10 (again), Naturally — Revisited 23 years later

Twenty three years ago, in the wake of the Combine shootings, we were dealing with the nonsense of hanging the Ten Commandments in classrooms.  It was a stupid and destructive idea then, and it is now.  I wrote a piece mocking the idea (the Columbine shooters see the poster, realize that killing people is wrong, and go away) and then, on reflection, wrote WHY the Ten Commandments are wildly inappropriate for an American classroom.  Here’s what I wrote, nearly a quarter century ago:

10 (again), Naturally
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson 2/12/00

Back in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, various right wing politicians and/or religious whacks were jumping up and down saying that if only the 10 Commandments were posted things like the shooting wouldn’t happen. The idea was absurd and idiotic, and I wrote a Usenet post (the previous article in this section) ridiculing it. I thought that after a few weeks, it would die a well-deserved death.

The religious right, however, thrives on absurd and idiotic Crusades, and a depressing number of politicians are perfectly willing to throw away the rights of Americans in order to pander to these noisy and overbearing cretins. Now we have various states seriously considering putting the 10 Commandments up in the schools, arguing that it will promote morality and good behavior. Presumably this would be the same sort of morality and good behavior that has been the hallmark of Christianity over 2,000 wars, when they alternated between murdering, torturing and discriminating against non-Christians and the other option, which was that of murdering, torturing and discriminating against the wrong type of Christians.

In the latest Crusade, the arguments are that the 10 Commandments apply to everyone, that they govern nothing more than everyday decent behavior, and that it won’t make anyone except evil doers uncomfortable, All three claims are false, and it’s easy to show why.

For starters, let’s do what right-wingers hate more than anything, and go right to the source. Well, one of the sources, anyway. The bible I have on hand is The New English Bible, the one used by Anglicans. Groups that consider that to be evil, profane and blasphemous are invited to put up their own editions up on
their own sites and explain why their versions won’t work, either.

1. You shall have no other god to set against me. (In other versions, this appears as “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”). So right away, kids who happen to be Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Hindu or atheist (about 2.5 million children) are being told by school authorities that their  ome religious beliefs are wrong, wrong, wrong, and eeevil. Great way to start the school week, you gotta admit. For those fundamentalists out there wearing the blank looks, try turning it around. Imagine if your local school put up a big sign that read, “Want to be normal and decent, kid? Then stop believing all that cosmic sky muffin rubbish your church keeps stuffing down your throat!” I bet that would cause a bit of a stir at the next church meeting.

2. You shall not make a carved image for yourself, nor in the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. (“Thou shalt make no graven image”) Most people have never thought this one through, but in order to be consistent, the schools will have to shut down art and photography classes. People in art and photography are making “graven images.” Most people think this simply means you shouldn’t make any idols, but that’s not what it says. It says, “in the likeness of anything.” The school will have to get rid of books with pictures in them, and in the case of many schools, the mascot. It’s hard to see how this will augment scholastic achievement, let alone morality, but hey! It’s the holy word, and all that. Better tell the more religious kids who are wearing crosses to get rid of them. “Graven images,” don’t you know? (Part 2b). You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god. I punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I keep faith with thousands, with those who love me and keep my commandments. Girls, tear down those Leonardo Di Caprio posters. Guy, that Michael Jordan poster is outta here. Not only do they mean you hate God, but your great great grandchilden will be punished for it.

3. You shall not make wrong use of the name of the Lord your God; the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who misuses his name. (“Thou shalt not take the name in vain” and other variants.) Indisputably,10 (again), Naturally this one has enriched our language. Phrases like “good grief” “blimey” “jumpin’ Jehosephat” and “zounds” all come from people making end-runs around this assurance that misusing the name will get you busted for an eternity. Of course, high schoolers will be particularly impressed with this admonition to curb their tongues, and will be extremely inventive in their compliance We might get a whole new host of interesting, albeit obscure phrases, which are bound to be more poetic than the succinct, but prosaic “you suck, dood!” Well, OK. Maybe we can keep that one, just because it encourages kids to develop their language skills. But how do you pronounce a song title like “G-d damn the Pusher Man,” anyway?

4. Remember to keep the sabbath day holy. There is, later on in the bible, a big long list of things that violate the Sabbath, such as heating your house, but in the interest of concision (after all, these were going on stone tablets, which that old fart Moses had to port down a mountain afterward) this  commandment settles for saying that it applies to you, your son or daughter, your slave or slave girl, and your cattle or the aliens within your gates. Disregarding for the moment the indecision over what the sabbath actually is
(generally it gets placed anywhere between sundown on Friday-which can get confusing at certain times of the year in northern Canada, Alaska, Russia or the Scandianian countries-and 12:01 am on Monday), eventually some smart ass kid is going to note that the NFL teams pay those players to punt one another on Sundays, and therefore are working on the sabbath, and they’ll have to ban weekend football. Whereupon American civilization will really collapse, except in Texas, where it already collapsed. We used to have what were called “blue laws” which forbade business of various kinds on the sabbath. We got rid of them because they were stupid and unfair. But now we want to teach the kids that we were wrong to get rid of them.

