There’s an old gag about the student who was asked to name the 10 commandments in any order, to which his response was “3, 6, 1, 8, 4, 5, 9, 2, 10, 7”. Ha ha – that sort of humour i know will appeal to handful of you out there (well one in particular – you know who you are).
But anyway – a while back i was talking to someone about the 10 commandments (as you do – though i don’t do this very much, mind – but then again, perhaps i ought to). The response i got was not exactly original – but i was still rather taken aback by it: “Why focus so much on that part of the Bible? It’s such a NEGATIVE passage, isn’t it?” Well – yes, it does include a lot of NOT’s and so in that sense i had to agree. But is it really that negative? Sure, it exposes our shortcomings and that makes us feel bad. Many people don’t appreciate having that happen, which is fair enough i suppose. I can’t say I particularly enjoy it myself. But surely that says more about me than it does the commandments. The fact that I might feel bad is hardly the fault of the commandments themselves, is it?
For example, I love to dabble on the piano or with a paintbrush from time to time and these things help me relax. More importantly they help me appreciate even more the true experts and masters. I can listen to an Alfred Brendel or Keith Jarrett CD, or look at a Rembrandt or Hockney, and feel depressed that they far surpass me artistically – but I certainly don’t blame them for that (even if I am more than a little bit jealous – oops, there goes another one broken). They give me something to aspire to, to head towards. So it is with the Commandments. Because just think what it would be like if we lived in a world where they were kept. It would be a very different world. In fact it would be unrecognisable, i suspect. Because when you stop to think about it, the vast majority of structures built into human societies are ultimately necessary precisely because we fail to keep the principles laid down in the Commandments. How much better things would be if we didn‘t actually need security guards, inspectors, police, courts, unions, ombudsmen, arbitration panels, traffic wardens, social workers, marriage counsellors, etc, etc. Now remember, this is not a description of anarchy. It is a description of a truly other-person centred society.
15 years ago, someone wrote into the Guardian Newspapers Notes & Quotes pages asking a simple question on these lines. Here was one response:
How many jobs would be lost if everyone in Britain behaved lawfully?
Take the single instance of people paying for their train fares without cheating and the effect of their honesty on society. First, we would not need tickets. Literally tons are bought every day and thrown away after a short use, so printing them, delivering them, stamping them, checking them, collecting them and disposing of them provides a considerable amount of work, which serves no purpose in actually transporting people. The railway staff involved in the above work require uniforms, accommodation, equipment. Their job is to check people and not transport them. The barriers, technical equipment and automatic ticket machines cost millions in development and upkeep, and need to be updated constantly. These prevent the free flow of traffic, so cause other problems that have to be paid for in station design, making stations far larger than they need be, and creating problems beyond the stations themselves. Alarge amount of money is spent on advertising the consequences of ‘not paying one’s fare’ and more money spent prosecuting those who don’t, which in turn provides the courts with work. So, given that people were honest on rail fares alone, travelling by train would be cheap and fast but would certainly put tens of thousands of people out of jobs. Although it is not possible to say how many jobs would be lost if everyone were honest, it is generally accepted that about 5% of the population can provide the rest with all the food, clothing, shelter and fuel we need to survive, and that the rest of us are simply doing jobs that have no real purpose other than filling in the day. To that extent unlawful behaviour – like war – is a great job creator.
Stan Hayward, London NW2 (Quoted in NOTES & QUERIES 4 (ed. Brian Whitaker), Fourth Estate, London, 1993)
It all seems rather a pipedream and when put in purely economic terms like that, the cynics (or realists as they would inevitably call themselves) might assume there is no practical alternative to the status quo. There is a cruel irony in the fact though that while we might aspire to this sort of Utopian society, as soon as we try to create one we fail miserably. As the philosopher Karl Popper rightly observed: “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” For we human beings seem to have an innate desire to grasp and exploit authority for our own ends and to resist others’ authority because it feels restrictive and constraining – we value our autonomy too highly and legitimise it by calling it freedom. So what alternative is there in the face of this apart from legislation, law enforcement and checks and balances? We can never legislate for utopia – the communists tried and failed. We’re back where we started.
The thing is – while the 10 commandments of course represent an unattainable aspiration, that should not stop us aspiring. And despite everything said so far, there is something far from unreal about them, even if they might be unrealistic for us. For what life do they actually describe – with their all-encompassing, God-centred, other-person-centred ethic? Surely it is none other than that ancient Galilean carpenter whom TS Eliot called ‘the still point of a turning world‘? He lived in time and space – and he was a category-defying, non-partisan, love revolutionary. And he is the one who alone offers to the ‘fallen short’ the outstretched arms of forgiveness.
The commandments surely ultimately present the best way to live. But they also point us to the only one who ever lived in complete compliance with them . The shock is that Jesus is at the same time the one who welcomes moral failures. That’s not the way you’d expect a moral perfectionist to behave is it!? But in compliance with his all-encompassing God- and other-people-centredness, it took him to the cross to rescue such moral failures. And now that we’ve been rescued, we have an even greater incentive to aspire to the commandments. What really depresses me is how often we fail to aspire – how complacent we are with the status quo personally, culturally, politically, globally. Christians should NEVER be satisfied with the status quo.
Which is why i’ve rather cheekily borrowed this American bumper-sticker. It is a small tool in the incessant war between the American liberal left and Christian right – and its inclusion doesn’t really represent a partisanship on my part. Merely the fact that Jesus was not politically partisan (although he was certainly very political) and that Christians must get on with living like him (as in factmany more conservative Christians are). Being right (in whatever sense of the word one takes it) on some moral issue or another can never be an excuse or justification for behaving in an un-Christlike way. I suspect that a conservative who truly behaved like Jesus might be no less controversial but allow only ‘the truth’ and ‘the good’ offend instead of their behaviour or attitudes.