I have never quite understood the emphasis that some American Christians put on the so-called “Ten Commandments,” particularly their insistence that governments should use tax dollars to create displays or monuments of them in courts, schools, and other public places.

Not there is anything particularly wrong with the Ten, mind you… It’s just that one might expect that Christians – especially conservative, fundamentalist Christians – would have a preference for the formulation laid out by Yeshua ben Yosef (a/k/a Jesus of Nazareth) himself, as quoted in Matthew, chapter 22:

The Greatest Commandment

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV; courtesy

I’d say that covers the territory pretty effectively. How many more commandments do we need, anyway? Why the Ten, not the Two?

Besides the fact that this formulation is ever so much shorter, I think it is also much more universal. After all, Jesus says “love the Lord your God,” which could just as well be applied to and accepted by Muslims or Hindus as Christians.

In fact, to me this says: Whoever (or whatever) your God (or guiding principle, or moral code, or object of worship, or purpose in life) happens to be, in short whatever that Most Important Thing in Life is, you should devote yourself to it fully. I think even atheists and freethinkers could get behind an idea like that, semantics nonwithstanding.

There’s your First Commandment sorted out.

As for the Second, I really can’t imagine anyone having a problem with “Love your neighbor as yourself” – unless, of course, one is afflicted with self-loathing or suicidal tendencies…

Well, no, on further thought, let me amend that. Your “rugged individualists” might have some trouble getting their heads around that commandment. I remember a conversation I had with a co-worker one day…

“Skip, what would you do if, after the collapse of civilization, I showed up at your house with my family?”

My response was immediate. “I’d invite you in and share what I could.”

“Right,” he said. “And that is where you and I are different. If our roles were reversed, I’d shoot you immediately – my family’s needs come first.”

He wasn’t being mean about it – indeed, he’s not a mean guy, he’s quite capable of generosity and compassion – but he had obviously thought things through, and made some choices, and those choices didn’t take into account this commandment’s call for community and solidarity.

Well, if these things were easy to do, if they came to us naturally, we wouldn’t need commandments at all, I suppose.

But to get back to the question of why the Ten, and not the Two… I suspect the answer might lie in this: they are two entirely different types of instructions, and those types appeal to different kinds of minds.

Briefly, these two kinds can be called algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic instructions are precise, specific, and step-by-step. Recipes calling for exactly two level teaspoons of salt, for example. Follow the algorithm correctly, and you should get the same results every time.

“Add salt to taste,” however, is a heuristic instruction. Heuristics are vaguer, more subjective, and likely to produce different results in different circumstances.

They’re also harder to judge.

If someone violates an algorithm – skips over a step, or doesn’t adhere to the specifications, or eats the wrong food on the wrong day, the error is usually easy to spot – and one can then correct, criticize, punish, or condemn as needed.  But with heuristics, there’s no precise standard, no target to hit or miss – you can only do a better or worse job of trying to follow the guideline.

How can you measure how well someone loves? You can’t – you can only supply feedback, guidance, and encouragement.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the former, in the form of the Old Testament laws, should appeal to fundamentalists, people who generally show a preference for clear, hierarchical lines of authority and enforcement, unambiguous standards for judgment, and strong sanctions for noncompliance.

Oh, and by the way – that thing about public displays? Unconstitutional on its face, and here’s why. Different religious groups have taken the Old Testament list and broken it up in different ways. Specifically, Catholics and Protestants use different numbering schemes. So any monument that lists the “Ten Commandments” using one scheme or the other would thereby be showing a denominational preference, and that would be in direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Using the Two instead would skirt that problem nicely. Imagine seeing this on our schoolhouses, courthouses, and prisons:

1. Love your God
2. Love your neighbor

And the details are left up to us.


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