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The Ten Commandments: Too Hot For School House Walls

These are 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 much power! 

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 command?

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 society. 

And so far I haven't even mentioned the most explosive questions raised by the Ten Commandments, the specifically religious ones.

By all means bring them on ... but think about them critically and carefully.

What 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?

"You 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 core curriculum.

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.

Why the Ten Commandments when the Golden Rule does a better job by far at half the price?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.