A Nation Of Laws: Where's Moses When You Need Him?

By Dick Staub
Religion News Service

(RNS) Even in the craziness and social upheaval of the 1960s, Crosby Stills Nash and Young observed a simple truth: "You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by."

In the midst of today's political, economic and environmental crises, it seems apparent that we no longer agree on a common code that we can live by.

The Ten Commandments once formed the basis of our communal values: honor your parents, don't murder or lie, steal, commit adultery or covet your neighbor's property. Not that many years ago, many states even had blue laws prohibiting retail activity on the (Christian) Sabbath.

Lest you fear this is another rant about the removal of the Ten Commandments from the public square, let me start with the real issue: whether or not these codes are "written on our hearts," as the Bible says, and applied in our daily lives.

Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, consider what society might look like if we lived our lives--individually and collectively--in accordance with the Ten Commandments.

What if, for example, politicians stopped lying? What if our economic system was driven by something other than greed and covetousness? What if marriages reflected our deep commitment to fidelity and the honoring of sacred vows? What if parents nurtured their children and children responded with love, respect and honor?

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has concluded in his recent book, "Journey to the Common Good," that the whole basis of the Ten Commandments was the pursuit of our individual interests within the context of the common good.

"We face a crisis about the common good (today) because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny," Brueggemann writes. "Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interest, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity."

Ours is a nation of laws; a large body of legal evidence shows how the Ten Commandments formed the framework of personal moral restraint that is the basic building block of obedience to the law.

Throughout history, we humans have had a love/hate relationship with the law. When you take a wrong exit, end up in a violent neighborhood, run out of gas and see some menacing thugs approaching your car, you are relieved to see the blue and red flashing lights of law enforcement appear in your rear view mirror.

But when you get that new convertible and open up the engine to 90 mph on the interstate, you know the feeling of dread when those same blue and red flashing lights approach you. As my friend Earl Palmer once said, "We love the law when it protects us from the tyrant, but we hate the law when we are the tyrant."

Part of the beauty of the Ten Commandments is their simplicity. Ronald Reagan once wondered "what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress." The Bill of Rights has 463 words; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has 266 and the Ten Commandments take up all of 297 easy-to-understand words. A recent federal directive to regulate the price of cabbage, meanwhile, contains 26,911 words.

Jesus boiled down the commandments to something even simpler. The commandments can all be summarized in one word: Love. "Love the Lord your God ... and love your neighbor as yourself," he said. "On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets."

Last week, my wife told me it was really difficult to communicate with me."You don't listen," she said, "And if you do listen you don't remember, and if you do remember you usually remember it wrong." Another friend's wife added a fourth dimension: "You remember but don't care, because if you cared you'd do something about what I've said."

I think they're on to something. In these chaotic times, perhaps we all need to take a deep breath, listen to the basic moral virtues encapsulated in the "Big Ten," remember them correctly and do something about them in our individual and communal lives.

(Dick Staub is the author of "The Culturally Savvy Christian" and the host of The Kindlings Muse ( His blog can be read at