Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
March 7, 2021
Scripture: Exodus 20:1–17
It has occurred to me that I may have heard more about the Ten Commandments in the news than I have in church. There has been an ongoing, pitched battle over the desire by some to display the Ten Commandments at courthouses, state capitols, public school buildings, or city municipal buildings. Since 1980, there have been eight major court cases, including two at the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing over the public display of the Ten Commandments. And yet, for all of this controversy and the number of debates and cases addressing the Ten Commandments, I am not at all confident that we have any deeper understanding of them in our time.
I know that lawyers and judges may not be much moved by theology and religious history. In the legal briefs and the court rulings, there is very little discussion about what the Ten Commandments are or for what purpose they were given. In the legal and political fighting over them, something has been lost. The commandments may be familiar, but they have been severed from their purpose and their particularity. They have become a political hot-potato held aloft from deeper reflection in our ongoing culture wars and wedge politics. Lost in the discussion of the constitutionally appropriate and legally correct application of the question is any sense of what role the Ten Commandments should play in creating and constituting us as community. They were not just an indication of God’s relationship with God’s people, but they also testified to the kind of relationship God will have with God’s people. In this gift of commandments, we have a concrete spelling out of how people can honor and live with God so that they can faithfully honor and live with their neighbors.
By the time God bore Israel on eagle’s wings out of bondage in Egypt into the wilderness at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God has demonstrated the divine determination to be in covenant. God made covenant with the creation, with Abraham and Sarah, and now God offers God’s self in covenant to Israel. The covenant is set in motion with God’s declaration: “I am your God.” In God’s speech of introduction, God and Israel are bound in covenant. They will become God’s treasured possession, a kin-dom of priests, and a holy nation. Israel responded to God’s offer of covenant with resolve: “Everything that God has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). And so it begins. Israel is persuaded by God to be shaped by God, to have their identity as a people associated with God in a decisive way, to have their characters conformed to God’s intent and commitment to them in covenant.
They have in their possession not a checklist of moral absolutes nor even universal principles. They have a means by which they practice and embody the God who has bound God’s self to them. They have been given a strategy for an enduring relationship with God and each other. The commandments God will give Israel set out what they must actually do to honor the covenant and live into their new identity and demonstrate their new character. Of particular concern to God is the life and welfare of Israel as community. And if that is God’s concern, so must the life and welfare of their neighbors must Israel’s concern. The first four commandments reveal how to live so they do not offend God. The next six commandments show them how to live so they do not harm, degrade, or assault their neighbors. Israel would testify that God has given them these commandments “for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive” (Deut. 6:24). It’s worth reflecting on the fact that, as people are fighting to display monuments of the Ten Commandments, Israel lost the tablets on which these commandments were written. They didn’t need the tablets after all; the world would know God through their practice and embodiment of the very words etched in stone. This is what is means to be shaped by covenant.
Notice that the Ten Commandments do not prescribe a punishment for violating them. The punishment is immediately obvious. If we do not practice and embody what it means to be shaped by covenant with God, we risk disconnection from God and broken community and relationships. George Floyd is dead because somewhere along the way communities lost concern for the life and welfare of Black people. Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, and so many more are dead because honoring and living with our neighbor became a privilege reserved for those of our own tribe, race, or class. Hatred, poverty, and white supremacy have interfered with our capacity to honor and live with God in covenant so we can honor and live with our neighbor. Something has been lost.
As the Twin Cities prepares for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged in the murder of George Floyd, there has been deep reflection among churches and religious bodies and clergy about how to show up, how to respond, and how to be present. We, at Plymouth, are wrestling with those questions. We are wrestling with what it means to practice and embody covenant with God and with each other. We are wrestling with what it means to bind ourselves in God’s presence such that the world will know and experience God through us. And during this season of Lent, this is just the place we are called to be. This is the tension that can only be resolved by embodying God’s enduring wisdom. Covenant relationship is not static. It involves journey, movement, vision, and progress. When we covenant with God and each other and bind ourselves in God’s presence, we cannot rest or abandon or separate ourselves from our neighbors.
This trial of Derek Chauvin brings us into direct confrontation with the commandment, “Do not kill.” Some of us will hope and pray that justice is done through a conviction, and, through our condemnation of the defendants, we will soothe ourselves with self-justification, forgetting that this killing, and so many of the killings of unarmed Black people, is a part of the historic and ongoing indifference to Black suffering. Every day, we tolerate, accommodate, and accept the killing of Black bodies, violently and quickly in poor and abandoned neighborhoods subject to the heavy hand of punitive law enforcement, or slowly and quietly with substandard housing, food deserts, and lack of health care. In the safety of our identities and by some turn of luck or by the terms of a racial contract that has enslaved and distorted Black lives, we have been offered access, choices, and privileges that make it easy to avoid the suffering of communities of color. But we promised to honor and live with God. Because we covenant with God, we have been offered a means by which to be community, to be God’s people. We have within our grasp and our tradition a strategy for covenant living. What do God’s people do in light of the killing of George Floyd?
The question is more relevant than ever, but we as Church folk have a lot to account for, because it appears that the religious have become less likely to embody what it means to be shaped by covenant with God’s people. Researchers have found that the religious are less likely to demonstrate a commitment to egalitarian practices and compassionate care for the most vulnerable. Religious are just as likely to shaped by their race, class, and gender as they are by the tenets of their religious faith. The religious have been just as unable or unwilling as the nonreligious to sacrifice and obligate themselves to justice, fairness, and social transformation. The religious are just as likely to adopt political views that do not reflect the social justice precepts of their faith. How we practice and embody it differently? What are we willing to do?
We are not called to follow the Ten Commandments in fear of what God may do to us. We are called to respond positively to them because of what God has done for us. God has liberated us, and these commandments make it possible to be the best possible people of God. I pray that we see the Ten Commandments as an invitation to be shaped by covenant. I’m talking about covenant reawakened, covenant embodied—not theoretical nor figurative, but lived out within and among Black lives, Indigenous lives, immigrant lives, and the lives of poor people. I’m talking about a covenant that takes seriously what it would mean to practice and embody God as Israel did such that the world would know that we are in relationship with them for the lasting good of all God’s children.
John W. Compton, The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors