Ten Commandments: Too Hot For School House Walls
explosive documents, not dead symbols
When Congress took up proposed legislation
that would allow the Ten Commandments to be "displayed" on the walls
of public school buildings in America recently, Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.)
thought he had it wrapped: "I got an e-mail this morning that said it all.
A student writes, 'Dear God: Why didn't you stop the shootings at Columbine?'
And God answers, 'Dear student: I would have, but I wasn't allowed in school."
Albeit, the Congressman is speaking informally here, but still, his
literalism is appalling. Does he seriously believe that by some act of Congress
God might actually be kicked out of our schools? Congressman, you don't have THAT
How many Congressional Reps have actually read
the Ten Commandments?
In following this debate, it strikes me
how few people who supported this legislation actually appear to have read the
Ten Commandments. For had they read and reflected upon what the commandments say,
the legislation would have failed. I speak here as a professing Christian and
a Presbyterian minister, and I think the Ten Commandments absolutely belong in
our public schools. But placing the document/s on school house walls, or other
public places, does nothing to honor the Commandments, in fact it demeans them.
I can think of nothing that deserves to be in school more.
These verses from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy are an essential part of
any child's education. But why place them in a purely symbolic place? On the walls?
I'd like to see them placed where matters of importance are: namely, at the center
of the curriculum.
We ought to be saying to our children that this
document is not a frayed antique to be framed and confined. The rightful place
for the Ten Commandments is in a course on History or English Literature. The
Ten Commandments are as much a part of Western Culture as Shakespeare or Machiavelli.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone teaching ethics, comparative religion,
philosophy, or the law without taking into account that awesome source: the Deuteronomic
Code. Moreover, teachers need to be trained in addressing the issues that such
a text raises.
"Thou shalt not steal."
We need teachers imaginative enough to point out that this verse is not narrowly
addressed to a teenager who lifts a CD from the Wiz. By what right does
one human being take from another? Is the government stealing from the people
when by force it takes a large part of a people's income for its own purposes?
Is a logging company stealing from me when it cuts down a 100 year old tree in
the public's forest, so that someone, somewhere, can drive home with a Big Mac
wrapped in paper? To whom does a forest belong in the first place? The Ten
Commandments are perhaps too hot to handle in today's schools. Are there teachers
with sufficient training to lead a discussion of what these commandments actually
The Ten Commandments are perhaps too hot to handle in
our public schools.
"You shalt not covet your neighbor's
house.....or anything that is your neighbors." What meaning does this commandment
have in a society which is driven by the consumer's desire, not only to possess
a neighbor's house, but to have one that is even bigger and better.
"You shall not kill." In what sense are such words to be taken? When
a student wonders whether the prohibition against the taking of a life applies
in the case of an undeclared war, or with respect to capital punishment, or abortion,
or euthanasia, what is a skilled teacher to say?
But yes, these are
questions that ought to be addressed within the school systems of America. Not
because the Ten Commandments are nailed to a wall, but because they are unavoidably
part of the moral and ethical discourse that is the foundation stone of a civil
And so far I haven't even mentioned the most explosive
questions raised by the Ten Commandments, the specifically religious ones.
all means bring them on ... but think about them critically and carefully.
does it mean for a society which keeps its supermarkets and shopping malls operating
at full bore on the Sabbath to identify the Ten Commandments as authoritative?
"Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." When a school administrator
schedules a sporting event on the Sabbath, doesn't that make a mockery of Sabbath
observance. Do we intend, by placing such words on a wall, to go ahead and do
what the commandments command? And cancel that soccer game? And if so, which Sabbath
do our school administrators honor, Saturday or Sunday?
shall have no other gods before me."
It will take skillful,
carefully trained teachers and school administrators to explain why Muslim, or
Hindu, or Buddhist citizens, who pay their taxes, and attend the public schools,
should be forced to send their children to a school which teaches, in bold commands
nailed to the school house wall, that it is wrong to worship a god other than
the one depicted in the Exodus commandment -- this "jealous God."
Disputes about what God has commanded are at the heart of much of the conflict
that tears the human family apart today, including the family of my own church.
Difficult, unsettling, potentially divisive though such questions
may be, I would argue that it is precisely such issues that will need to be addressed
in the increasingly pluralistic society in which we live. And this is why the
Ten Commandments belong in our schools, not as wall paper, but as part of the
We will not produce a generation of citizens who
are capable of dealing with such questions by engaging in purely symbolic activity
like placing the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition on the school house
wall. By all means, lets have the Ten Commandments in our schools. And let's also
bring in other texts, such as the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad-Gita,
for these too are part of the rich history that every student, young or old, in
school or out, should study.
But let's not demean any of these documents
as "mere symbols" that remain unexamined and unread on the school house
wall. Rather let's actually study the ways in which such documents define what
it means to be a person of character and integrity. And by such a course of study,
let us contribute to a more civil society.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.