5. Honor your father and your mother, that you may live long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you (in forty years, give or take). That one, right there, should eliminate about half the conversations going on in any given high school in any given day. (Be honest-you used to whine about your parents when you were in high school, too. Admit it!) Of course, school authorities telling valley-girl wannabees that they should honor their mothers and fathers might just answer that age-old question: Just how far can teenagers roll those eyes, anyway? You’ll just have to trust me on this: no matter how many threats are made, and promises of a shortened life notwithstanding, this one just isn’t going to impress the kids very much.

6. You shall not commit murder. Whew! Well, this one seems safe enough, doesn’t it? “Don’t kill anyone”
In some cultures, that might seem like a rather low expectation to inflict on the kids, but this is Charlton
Heston’s NRA America. Of course, the definition of “murder” is subjective; in a well-known example,
Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses consider any taking of human life to be murder. Abortion opens the issue
of what a human life is. And in most bibles, it says, “thou shalt not kill” which some take to include
“justified” homicides such as occur in war, or American prisons. But for now, the 10c crowd are perfectly
willing to have the message of the day be, “Show you’re good Christians, kids. Don’t kill anyone today,
7. You shall not commit adultery. Since few high-school students are married, this is expected to have little effect on dating patterns. As for the broader definition that adultery means “screwing around with anyone other than your wife,” kids for years have gotten around that by very narrowly defining sex. “Third base” also known as “The Stinky Pinkie” isn’t sex, and therefore not adultery. The only people who didn’t understand the distinctions Clinton made in regards to Lewinsky were the ones who didn’t get any in high school.

8. You shall not steal. This one is pretty hard to take any issue with. Clear, concise, unambiguous, and in mesh with nearly all religious and ethical philosophies. In fact, there’s only one real problem. America isn’t a religious and ethical philosophy. It’s a capitalist system. This commandment does not properly prepare our children to go out and thrive in our business community, does it?

9. You shall not give false evidence against your neighbor. This should eliminate the other half of the conversations in high school. My, but those kids are so quiet! Of course, kids whose parents are inveterate Clinton-haters and who consider him responsible for murders in Arkansas and Vince Foster and so on are going to be in a bit of a jam: How do they get their parents to listen to them about this one without violating commandment #5? This, at least, should get Rush Limbaugh knocked off the air. The 10 Commandments make the First Amendment moot, any way.

10, You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to him. (Notice the air of authenticity gained from the British spellings, just like the ones they used in Sinai back then!) Madison Avenue and retailers discovered, to their delight, that no segment is more avidly or vapidly acquisitive than high school kids, or are as willing to spend more than they can afford on such. Thanks in large measure to the determined efforts of clothing and sports equipment manufacturers and their advertising flacks, high school culture is a roiling mass of envy, greed and acquisitiveness, steeped in oneupmanship and class distinctions. Given the amounts of money involved, it’s no wonder Wall Street Republicans are starting to back away more from the religious crowd. It’s a long-held American custom to drop piety like a hot potato when it becomes bad for business. Kids will also be unenthused when they discover that wanting new Nikes violates this commandment.
Another argument the Religious Right likes to use for plastering the 10 Commandments up before the numb faces of our poor kids is that American law depends from the commandments. This is purest codswallop. (“Codswallop” is another neat evasion of commandment #4). Let’s look over the 10, somewhat more briefly, and see what corollaries appear in American law.
1 though 4 are right out, dealing as they do with behavior toward a specific deity. American law doesn’t recognize any specific deity.
5- The sabbath. Courts have noted that schools and businesses have the right to close on any day they choose, but that others don’t have the right to make that choice for them. Which is why the NFL plays on Sunday, and why TV stations and supermarkets can stay open these days.
6- Honoring the old folks. A great idea, but not one easily enforced. The law can stop you from cheating, beating, or otherwise abusing your parents, but it can’t make you honor them. Given what utter turds some parents can be, there’s situations where maybe it doesn’t even qualify as a good idea.
7-Murder. American law recognizes the Biblical stance against murder. Of course, every other religion and philosophy in the world believes that murder is wrong, so this is hardly unique to Christianity, is it?
8-Stealing. Same as #7.
9-False witness. It’s illegal to give false testimony against another person in court, and libel/slander laws cover willful and malicious false representations of people. But technically, saying “All lawyers are thieves” is false witness, since there ARE honest lawyers who don’t steal. But it is something covered by the First Amendment, and to tell the truth, I would sooner live in a culture where casual but harmless calumnies are tolerated than one where you can be punished for running your mouth.
10-Coveting. Can you imagine a law in America demanding that people stop wanting more than they have? Can you, for even an instant? I can’t. Such a commandment isn’t just unenforceable, it’s flat out Unamerican.
So: out of 10 commandments, we have two that are specifically implemented into American law, and one that has partial secular parallels. Out of 10 inviolate rules, only 2 1⁄2 actually translate into law. So much for the 10 Commandments being the foundation of American law. If the 10 Commandments were a pack of ladyfingers, you would want your money back.

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