Text: Exodus 20:1-21
David Brooks is a Canadian-born political and cultural commentator who is both a columnist for The New York Times and a regular contributor on PBS NewsHour. In Friday’s edition of The New York Times, he published an article entitled “The Limits of Empathy,” that challenged the social value of empathy. Most of us think of empathy as something we all aspire to have. We teach our children to be empathetic, and we believe that our society is a better society when we feel empathy. Because it makes us feel for the other, we assume that empathy makes us act in ways that are consistent with our social values. Brooks asserts otherwise. Quoting his article, he writes:
There have been piles of studies investigating the links between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and non-existent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
The chilling example that Brooks offers to support this latest research is of Nazi prison guards in the early days of Holocaust who sometimes wept as they mass-executed Jewish women and children. Their tears, he says, were evidence of empathy, yet in the face of horrific actions, it was insufficient to change their behavior. While Brooks notes that “nobody is against empathy…it’s insufficient” in getting people to act morally. He concludes:
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes…code[s] that help them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments…If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere, and enact their codes.
Sacred codes. In all of religious literature the best-known set of sacred codes may very well be the Ten Commandments. They are well known among people of all religions and as well as the non-religious. They are recorded twice in the biblical text—in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. According to the story in Exodus that we have read this morning, God inscribed them on two stone tablets, which God then gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. Since that time they have, for most Christians, served as a moral guide or as a set of principles for how humanity should act in the world. However, in more recent times, it seems that those same Christians, instead of living by them as a moral guide, have co-opted them as a political ploy to debate the legality of displaying religious texts on public property here in our country, whose constitution, in its first amendment, forbids the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion.
Other than being annoyed by the ongoing political debate over the right to display them on public property, a debate fueled by the religious right, I had not given much thought to the Ten Commandants as of late. That is until they came up in this lectionary cycle. When I realized that the Hebrew scripture was the Ten Commandments I immediately put into practice a self-imposed rule that I have been trying to follow when reading familiar scripture passages: slow down, read every word out loud, and read it as if I were reading it for the first time. And so I began:
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. You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…Remember the Sabbath day, and make it holy…Honor your father and your mother…You shall not murder…You shall not commit adultery…You shall not steal…You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor…You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
What caught my attention as I read the Ten Commandments, trying to listen for something new, was that eight times I read, “You shall not…” Eight out of ten commandments began with the words “you shall not.” Only two commandments are stated in the positive. That realization brought to mind a comment that one of you had made at a listening session on the issue of my request to not sign marriage licenses. The statement was made, “Why can’t we make this about what we are going to do, instead of it being about what we are not going to do.” It was an ah-ha moment for me.
Our particular time in history is very different than that of the Israelites to whom God gave the Ten Commandments. The Israelites had just gained freedom after generations of oppression and slavery. American in 2011, however, stands at the end of generations of freedoms—some of the greatest freedoms known in human history. And yet, these two very different times seem to share both an uncertainty and a pervasive fear that together place us in a time of cultural negativity. We, the wealthiest nation on earth, act out of a place of scarcity versus abundance, hoarding our personal and national resources rather than being a part of a solution for global poverty. We most often define ourselves in reactive ways versus proactively articulating who we want to be and are capable of being, finding ourselves again and again locked into polarized debates on issues like health care and social programs. We debate issues of ideology rather than issues of substance such as who can marry whom rather than what loving, faithful covenants really mean. And we are quick to empathize, but less motivated to act. In David Brooks’ words, “[we] react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions like global hunger or preventable diseases.”
In each of these cases we find ourselves oriented in the negative rather than the positive reflecting the “thou shall not.” In revisiting the Ten Commandments, I have been wondering what would happen, how might our world and we be different/transformed, if we stated our sacred codes in the positive. What if our sacred code, the Ten Commandments read this way?
You shall love God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
You shall worship God and God alone.
You shall show utmost respect and reverence for God in all your speaking.
You shall keep the Sabbath, and make it holy.
You shall honor those who give you life and who guide you in wisdom and truth.
You shall create and nurture life.
You shall honor your covenants and remain faithful to them.
You shall respect the rights of people to enjoy what belongs to them.
You shall respect and speak the truth in love in human relations.
You shall find happiness within the confines of the human gifts that have been allotted to you.
What if these Ten Commandments became our source of identity? What if it were these sacred codes that we pursued with joy? I’m not sure I agree with everything that David Brooks said about empathy. But I do agree with his statement that if we want to make the world a better place we need to help each other debate, understand, reform, revere and enact our sacred codes. And for those of us who call ourselves Christians that means revisiting the Ten Commandments. It means figuring out a way to shift the pervasive negativity in our culture, in our homes, and yes even in our church to positive ways of speaking and acting. How might we be changed if we focused on what we have, who we are, and the opportunities before us? I am not suggesting that we live in a Pollyanna world where we ignore the difficult moral, ethical, and theological questions that cry out for responses from committed, thoughtful people of faith—responses that have theological integrity and that require us to challenge the status quo. No, it is not a time to avoid the hard issues of human suffering created by greed, war, nationalism, and our inability to see all people as equals. And yet, there is no better time than now for one small group of progressive, some would say radical, Baptists to show its community and world how things can change when our identity—our sacred codes—are rooted in “you shall.”