A few years ago a well-known UCA minister very publicly went on the attack over the Ten Commandments, calling them negative. Given the long and shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, you won’t be surprised to hear that it caused a massive stink, especially from the Jewish community.
But is there something there? Did he tap into something real? It does, on the surface, seem like a collection of “do nots.” To speak of them as being a gateway to freedom seems odd.
Here’s the underlying question: What is freedom? Is it being able to satisfy whatever desire occurs to you the moment it hits you?
What about when that freedom requires a lack of freedom in other people? The exploits of Harvey Weinstein, for instance, seem to be of someone who enacted his desires whenever he felt like it. But that required a considerable restriction of freedom for other people.
One contemporary picture of freedom is that you should be free to do whatever you want – so long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of other people. And that idea is certainly present in the commandments – they are there to protect the poor from the powerful, because the poor are much less likely to be able to act on their lust and covetousness and so on than the powerful are.
The #MeToo movement has demonstrated the power of the rich and connected over the weak very eloquently. Had the powerful obeyed these commandments, far fewer people would have been exploited.
So the “negative” commandments are already a beginning of freedom – freedom from the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful.
But it feels a bit thin to me. Freedom from is a good place to start. But what I really want to know is what I am free for? What is most to be desired? I have lots of desires – which are to be preferred, how are they to be ordered?
The first commandment, identified as Jesus as the greatest, sets the scene for all the rest. God says: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It sets up the fundamental truth of who, and whose, we are. We are those saved by God and called into covenant with God. All the other commandments are to help us to live out that fundamental purpose of our life.
This opens up another, older, view of freedom, an idea of freedom to be; freedom to become that which we already potentially are. It’s more like being a tree flourishing by a river, free to unfold its potentialities in tree-ish-ness than it is like infinite choices in a supermarket of the soul, made with no other criterion than “I choose.”
The beginning of real freedom is freedom from unhealthy attachments, from dis-ordered desire. Freedom from the slavery of self. Freedom from all that holds us back from giving ourselves fully to God, and to one another.
This true freedom is being free to love like Jesus loves. It is the freedom to be what we are created and called to be. Collaborators with God, loving the world in freedom.
A reflection from 30/9/20 preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church in response to the text for Proper 22 (27) the Eighteenth week after Pentecost. The text was: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 – the Ten Commandments.