"Keep my commandments."
"I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything. ..."
If you think about it, the commandments seem almost a strange, outmoded language. One of my ethics students, in fact, somewhat facetiously, numbered among his revised “commandments for America”: “Thou shalt not commit adultery without a condom.”
We are a people given to exceptions and excuses. Context, individuality, personal choice, and private fulfillments dominate our moral discourse. Philosophically speaking, we are a nation of utilitarians and libertarians. It is no wonder, then, that commandments that seem to disregard our pleasure and instead offer us imperatives seem cranky.
We bridle at limits. Especially moral limits. Our talk complains of guilt trips and warns us against the tyranny of shoulds. But, as is often the case, we caution ourselves against the sins we are least likely to commit. Our problem is not that we are a guilt-ridden and scrupulous people. We are not self-denying ascetics. We are not crimped by moral confinement. It’s just the opposite.
We resist limits. We bristle at anything that might hold us responsible or duty-bound. This not only means trouble for those around us, whether nations or neighbors. It also means trouble for God. People or countries who delude themselves into thinking they have no limits soon start thinking they are gods themselves.
But the United States was not the first, nor does it remain the only, example of moral exceptionalism. Christianity itself can be seen as a history of making exceptions to God’s law. One would fall in exhaustion trying to count the exceptions Christians have made to killing: not just the most familiar excuses of self-defense and national security, but revenge, class, racism, inconvenience, religious intolerance, money, and “to insure our way of life.” And that’s just one of the commandments.
We’re uncomfortable with all of them. We’re uncomfortable with law, with duties, with responsibility.
Admittedly, these concepts can represent an intolerable burden; but some of us seem incapable of any appreciation of any law we ourselves have not cooked up. My philosophy students in ethics are at first appalled by the moral vision of Immanuel Kant, with its insistence on the ethical excellence of duty. For Kant, indeed, the only grounds for any moral approbation of a human act was the fact that it was done for duty’s sake and not merely according to duty. He held that our happiness had little or nothing at all to do with moral dignity. This is sheer heresy for our cultural consciousness. And yet, when you reflect upon Kant’s observations, he makes a striking case for the nobility of following a moral command for the sake of duty.
Who is more morally sublime, Kant would ask us: the spouse who is faithful because he is happy and fulfilled or because—even in the midst of difficulties and hardship—he is true to his duty? Who is truly moral: the woman who stays alive because she enjoys living or the one who continues to live even in pain and sorrow because it is her duty to honor the gift God has given her?
God does not advise us not to kill. God commands us. And it is a command not based upon whether we are happy or productive, or whether we are dealing with our friends, coreligionists, good Americans, or the innocent. Yet we all make exceptions: the ancient Jewish people as well as the contemporary Jewish state, medieval Christians as well as modern Catholics, Kant as well as Aquinas. History serves, Hegel said, as little more than a slaughtering block.
There is more than one paradox in all of this. Each of the commandments, it can be said, is not some external and irrational fiat from an alien God. Rather, each is an expression of the truth God has made in us. If we worship idols or worship our work, if we covet person or property, if we dishonor those who have given us life, we not only reject the law of God, we destroy what we are. For the duty imposed on us by God is not a function of Kant’s pure rationality or some arbitrary legislation of a distant deity. It is the duty to be true to what we are—limited but loved creatures.
Jesus, for Christians, is the new law, the law of God enfleshed. He is not only “truly God,” our creed says; he is “truly human.” His life, like the commandments themselves, may be a stumbling block and an absurdity to us at times, but we proclaim it, nonetheless, our way and our truth. The commandments, all encompassed in the new commandment of love of God and neighbor, may seem folly, but God’s folly is wiser than human provision.
We will always struggle with this. And since Jesus himself has promised to remain in our midst, we can look to him as a healing of our guilt.
But we should be forewarned. He may come to us with words as stern as those he spoke to the people despoiling the temple. “You have turned it into a den of thieves.”
John Kavanaugh, S. J.