The Ten Commandments are ancient and the Russian Revolution is old news, but this is about contemporary America: our politics, economics, culture, and more — things we often see as two-sided. Many people with strong political or cultural opinions see themselves either trying to make substantial, structural changes in American government and society, or trying to prevent others from doing so. Whatever passions, philosophies, and intentions may exist behind the rhetoric, each side accuses the other of tearing down our values and institutions.
You may have examples from your own perspective. I’ll give you a few of mine, in discussing the Bible’s Ten Commandments — key pillars of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which incubated the American political tradition — after we’ve talked about Russia. Soviet Russia, to be precise.
Let’s do that now.
In 1987 I went to Moscow for the summer to study the Russian language at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute. Russian was one of my undergraduate majors at BYU; the other was Political Science.
Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU or КПСС). That means he was the national leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or СССР). His glasnost (гласность, openness) was just beginning to trickle into Soviet society.
Glasnost and perestroika (перестройка, restructuring) were a desperate response to prolonged economic stagnation and to the widespread corruption which had flourished under the long leadership (1964-1982) of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. It didn’t help — from the Soviet perpective — that the United States was leaping ahead economically and militarily under President Ronald Reagan’s leadership.
That summer, some of us who studied the USSR noticed something remarkable in the nationwide humor magazine Krokodil (Крокодиль, crocodile — and that’s probably enough Russian alphabetic flavor). What we saw was a reference to prostitution in contemporary Russia. For years the official doctrine had been that there was none — though it was generally known that there was. Glasnost was starting to look real.
That summer something else caught my eye in the Soviet press: a remarkable editorial. To appreciate its significance, we need a bit of history, and you’ll want to remember that the entire Soviet print media was officially part of the Soviet government in 1987.
Destroying the Church
In the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their Leftist revolution, they attacked religion generally but especially the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, which had close ties to the tsarist monarchy the Leftists overthrew in 1917. In 1921 Church leaders demanded religious freedom, which the new Soviet constitution guaranteed. In response, the regime executed thousands of priests, dozens of bishops, and the metropolitan of Kiev. This was despite — or perhaps in response to — massive public demonstrations in support of the Church.
In 1922 the Soviet press began to publish scandalous stories about specific clergy and believers, who were then arrested and tried. Even reporting (or honoring) a miracle was enough to get someone arrested; the state’s official atheism had no room for wonders it did not work.
False charges were invented to take down any clergyman who became too popular. Lenin decreed that the government should be more tolerant of corrupt, criminal priests than of faithful, moral priests.
Antireligious propaganda was relentless, and most Orthodox religious observance was forced underground. Protestants and Muslims fared better for a while. Lenin’s early writings advocated the elimination of Islam, but he saw value in Muslim support of the Revolution, while that support lasted.
Things got worse after Lenin’s death, beginning in 1929 under Josef Stalin. This coincided with state seizure (collectivization) of agriculture and private businesses which had survived the Revolution so far. This time, the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam bore the brunt, but Jews fared poorly too.
Most Orthodox and Muslim clergy were shot or sent to die more slowly in labor camps; by 1941 only about one-twelfth of Orthodox clergy were still functioning in their parishes. Theological schools were closed. Religious publications were banned. Reportedly, in a single year, 1937, over 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot.
In the Russian Republic, almost 30,000 churches were destroyed; less than 500 survived. When I was in the USSR decades later, a few had been rebuilt, and you could still find surviving churches which had not been razed. Most operated as churches, but the state had turned other into “museums of scientific atheism.”
From 1932 to 1937 Stalin called for the complete elimination of religious expression in the USSR. Meanwhile, the Soviet regime assured the world that there was no religious persecution in their enlightened nation, and much of the Western world’s political and intellectual elite found it convenient to believe this. For a while the Soviet Central Committee publicly called for churches not to be closed, while secretly overseeing their destruction.
Marx wrote that religion would naturally fall away in the Revolution; the Soviets found that it needed a lot of help on its way down.
