The fall time change should have meant an extra hour of sleep. But, on this anxious weekend before the election, all I got was an extra hour obsessively bingeing internet blogs. Some people have phones that announce every point scored by their favorite team; I want mine to buzz every time Nate Silver updates fivethirtyeight.
And yet, as much as I care for one party in this election, I’m not going to do my own version of what one pastor did this October. Parishioners in a Catholic church in San Diego found stuffed into their bulletins a voter guide which explained voting democratic would be a mortal sin sending them straight to hell.
Part of me aches to know we’ve gotten to this place in our democracy. The place where we want to see our political opponents not just lose but to be chased by pitchforks, thrown in jail, sent to hell.
One commentator, speaking of the campaign on his own partisan side, called this season a “fear-fueled acid trip.” What are we to make of the politics of fear affecting so many of us. Each side in this campaign carries fears; fears of what happens if their side loses.
I want to talk about that feeling of fear instead of the politics. Fear works in our hearts differently than anger or disgust. Anger raises up our fists, disgusts makes us pull back, but fear, fear seeps down into the soul. It’s like the cold Wisconsin winter, the chill you cannot shake. Fear makes us clutch more tightly what we have and makes us abhor more deeply the unfamiliar.
Winston Churchill famously said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Clearly the man lacked imagination. I can think of many things far worse than fear. It keeps me up at night. No, we can all imagine what’s at stake in the election.
And yet of course Churchill was right: fear can cause us both to overreact and to become immobilized, either of which makes problems worse.
So in the midst of this fearful season, I searched for a word of hope. And I found comfort in the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments don’t normally make the list of consoling scriptures. That has more to do with how we read the Ten Commandments than how God spoke them. We read the Ten Commandments as law, as God saying “Do this!” or more accurately, “Don’t do that!” But now that seems to me like a misreading of the Ten Commandments.
John Calvin, the theological founder of our Christian movement, once spoke of the three purposes of the Ten Commandments. The Commandments convict us; by this he means that we read them and realize what we’ve done wrong in our lives. The Commandments reform society; by this he means we read them and realize how our society ought to act. And lastly, the Commandments inspire us; by this he means the we read them as a guide to a fuller and more faithful life with God.
Often in America, we use the Ten Commandments mostly for convicting, sometimes for reforming, and only rarely for inspiring. Certainly that’s true in our public debate about displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses. And conservative Christians, largely losing that battle, have in some places taken to displaying the Ten Commandments in their yards. Either way the motivation for such displays comes from a desire to tell other people what’s wrong with them; the chance to say “do this,” or “don’t do that,” and feel like we’re speaking for God.
But I don’t want to use the Ten Commandments to convict someone of sin or as the legal rubric for reforming society; instead, I find the greatest meaning in the Ten Commandments as a source of inspiration and guidance.
And, in particular, as a key guide during times of fear. Because, originally, the Ten Commandments were given during one of the most fearful and fraught times faced by the Jews in the Bible. The Jews had been forced into slavery in Egypt but miraculously escaped. Now, on the run for 50 days, they came to Mount Sinai. Tired. Poor. Huddled masses. Yearning to be free.
I love camping. But after a few days, I don’t feel so fresh. No matter how fun, by that last day I’m hungry, tired, and reeking of campfire smoke. I can’t imagine 7 weeks of camping in the desert; sent out in rags that became even raggier; eating meager rations that got even meaggier; with nothing but hope and even that becoming threadbare.
Reading the Ten Commandments as God’s word of hope for an anxious people, I want to address some of the specific commandments.
First, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
We hardly even read this commandment when we look for THE LAW. But as a word of hope it makes plain the eternal direction of God’s work: I am the Lord who brought you out of the house of slavery. God liberates.
Fear reaches into our hearts with tendrils of doubt: what will become of us? But in this first word of hope, God makes the future clear. Fear not, for I am the Lord who frees and liberates. In the midst of our anxiety for the future comes God’s assurance: liberation will come.
