to it that all have what they need. Don’t steal.
IX Illusion is powerful, but truthfulness is more so. To free yourself from the power of illusion, be truthful in all things. Don’t bear false witness.
X You are a source, not an end point. Relinquish possessiveness. Let go of things. Be giving instead of grasping. Share. Don’t covet.
The Ten Promises
And God spoke all these words:
I am Love, your God, who set you free. I never give you less than freedom.
I exceed your imagining.
I am too great to manipulate or control.
I give you time and space to simply be yourself.
I surround you with unconditional love and faithfulness.
I only give life, not take it.
I am faithful.
I give and do not hold back.
I reveal What Is to you.
I desire only your blessing, not for my sake, but for yours.
The Ten Do’s
Some think of the Ten Commandments
as the “Thou Shalt Nots,”
the Big Ten Don’ts.
“Don’t do this, don’t do that.”
But they’re not so negative;
they’re the way we practice faithfulness.
They’re the Ten Do’s.
1. Give your life to the One who gives life and sets you free.
2. Trust that God is greater than you can imagine.
3. Let God use you, not the other way around.
4. Take time to let yourself be, without having to do.
5. Honor the world you belong to.
6. Practice anti-violence.
7. Be faithful, and help others to do so.
8. Set your heart on sharing.
9. Be truthful.
10. Practice gratitude for all you have.
The Ten Intentions
Be mindful of God in all things; seek God and not something else.
God is mystery; beware of thinking that you understand.
Resist the urge to use God.
Trust God’s grace, not your own deserving.
Be mindful to honor those who have loved you.
Commit to nonviolence.
Honor your friends and your covenants, and especially your marriage.
Shun acquisitiveness. Let go of possessing things; renounce and enjoy.
Be truthful in all things.
Refuse to gain at other’s expense.
Praying the Ten Commandments
I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Holy One, you who set me free,
I have no love deeper than you,
nor is there anything I turn to instead of you.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
Knowing that you are mystery,
I hold all my understandings of you lightly,
lest they become more real to me than you.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh your God.
I love you and will not use you:
I will not attempt to to claim your power
or use my relationship with you to my advantage.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
I practice presence in the moment,
trusting in your grace alone, not my deserving,
content in being, not doing, fully mindful of you.
Honor your father and your mother
Shaped by a community of faith,
I honor all those who have gone ahead of me
creating a path of blessing that I may follow.
You shall not murder.
I extend kindness and compassion to all living beings
and will do nothing to diminish
the life or well-being of another.
You shall not commit adultery.
Grateful for your covenant of steadfast love,
I will live in faithful relationships with all,
and honor those who trust in me.
You shall not steal.
Knowing all I have is yours, I give freely and generously;
I will not take or keep unjustly from others,
or satisfy myself at another’s expense.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
I will speak the truth in love,
humbly honoring and respecting others,
and speaking of them only as their belovedness warrants.
You shall not covet.
I release myself from my desires,
from the illusion that I want what others have,
and instead find delight in what is.