A Ten Commandments for Everyone. (6/9/03)

They are the original Top Ten list and although few people disagree with their substance, the Ten Commandments can still provoke controversy.

Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Montgomery, Alabama, heard arguments in a case involving a 5,200 pound Decalogue-bearing slab of granite. It was installed in Alabama's Judicial Building two years ago, under cover of darkness, on orders of the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Predictably, the ACLU and others sued to have the righteous rock removed. A district judge ruled that the monument should be removed because it promotes religion in a government building. Alabama appealed.

Several versions of the so-called "Ten Commandments" exist. The one in the King James Bible is a bit wordy and most people use a condensed text, especially when carving it onto large stones. This version, from an old Catholic Catechism, is typical:

    1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.
    2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
    3. Remember thou keep the Sabbath Day.
    4. Honor thy Father and thy Mother.
    5. Thou shalt not kill.
    6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    7. Thou shalt not steal.
    8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
    9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.
    10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

This version is slightly different from the Protestant and Jewish drafts. For Catholics, "I am God" and "no strange gods" are incorporated together in Commandment One while Protestants and Jews split them up as One and Two. For Catholics, "don't covet your neighbor's wife" and "don't covet your neighbor's stuff" are Nine and Ten respectively, while Protestants and Jews merge them together as number Ten. Is there a theological explanation for this difference? I have no idea, nor do I know which version Alabama's top judge endorses.

The Ten Commandments is not the only nor undisputedly the first ancient law code. Hammurabi, king of ancient Mesopotamia, covered a lot of the same ground with his codex, which ran to 282 individual precepts plus a lengthy prologue and epilogue. Unlike the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi's code included penalties, some of which seem a little harsh. For example: "If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death."

As David Letterman proves every night, there is something appealing about a list of ten. It seems complete without being overwhelming. (Hear that, Hammurabi?) No less an authority than Jesus Christ suggested the original Ten could be boiled down to two - love God and love thy neighbor as thyself - but it never caught on.

There are two possible justifications for putting some version of the Ten Commandments on display in a courthouse or other public place. One is to promote religion, and a particular religion at that depending on which version you use. This justification is clearly prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. We should be finished with that argument by now.

The second, better justification for promoting something like the Ten Commandments is to present, in a simple form and in public places, an essential code of conduct upon which all civilized people agree. In the Alabama case, the defense argues that the Ten Commandments belong in the state's Judicial Building because they are the basis for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In reality, some are and some aren't. There is nothing in either founding document about keeping the Sabbath, avoiding "graven images," or paying attention to your parents, for example.

Still, the idea of promoting a succinct list of fundamental laws seems like a good one, but what should we use?

A good starting point would be to delete those Commandment that explicitly refer to religious practice or belief, since those clearly are prohibited by the Establishment Clause. That cuts the first three, leaving seven.

    1. Honor thy Father and thy Mother.
    2. Thou shalt not kill.
    3. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    4. Thou shalt not steal.
    5. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
    6. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.
    7. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

Now we need to take out the ones that aren't recognized by any modern legal code. They may be good moral guidance but, for various reasons, they make bad law. The "covets," for example, are thought crimes. Not honoring ones parents is nowhere prosecutable, criminally or civilly. That leaves just four.

    1. Thou shalt not kill.
    2. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    3. Thou shalt not steal.
    4. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Some might also delete adultery, since it largely has been decriminalized in this country, but adultery still has serious legal implications civilly, and disapproval of it should be supported if the institution of marriage is to have any meaning, so let's keep it in.

Of the Ten Commandments, then, only four have universal legal application in the USA, yet we know nobody will want to post "The Four Commandments" on their courthouse wall, let alone carve them into a 5,200 pound rock. We need ten rules if this thing is going to work. Can we come up with ten fundamental laws that most people can endorse? Let's try.

As you might imagine, I am not the first to suggest the creation of a secular Ten Commandments. Some revisionists think the list should be more positive, ten prescriptions rather that ten prohibitions, but laws don't work that way. Really important laws, the ones we wish everyone would obey, tell us what we can't do, not what we ought to do.

But what about the archaic language, i.e., "thou shalt"? Should we change it to something more contemporary, like "you shall"? I say leave it alone for all the folks who like that old time feel. There is nothing inherently religious about "thou shalt" and it sounds commandmenty. Let's keep it.

There is a good argument, however, for changing the word "kill" to "murder." Some scholars argue that "kill" was a mistranslation and the meaning of the original word is closer to "murder." Not all killing is a crime, after all, self-defense being the obvious example.

Some people also would simplify, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" as, "Thou shalt not lie." While it can be argued that lying is never good, it isn't always illegal (e.g., breast implants). Bearing false witness, i.e., perjury, does rise to the level of a criminal offense. I would leave that part alone, but "against thy neighbor" seems superfluous.

Here is my attempt to flesh out the list.

    The Ten Fundamental Laws

    1. Thou shalt not murder.
    2. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    3. Thou shalt not steal.
    4. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
    5. Thou shalt not enslave.
    6. Thou shalt not rape.
    7. Thou shalt not waste.
    8. Thou shalt not trespass.
    9. Thou shalt not prejudge.
    10. Thou shalt not stigmatize.

Like the old ones, all of my new commandments allow for interpretation beyond the obvious. "Thou shalt not waste" isn't meant to make children eat their vegetables. It refers to pollution and other environmental issues. While "thou shalt not prejudge" and "thou shalt not stigmatize" may sound like thought crimes, we can stipulate that they apply only to prejudicial or stigmatizing acts. While "thou shalt not trespass" has an obvious meaning, it can also apply to violations of privacy and personal space.

As for prohibiting rape and slavery, those just seem like long overdue updates. Both were considered acceptable behavior when the original Ten were adopted, but no longer are. Not even in Alabama.

2003, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.