Worried about the ACLU? Display only the commandments Jesus taught us

Friday, February 4, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Soon the Supreme Court will take up the question of whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on government property. At the heart of this culture-war blockbuster will be two familiar and rivalrous claims: first, that any government sanction of religious material violates the separation of church and state; second, that the Ten Commandments promote morality and so their display must not be prohibited. We will undoubtedly hear one side decrying Christian activism run amok and the other godless secularism run amok.

Yet there is an alternative to the Ten Commandments–namely, the Six Commandments, enunciated by Jesus himself. And the Six Commandments could hang in any public facility without jeopardizing the separation of church and state.

In the Gospel of Matthew, a man asks Jesus what a person must do to enter heaven. He answers: "Keep the commandments." The man inquires: "Which ones?" Here is how the biblical account continues: "And Jesus said, 'You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Debating what laws are more important than others was a long-standing exercise of the rabbinical tradition in which Jesus was educated. But in these verses, which have a parallel retelling in the Gospel of Mark, Christ is not merely offering an opinion about law. Something wholly remarkable happens–Jesus edits the commandments.

Quickly now, which commandments did he leave out? "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourselves an idol. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy." These are the commandments having to do with formal religious observance–from today's perspective, the ones that clash with the Establishment Clause. Jesus' Six Commandments make no mention of God or faith. They could be posted on public property without constitutional entanglements.

If Jesus taught Six Commandments, why do Christians talk so much about 10? As a churchgoer, I am amazed at how many of my fellow Christians do not seem to know Christ's teachings. Consider, for instance, that Jesus instructed: "Give to everyone who begs from you." Watch throngs of Christians pass panhandlers without giving and you'll have an example of how unfamiliar many are with the content of their Redeemer's ministry.

Because the Six Commandments de-emphasize formal observation of religion, some Christian traditionalists pretend that the verses do not exist. In a lifetime of sitting through the sermons of various denominations, I have never heard a minister make more than passing reference to Christ's deletion of commandments. Such was his gift that, in the Gospel of John, he simplified all moral and spiritual instruction into a single dictum: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." That modification of the original commandments also de-emphasizes formal religion and as such is also given short shrift by institutional Christianity. Many Christians seem to prefer the Ten Commandments because they embody a sense of might, mountaintops and divine wrath.

But if displaying Scripture in public is meant to encourage morality, surely the Six Commandments serve the purpose. Read them again:

You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness.
Honor your father and mother.
Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.