While we await the Supreme Court's decision on Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU, smaller Ten Commandments skirmishes go on across the country. Last year the superintendent of one of our local school districts hung a plaque of the Ten Commandments on the wall of the high-school cafeteria and a concerned citizen filed suit. Officials pulled the plaque, settled the case out of court, and terminated the superintendent.
Did the good guys lose? Not entirely. In fact, the real payoff may be that as soon as the plaque was taken off the cafeteria wall, copies of the Ten Commandments began showing up on student T-shirts and neighborhood lawn signs, many of which still remain. Nationally, when the Supreme Court in June announces its decision in cases argued last week, God's law will again be news, and some of the responses will be like the ones here in Missouri.
For example, the litigant in our local case drew a correlation between sliding test scores in the district and the religiosity of the superintendent, implying that he and other "well-meaning but misinformed zealots" push piety at the expense of academics. Not your usual argument, perhaps, but it's a non sequitur, or as we say around here, that dog won't hunt. On the same op-ed page, a member of the opposition feared that if we surrender this front line, Bible banning and church closing won't be far behind. But that hound seems a bit lackadaisical, too.
Some local supporters appeared to defend the Ten Commandments reflexively-as tradition, Judeo-Christian values, the faith of our fathers, or "solid advice for young people," according to the school board's attorney. And, oh yes, "for adults as well." In other words, what's so bad about the Ten Commandments? What could they possibly hurt?
Questions like this ignore the controversial, even violent history of those tablets of stone. They were chiseled with a flaming hand, smashed upon a mountainside by a furious prophet, ground up in bitter water for a rebellious people to drink. During Josiah's revival, the mere reading of them caused the king to tear his royal garments, "For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us" (2 Kings 22:13).
But even after learning by bitter experience to take the Ten Commandments seriously, the religious establishment spent hundreds of years boxing them in with annotation-fixing the outlines of covetousness and defining the limits of Sabbath keeping. Christ exploded the box: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' . . . You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder.' . . . But I say to you . . ."
The real requirements of the law are fiery, unyielding, and absolutely holy. What's so offensive about the Ten Commandments? The first one, for starters. Who could object to them? We all do: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God." Opponents of the Ten Commandments may instinctively understand their "offensiveness" better than many believers do.
That explains my ambivalence about public displays. On the one hand, God's word will never return to Him empty: Every place His law is posted, we can expect some result. At most, sinners will be convicted and saved. At least, the unredeemed will not be able to claim ignorance on Judgment Day. From that perspective, the more displays, the better.
On the other hand, too many who defend the Commandments fail to take them seriously. Arguments for the displays tend either to brush them with a talismanic glow ("How will God honor us if we don't honor Him?") or attribute to them a general benevolence that's actually insulting ("What harm do they do?"). But writing on a cafeteria wall can become tame and domesticated. Writing on individual T-shirts is better. Writing on the heart is best of all.
Nothing will hinder God's law, whatever the decision of a human court: It stands to convict, or to condemn. Maybe it's not such a bad thing the Commandments are again-still-a source of controversy. Maybe it's a sign that they're doing the work they were intended to do.