Every so often you meet the ranting and raving, angry kind of atheist who gets in your face and is determined to ridicule anything that has the remotest connection to religious belief. This is the guy who blames every act of terrorism not only on a specific religion but even on religion in general. This is the crusader who goes after institutions because someone within one of them has done something that the group itself would decry as wrong. This is somebody who doesn’t see the difference between the UMW holding a bake sale to raise money to house a mother and child fleeing abuse from Creflo Dollar demanding support because he needs a new plane.
I’m not going into any of that today.
More often, though, you do meet someone with honest questions and realistic observations who finds herself or himself wondering whether there is any kind of solid basis for making hard decisions, when people that they admire and trust often come down on different sides of the same question. They aren’t trying to rip anything down. They’re trying to make sure that they do a good job building something up, so they inspect the foundations.
Good for them!
One of those people is Bart Campolo, who is the son of Tony Campolo, who preached here one Sunday last year. They have a book out called Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son, where they go back and forth on such matters in a respectful and loving way that (I believe) we can all learn from. In this book, Bart Campolo writes,
“I am always mystified when Christians ask me how I can trust any moral code not grounded on the fixed and absolute moral authority of God. That’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make: Nobody decides to trust a moral code because it is objectively justifiable or divinely inspired. In fact, nobody decides to trust a moral code at all. We don’t choose our understandings of right and wrong and where they come from. We absorb these things as children, and only rationalize them for ourselves and one another long after the fact.”
Apart from changing the word “rationalize” to the word “understand”, if he asked me about this, I would agree with him.
But before I would say that everything is relative, I would refer back to a text as basic as the Ten Commandments and point out how they begin.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” [Exodus 20:2]
The Ten Commandments do not stand alone as Ten Useful Life Hacks or Ten Ways to Improve the World. The Ten Commandments come to us as part of the history of God’s intervention in human life prior to the giving of this or any other portion of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. They are part and parcel of our experience of God’s care, not just to us as individuals who are told, “Do this and don’t do that,” but to a people who hear them as, “Because I care for you, here is how we can all live together.”
Bart Campolo has a sense of this when he says that
“moral development is just one part of that much larger process sociologists like my father call socialization, whereby we human beings learn to understand and interpret ourselves and our lives not only from our families and our neighbors but also from the cultural norms and values that surround and define us. Religion is an important part of any given culture, of course, but so is every other human construction, like language, trade, agriculture, marriage, medicine, technology, colonialism, and warfare.”
Where what I would call a biblical approach to that departs from his is in the way that he puts all influences on an equal footing, when religion does indeed make a claim – not that the other influences are not there and not to be considered – but that the claims of a God who frees his people from all other claims and allows them to see them clearly, those claims are stronger and to be honored above all others.
In the full story of the Exodus, it was the needs of Egyptian agriculture that meant storage had to be built for grain, and so the Pharaoh was justified in forcing the Hebrews into slavery as construction workers. It was the fears of the Egyptians that a greater number of Hebrews would somehow taint their culture that led them to go along with genocide as a means of population control. When the Ten Commandments decree,
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work,” [Exodus 20:8-10]
they speak to people whose labor and whose bodies had been terribly abused by slavery and all that goes along with it in all its forms. When they say,
“You shall not murder,” [Exodus 20:13]
they are spoken to people whose children had been ordered to be destroyed at birth”.
Just because someone doesn’t consciously recognize or formally honor the gods of the Egyptians, or of the Canaanites whose lands the Hebrews would later claim for themselves, or of the Persians and Greeks and Romans who would later conquer that land and its inhabitants in turn, doesn’t mean that they don’t need to hear the commandment that taught the Hebrews to beware any god that demands tribute before offering blessing:
“You shall have no other gods beside me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” [Exodus 20:3-5]
Obedience to God may often mean disobedience to earthly authorities, and I don’t just mean governments. Even direction as simple as
“You shall not covet” [Exodus 20:17]
if taken seriously would put the advertising industry out of business.
Bart Campolo, like a lot of other people, people very much like you and me, mistakes loyalty for blind obedience when he says,
“For me to blindly follow a divine commandment seems like a way to shirk the hard work of deliberation and evade responsibility for the intentions and consequences of my actions.”
It’s hardly that. Following often requires exactly that type of deliberation. Just ask anyone who wrestles with issues about capital punishment or when and if their conscience allows them to go to war.
Taking the Commandments within the whole scope of the story of God’s dealings with his people points to God’s initiative that frees his people from all kinds of slavery and, as Christians, we include in that the freedom from sin and its aftermath that God brought about when Jesus died and rose from death. What some see, divorced from the story of God’s grace (to use the theological term), is just a bunch of rules to be followed or else. What we see is the best ways to respond to a loving God by reflecting his grace to others. The last chapter of the Campolos’ book, the only one that they wrote together as father and son, Christian and humanist, contains things that they agree on and notes that
“we human beings have always needed and used stories to make sense of the world and find our place in it. If you want to touch somebody’s heart and mind in a way that actually changes their life, you have to tell stories.”
It may seem that there aren’t too many stories about the Ten Commandments but here is one of them.
“As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” [Mark 10:17-22]
What God did that man really follow, and why? And how about the rest of us?