Religion deserves its tarnished reputation today

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Churches today are diminishing themselves with a severely tarnished understanding of Western religious history, and therefore do no little service to their congregations. For example, the religious laws that Jews and Christians talk about so often that they don’t actually understand them.

I’m talking about the Ten Commandments. For hundreds of years, theologians and practitioners of major Judeo-Christian denominations have operated on a virtual consensus on the meaning of these laws. Many, or most, said that God and Moses made these 10 moral laws so simple that anyone could easily understand them forever. Nothing could be further from the truth. These laws are so sophisticated that even 21st century religion teachers have misdiagnosed their meaning.

The first commandment (King James version) to “have no other gods before me” does not mean to love and give your life to the God of your denominational faith. It means always remembering and always emulating the types of civic behavior and politics that led Israel to its remarkable emigration from the “house of bondage” to Egypt and throughout its early development as a democratic nation.

Robert Kimball Shinkoskey

The fourth commandment to “keep the Sabbath (holy)” is not a religious law to pave the way for church attendance by stopping work one day a week. It is a labor law that curbs the greed of employers and imposes a day of rest and well-being on workers. It is one of the first laws written in history for economic regulation.

The Tenth Commandment against “(lust) your neighbor’s wife … or whatever is your neighbor’s,” is not simply meant to curb lust and expropriation of property. It is also a law of forced social distancing from neighbors and their employees, necessary not only to prevent adultery, but also to prevent the spread of destructive, often sexual, communicable diseases that were so prevalent in the ancient world. It is one of the first written public health laws in history.

The other seven laws have become equally obscure and devoid of their civic meaning over some 3,000 years of hazy time.

The problem with modern religion is that its proponents completely misunderstood the nature of religion in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in particular. Religion then did not consist primarily of beliefs or beliefs as it is today. Then religion embraced Church and State, science and law, economics and social life, all combined.

Charlton Heston as Moses holding one of the two tablets containing "The ten Commandments" in the classic 1956 film by Cecil B. DeMille.  Paramount Pictures (courtesy)

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

In reality, each of the 10 Great Laws concerns the best way to govern, organize and operate a specific type of humanitarian community – a democratic republic. None actually deal with religious doctrine, although it is clear that the laws are dedicated to the great heavenly spirit who inspired their efforts.

Rather, the laws deal with important civic issues such as the separation and sharing of national political power and international politics. Laws prohibit aristocracy and unsightly luxury. They strengthen private enterprise and religious freedom. They deal with public health and public education. The Ten Commandments are a charter of constitutional law, not a creed for an established private or public church.

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

Jesus assured his disciples that the basic laws of Moses would never, or should never, be faded. This is because they are the most effective way to promote the pursuit of happiness for any people anywhere on earth.

Churches focus on good things like sacraments, tithes, love, forgiveness, grace, atonement, justification, and the hereafter. But they should also focus on the enormous amount of ground these spiritual concepts leave out: criminal and civil law; wealth, taxation and inheritance; civic education and public health; legislation and policy.

– Robert Kimball Shinkoskey is a retired state government employee who writes on history, politics and religion, including the book Democracy and the Ten Commandments.

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