This week, in the midst of our standard little catch-up chat my brother and I stumbled upon a topic of surprising intrigue to us both.
Talking about the state of the world, the 10 Commandments came up. Neither of us is particularly religious in the traditional sense, but since much of the world’s violence seems to be coming from the some of the Old Testament traditions it seemed like the 10 Commandments would be a good place to start.
“I think the list is too long,” I said. We pulled up the list and went through it together. Upon review, we agreed the list is too long. Furthermore, the structure suggests the top ones are most important or at the very least that all are equally important.
“Given what’s happening in the world today,” I said, “we should really just focus on “Thou Shalt Not Kill” until we've mastered it. Then we can move on to the others.” He agreed. We reviewed the list just to make sure we did not overlook anything.
Reviewing the Commandments
Honor thy mother and father—We liked this one and we like the idea of a Sabbath day. Who doesn’t want a day off? But agreed that an end to the slaughter took precedence.
Stealing—Ok, so don’t steal. Probably not a good idea…That said, if a 7-11 candy bar happens to walk out the door with you, it seems less of an offense than stoning a woman in public for alleged adultery.
See, the commandments themselves are more or less fine. The problem is everything is equally weighted. For example, not taking the lord’s name in vain is near the top, pushing "Thou Shalt Not Kill" to number 7.
Does this mean that yelling “Jesus Christ!” when you drop a cinder block on your foot is worse than murdering your neighbor?
I suspect not.
The first few commandments are all about how we think about and talk about God. No other god before this one, do not create false idols and do not take the lord’s name in vain. This suggests that it’s more important to focus on honoring this God than treating each other well. I’m not so sure.
Frankly, I’d much rather people sit at home and make false idols than bludgeon their neighbors.
I suspect if God exists, God is doing just fine. It’s the abused children that deserve our attention as well as the rapping of women and the ways in which certain groups allure young men into war and endless violent battles.
Re-weighting the Commandments
Let's re-weight these commandments until things have stabilized. Then we can have another look. I am emboldened to do so based on the findings of Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th Century struggled with something that became known as “Russell’s Paradox.” (The paradox had to do with defining distinct sets of things.) Don't worry too much about the math of this, but just to say in order to resolve a mathematical paradox, he created a "hierarchy of types." Each thing could be built from a proceeding type—not stating everything as equal in the hierarchy prevents mathematical loops.
SImply said, we get ourselves all bound up mathematically if we don't create groups and sub-groups.
Maybe applying some of this same logic could help save us from some ongoing loops of violence.
I’m using the concept loosely here to stress the point that hierarchy of things matters. Some things matter more than others. Some types are actually subtypes – and not the primary ones.
Inspired by Nobel Prizing winning Russell, my brother and I discussed what could be collapsed into other categories.
Coveting and adultery, for example, could really be placed under one umbrella. Don't fantasize or pounce on your buddy's spouse. Makes sense. I agree I shouldn’t do it, but compared to beheading children and chopping up other people with machetes or poisoning them in gas chambers, we can probably put up with a little coveting and the occasional pounce. In any case, we can put those down on the list and clump them together. Less is more.
Then, the commandment about not giving false testimony against one’s neighbor might fit well under “honor thy mother and father.” We could just add, “honor thy neighbor, too (and everyone else for that matter)” to the list.
I’m not going to re-weight the whole list right now—I just wanted to point out that perhaps it’s worth doing.
The truth is while standing in line at Trader Joe’s I covet a bit, thinking about how your Ox is pretty stalwart and wishing my donkey had teeth like yours. But that’s not murder. So let’s ease up a bit on the coveting, worrying about false idols, taking the lord’s name in vain when we can't find parking. Instead, let's bump “thou shall not murder” to the top of the list. At least until we have that one really mastered. Then we can talk about the rest.