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"Nod to God" Politicians and the Ten Commandments

A small crowd gathered in downtown Milwaukee on March 27 to witness the removal of a monument of the Ten Commandments from city property where it had stood since 1957. The ceremony began with remarks by Ald. Jeff Pawlinski serving as spokesman for the Milwaukee Common Council. The events of this day came about because the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declaring such monuments to be violations of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Disagreeing with the Court but bowing to it, Pawlinski nevertheless lamented the necessary removal of the monument and its return to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which donated the monument in 1955 in a ceremony with actor Yul Brynner to promote the movie "The Ten Commandments." Making an apparently obligatory "nod to god," both politicians and Eagles officials, understanding neither the Ten Commandments nor the First Amendment, mourned this "sad" day and pointed the finger of blame at the "notorious Freedom From Religion Foundation," which brought the lawsuit resulting in its removal. Don Runnells, a spokesman for the Eagles, insisted, "This has nothing to do with religion. It's about morals." Every Christian and Jew in the country ought to cringe at such nonsense. According to Exodus 20 and Deut. 5, the Decalogue was given as a covenant between God and Israel, the equivalent of a treaty between a King and a lesser lord who owed him loyalty. The Ten Commandments begin with the statement "I am the LORD [YAHWEH] your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." Whatever else the commandments are, they are a profound statement of faith, with each precept a stipulation of a covenant. They were never intended as mere "universal principles" acceptable to all people everywhere, as Stan Thompson of the Fraternal Order of Eagles asserted. Ald. Pawlinski declared that the commandments are "the foundation of our nation's laws and the very structure of our society." Yet, only three of the commandments (on murder, theft and perjury) deal with modern law. It is not, after all, illegal to "have any other gods," to "misuse the name of the LORD," or work on the Sabbath (Saturday)--unless "blue laws" dictate otherwise. It's not even illegal, in spite of personal moral scruples, to dishonor your parents, commit adultery or "covet your neighbor's house." In a free state, the government has no right to make rules on those matters. This monument contains not only the Decalogue, but also two stars of David and a Chi Rho symbol, the liturgical symbol of Christ using the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. In effect, therefore, the monument promotes ("establishes") two religions. Those of other religions or of none at all are pointedly ignored. It is also significant that the commandments are listed by the Catholic/Lutheran numbering, incorporating the stipulation about idols or graven images (the second commandment to most Protestants) into the first and makes two coveting commandments. A monument containing the Ten Commandments in Dallas, Memphis or Charlotte would likely have the Protestant numbering, listing a separate commandment on "graven images" and only one on coveting. Therefore the monument not only endorses the Judeo-Christian tradition, but a particular form of the Christian religion. The best statement of the day was by Ald. Don Richards, who said that American liberty is exemplified in the freedom of the group gathered there to speak their minds on the issues involved. On the other hand, Common Council President Marvin Pratt rubbed salt in the wounds of those upholding the constitutional separation of church and state by declaring that from now on the Milwaukee Common Council will begin with prayer. In his official remarks, Ald. Pawlinski stated that this monument "inspired those who passed by City Hall in the past half century" and that it will continue to "comfort" visitors at its new location at St. Joseph's Hospital. As one trained in Lutheran theology, I winced at the notion that this monument was meant to comfort and inspire people. A Lutheran axiom asserts the "law always accuses" (lex semper accusat). Paul in Romans says the "law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression" (4:15) and in 3:20, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his [God's] sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin." The fundamental theological purpose of the law in the New Testament, especially in Paul's theology, is to condemn sinners and to drive them to Christ. To find comfort and inspiration in the Ten Commandments, therefore, on the bible's own terms, is to find comfort in God's condemnation of humankind for violating the commandments. Far from being an inspiration or comfort to all those who pass by, they condemn to hell all those who do not live up to the commandments by thought, word and deed! Those who reduce the Decalogue to a statement of governing principles insult the original purpose of those commandments. Every Jew and every Christian, let alone every unbeliever, ought to protest against such a misuse. In Luther's catechetical explanation of the Ten Commandments, each command began with the expression "We should fear and love God . . ." as in the (Lutheran/Catholic) fifth commandment, where Luther says "We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor's life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life." The Decalogue is essentially a religious document. The courts of the land, therefore, have it absolutely right: To post the Ten Commandments or to endorse them is to establish a religion. The First Amendment speaks precisely to this when it says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Curtis A. Peterson holds a B.A. from Concordia Senior College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and a M.Div and STM (l966 and l983 respectively) from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. In almost 30 years in the ministry in both the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, he was an activist with many published articles supporting the orthodox Lutheran cause in the "Battle for the Bible" in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and author of several articles in the Wisconsin Synod between l987 and l995. He also delivered several essays at pastoral conferences during those years. He served congregations in Burlington, N.C., Rock Falls, Ill., Garland, Tex. and Gretna, La., in the LCMS and in Milwaukee, Wis. in the WELS. A Foundation member, he is now retired, resides in Wisconsin and calls himself a humanist and a freethinker.

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  • byline: By Curtis A. Peterson

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