Fear floods the mind with panic: what will happen? But God’s hope assures the future. And that allows me to ask, “How can I work for God’s future?” How can I work for liberation? How can I expand freedom? How can I help the vulnerable?
All the commandments can speak to hope, but I next recall for you the fourth commandment, which says in part, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy… The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Now of course I wish this commandment didn’t presuppose the existence of slavery. But I think it undercuts it. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” The commandment conditions our treatment of the vulnerable on our own experiences of vulnerability. Fear makes us forget so much; fear chases memory out. But God calls us to remember.
What ought we remember as Americans? I think God would call us to remember the long, painful history of race in America. We’re trying to do this through our Dismantling White Privilege program that begins today. But I also want us to remember forgotten moments of grace.
I heard one this summer in Philadelphia. George Washington wintered his troops at Valley Forge. During the bleak and desolate winter of 1777, the troops ran short on food. Poorly clad, shabby tents, vulnerable and now hungry; a dangerous time for the army. A leader of the Oneida Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy learned of Washington’s plight. Chief Shenandoah and a group of his warriors brought 600 bushels of corn the 300 miles to Valley Forge. Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, stayed at Valley Forge to teach the soldiers how to turn the Iroquois white corn into something edible and nourishing. Without Shenandoah and Polly Cooper, Washington’s troops would have starved.
No Yorktown. No America. No Independence from Great Britain. (Why, without that help, we’d just be another Canada.)
Right after the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress remembered the help of the Oneida. They proclaimed, “We have experienced your love as strong as oak, and your fidelity, unchangeable as truth. While the sun and the moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you. As your trusty friends we shall protect you and shall at all times consider your welfare as our own.”
But quickly white America forgot. Wouldn’t a crisis like the Dakota Access Pipeline be handled differently if we remembered Shenandoah and Polly Cooper? Remembered our promise to be trusty friends always protecting native welfare?
Fear not only makes us hold on to what we have more tightly, but it constricts our memory too, until we forget what truly happened in the past. But God calls us to a sabbath of remembrance.
In the Fifth Commandment God said, “Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you.” The commandment stands out for its vision of equality. Much of the Bible reflects the patriarchal culture from which it sprang; but to a society enthralled with fatherhood, God spoke of honoring fathers and mothers. And from this equality poured forth God’s only promise in the commandments, “[Do this so] your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land.”
Fear often acts as the silent killer of equality. When our nation fears, our civil liberties suffer. But God gives hope by enshrining equality. What fear dishonors, God honors. God made equality the basis of our future promise.
The remaining Commandments - what are often called the Second Tablet - sound the most like laws a nation might have. And yet, these laws against murder, theft, lying, adultery, and coveting all speak directly to the experience of slaves and vulnerable people. It’s true even today.
God took the experience of enslaved people to heart. Why a commandment against murder; because slaves know what it is like to be at the whim of another. Why a commandment against coveting another person’s spouse; because slaves know what it is like to have your most intimate relationships violated. Why a commandment against false witness? Because slaves know what it means for people to lie about your very humanity. God said the reality of the most vulnerable would determine the law.
Peter Thiel, the wealthy founder of PayPal, recently made the offhand remark that single digit millionaires can’t afford justice in America. He meant it as a put down of those who were not as super wealthy as him. But it confirmed the way wealth and privilege tip the scales of justice in America.
But God did something different. God said to those most afraid of an unfair world: the measure of right and wrong will be your experience. What would change in America if we wrote the laws based on the perspective of our most vulnerable citizens? Would we have stop and frisk? Would we shoot and taser native Americans protesting on their own land?
We’re living through such a nail-biter of an election that some of us don’t even have fingernails anymore. In my own anxiety, I found comfort in the Ten Commandments. While I fear what will happen, God invites me to join the work to create a future of liberation. While fear makes us forget, God invites me to remember. While fear narrows the heart, God makes clear the promise of equality. While fear makes justice seem out of reach, God makes the law based on the needs of the most vulnerable. All of which gives me hope. Alleluia and Amen.