The Ten Commandments are in the news again.
James DeWeese, a judge in Cleveland, Ohio, has hung a poster with the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, ever vigilant, has filed suit that says DeWeese is violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
Calls are rolling in to conservative radio talk shows from people who are convinced that merely displaying the Ten Commandments in schools would deter the increasing incidents of violence there.
Whichever side you are inclined to take, pro or con posting of commandments, it is worth re-examining the tradition of how these commandments came to be.
The story involves Moses going up the mountain and encountering the Supreme Being first through a burning bush and later a cloud of thunder and lightning. During one of those encounters, the Ten Commandments are communicated to Moses.
Admittedly, that's a pretty clipped version but it does capture the gist. The story of these encounters is one of the best known and most often told stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has even attracted Hollywood, taking center stage in films featuring actors that run the gamut from Charleton Heston to Mel Brooks.
Hollywood likes the drama of divinity appearing as a flaming bush or a rolling cloud of thunder. Western religions are attracted by the implied authority inherent in the commandments themselves.
What is never talked about is the amazing degree of perceptive abilities present in this Moses. It is a remarkable ability that makes it possible to see and hear beyond the tinted lenses of our own experience and preconceptions. It is that ability that makes it possible to perceive the holy in what most of us take as the ordinary.
If there were a flaming bush growing next to the Brainerd water tower, I guarantee you that most of us would pass right by, oblivious day after day. We'd be too busy with the distractions of where we're going or where we've been or the conversation on our cell phone to see the fire that burns right in front of us. If we reacted at all, it would probably be to toss a quick cup of water at the flame.
So, you have to give Moses credit. He saw. He heard. He perceived. But that crucial part of the story rarely gets much play. It undermines authority of mediative communities and it's all but impossible to capture consciousness on film.
There is another story about an explorer who traveled up a great river and discovered a beautiful wilderness. When the explorer returned to her home, she wanted to share her discovery (this was one of those upstart female explorers given to doing things like walking around the North Pole or canoeing to Hudson Bay).
So, the explorer drew a detailed map of how to travel the river. It was complete with drawings of the unfamiliar birds, flowers and plants. The people were so drawn by the beauty of the map that they made copies, had them framed and hung them on the walls of their homes.
I don't recall whether the people also hung the maps on the walls of their schools and courthouses. Or if the ACLU sued to have the maps taken down.
The thing is, the map was made to point the people to the river. To help them get from where they were to the new world the explorer had discovered. The map was not the prize, it was the means by which the people could engage another world. But the people made the map the prize.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing during the 19th century, penned a poem that reads, in part, "Earth is crammed with heaven and every tree and bush afire. But only those who see take off their shoes; the rest just pick blackberries."
I don't know whether Judge DeWeese will be able to keep the Ten Commandments posted on his courthouse wall. Or, whether they're graven or merely engraved. Probably the ACLU will prevail in its strivings to maintain the perception of separation between who we are in public and in private.
But, for those who can see, there is no separating the flame from the bush or acting as though one is not contained in the other. You might just as well try separating thunder from lightning or a falling tree from an ear that is present to hear.
(Jim Grossman holds a master of arts degree in theology. He is a trained spiritual director and is assistant sports editor at The Dispatch. Write him at email@example.com)
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