Religion deserves its tarnished reputation today

Kim Shinkoskey

Churches today diminish themselves by means of a badly tarnished understanding of Western religious history, and thus do no small amount of disservice to their congregations. For example, the religious laws Jews and Christians speak of so frequently, they actually do not understand.

I'm speaking of the Ten Commandments. For hundreds of years, theologians and practitioners of the major Judeo-Christian faiths have operated under a virtual consensus about what these laws mean. Many, or most, have declared that God and Moses made these ten moral laws so simple that everyone forevermore could easily understand them. Nothing could be further from the truth. These laws are so sophisticated that even professors of religion in the twenty-first century have badly mis-diagnosed their meaning.

The First Commandment (King James Version) to "have none other gods before me," does not mean to love and give your life to the God of your denominational faith. It means to always remember and always emulate the kinds of civic behaviors and policies that led Israel to her remarkable emigration out of the "house of bondage" in Egypt and sustained her throughout her early development as a democratic nation.

The Fourth Commandment to "keep the Sabbath day (holy)," is not a religious law to pave the way for church attendance by ceasing work one day a week. It is a labor law curbing employer greed and enforcing a day of worker rest and wellness. It is one of history's earliest written laws for economic regulation.

The Tenth Commandment against "(coveting) thy neighbor's wife . . . or any thing that is thy neighbor's," is not aimed merely at curbing lust and expropriation of property. It is also a law for enforced social distancing from neighbors and their employees, necessary not only to prevent adultery, but to prevent the spread of destructive communicable diseases, often sexual, that were so prevalent in the ancient world. It is one of history's earliest written public health laws.

The other seven laws have become equally obscure and deprived of their civic meaning over some three thousand years of misty time.

The problem with modern religion is that its promoters have completely misunderstood the nature of religion in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in specific. Religion then did not consist mainly of creeds of faith or belief as it does today. Then, religion encompassed church and state, science and law, economics and social life, all combined.

That is why priests were employed in all kinds of secular civic activities including banking and law enforcement, in addition to their religious sacrifice duties. The kingdom of God gathered together all people and institutions acting in concert in a politically unified community.

In actual fact, each one of the ten great laws is about how to best do government, how to organize and operate a specific kind of humanitarian community--a democratic republic. None actually deals with religious doctrine at all, although it is clear the laws are dedicated to the great heavenly spirit that inspired their efforts.

The laws deal instead with important civic issues like the separation and sharing of domestic political power, and international policy. The laws prohibit aristocracy and ungainly luxury. They empower private enterprise and religious freedom. They deal with public health and public education. The Ten Commandments are a constitutional law charter, not a creed for a private or a public established church.

The particular literary form of the seventeen verses that make up the Decalogue is the standard legal one for making treaties among ancient Near East nations. It was rightly used in this case to loosely bind together separate political clans or tribes like the twelve Israelite lineages into a confederation.

Jesus assured his followers that the foundational laws of Moses would never, or should never, fade away. That is because they constitute the most effective means for promoting the pursuit of happiness for any people anywhere on earth.

The churches focus on good things like sacraments, tithings, love, forgiveness, grace, atonement, justification, and the afterlife. But they should also be focusing on the huge amount of terrain those spiritual concepts leave out: criminal and civil law; wealth, taxation, and inheritance; civic education and public health; legislation and politics.

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