When Nazi Germany invaded, pulling the USSR into World War II, Stalin relaxed his position on religion, finding it useful to encourage nationalism and patriotism in the face of invasion. Years after the war, in 1959, with church membership and religious activity continuing to grow, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchev, cracked down again. There were about 22,000 churches when he began; nearly two-thirds of these were closed by 1965. Parents were forbidden to teach their children religion, and children were banned at religious services (beginning with Baptists, but not ending there). Anyone requesting a church baptism, wedding, or funeral was reported. Charitable work by the church was forbidden outside church walls, and clergy who engaged in it, or who simply became too popular or were seen as exemplary, were forcibly retired or incarcerated.
One of the goals of communism, Krushchev said, was to liberate people from prejudice and superstition and ground them firmly in materialism.
(Note: among many other sources, data and details in this section can be found in several detailed Wikipedia articles; a more general article has links: “Persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union.”)
Yet faith quietly survived among many Soviets, and people continued to convert — as if faith itself were an intrinsic human need, and communism an unsatisfying substitute for deity.
When I was there in 1987, as things began to relax under glasnost, it was still widely understood that if you had a good job, such as university professor or factory manager, you’d likely lose it if you were reported attending church services regularly.
I also observed that Russians generally had mostly lost the vocabulary needed to discuss matters of faith; it had been 70 years since the Revolution.
Commandments Without God
Now we’re ready to appreciate what I saw in that 1987 editorial in a government-run newspaper. (Again, they were all government-run then.)
The author(s) noted the ongoing, widespread sense that Soviet society was badly fraying at the edges, if not actually unraveling. (I’m paraphrasing, even in translation.) The remedy, said the article, was to reinstate some basic principles of human behavior which were being lost.
The author(s) didn’t identify those basic principles this way, and their language was necessarily secular, but their principles were several of the Ten Commandments.
Even properly orthodox (small “o”) Soviet communists could see that basic moral principles and behavioral constraints are necessary to hold even a totalitarian society together — and they had discovered that secular institutions were unable sufficiently to instill them in the people.
I thought about this lately, as American leftists toppled statues of religious figures, destroyed or disfigured churches, and called for the removal or destruction of any representation of Jesus Christ or Mary which they — whoever they are — determine is “too white.”
(I have a separate blog for religious writing and other nonpolitical things, but make no mistake: this is political. If they can behead religious statues, I can talk about religious commandments and call it politics.)
Ten Commandments with God
Let’s look briefly at the actual Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) of the Old Testament in the present context. I’ll favor the King James Translation, mostly. I’ll also quote from a book called The Seven Deadly Sins Today, by Henry Fairlie (1978). As I mulled these things, I found myself pulling Fairlie’s book off the shelf and reviewing what I read years ago.
Understandably, the first three commandments weren’t mentioned in the Soviet article, but we’re talking about contemporary America again anyway.
1. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Obviously, leftist states and movements have the same commandment. They brook no rivals for the faith and devotion of the people. Hence religious must be suppressed — or coopted, corrupted, and controlled.
Come at this from the other direction, and you may wonder whether a thinking believer in God can be a committed, ideological leftist. Granted, this is lost on a certain percentage of Christian and other clergy.
In any case, a whole nation of people who don’t worship the state — whatever its structure and ideology — seems like a quintessentially American concept to me. So does refusing to worship the false god of social justice, which in theory and practice involves a great deal of individual injustice.
2. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…. Thou shalt not bow down thyself the them, nor serve them.”
The Creator apparently wants his creations to worship him, not their own creations.
To whom do we look for salvation, God or our own ideologies and institutions?
To whom do we look for principles on which to base our lives and our society, God or ourselves?
To whom do we give ultimate credit for our greatest blessings? God? A national leader? A cultural icon? Amazon? The New York Stock Exchange?
I’m not saying we should sit on our hands and wait for God to do everything for us. There’s a time to pray for safety and a time to fasten our seat belt. We should do all we can do, not just wait on God.
But I wonder: would our nation and our world be less temptestuous if we were less impressed with ourselves? Would our politics and our economy be healthier, and would American freedom seem less precarious, if we didn’t turn to human government to answer our every need?
3. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Some people think this means not naming God when we curse. Certainly our discourse would seem more civilized if we obeyed this commandment in that sense.
I think it means not promising God you’ll do things when you don’t seriously intend to do them, and not presenting yourself as a believer when you’re not. How would our society and politics be different — how much happier would we be — if all people who outwardly expoused religious faith and principles felt obligated to live by them?
How different would things be if all people who confessed religious principles actually believed them? Henry Fairlie writes from a Christian perspective:
“Apparently one may now deny the teachings of Christianity — even a teaching as fundamental as the divinity of Christ, as some theologians have done at Oxford in the past year — and yet reserve the privilege of calling oneself a Christian. Why stand outside the doors of the church as an atheist, and think gravely of the falsehoods preached within that one feels compelled to combat, when all the time one could just step inside and in God’s own house preach against them in his name?” (p. 5).
How different would our society and politics be if people without religious faith and principles didn’t pretend to them?
4. “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it Holy.”
Some believers have a sabbath; others don’t. Those who do have different senses of its purposes and of what activities are appropriate.
In Flunking Sainthood Jana Riess quotes Rabbi Heschel: “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”
She herself writes, “The Sabbath teaches us that we’re not slaves.” And: “The Sabbath is the most radical commandment because it’s a decision not to let your life be defined by Pharaoh’s production-consumption rat race.”
What if we could just detox politically for one day a week, let alone rest from our daily labors? We could turn our minds to higher things and our hands and hearts to others. Perhaps this might somehow begin to affect the other six days of the week.
5. “Honour thy father and thy mother.”
Let’s add the last verse of the Old Testament. The previous verse mentions Elijah, whom the Lord promises to send at some point. Then we read, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:6).
How would our society — especially the parts which seem to have unraveled most — be different if we recommitted to strengthening the ties between parents and children?
Would we know greater happiness and peace if we rejected ideologies which subordinate familial ties to the state or seek to replace them? (This is characteristic of the Left, but also to a degree of any repressive regime, regardless of ideology.)
Would things begin to knit together again, if we honored parents’ rights to know and even determine what their children are taught and how? If parents demanded and received complete transparency into school curricula?
What if children, as they grew, were careful to honor their parents, and parents were devoted to their children above interests outside the home?What if youth and adults were reluctant to band together in mobs to do things that would dishonor their parents — or their children?
6. “Thou shalt not murder.”
(The King James Version says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but “murder” is a better translation.)
What would be different in our society if murder and the threat of murder disappeared altogether? How would this summer have been different?
What if we respected each human life so much that we would not only avoid taking a life unjustifiably, but also work harder and smarter to help everyone have a good life? What if, instead of having endless protests to assauge our privileged guilt, we honestly tried to figure out why many poor children, black and otherwise, are stuck in dangerous, ineffective schools and violent neighborhoods?
What if we actually worked to change those things, rather than leaving these causes to others who may have different motives? What if we stopped trusting and empowering ineffective institutions we created to be responsible for these things, and rolled up our sleeves and addressed the problems ourselves?
Would our nation be much different?
7. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Adultery has a specific meaning: sexual activity where at least one partner is married to someone else.
Call me old-fashioned, but how much human misery would we avoid if people engaged in sexual activity only within marriage? How much poverty and despair would disappear? How much disease?
Oh, but you can’t expect people, especially youth, or especially men, or especially whomever we’re excusing today, to bridle their passions that way. Can you?
Henry Fairlie wrote, “We have reached the stage of regarding a virgin as not quite healthy” (p. 11). Was it true in 1978, when he wrote it? Is it true in 2020? Is it a good thing? What is the cost?
8. “Thou shalt not steal.”
My goodness. We just acknowledged private property rights. There went some leftist philosophies. (Spoiler: they’ll take another beating with the Tenth Commandment.)
If we didn’t steal, we wouldn’t loot — or any of the other things we do to help ourselves to something which doesn’t belong to us.
How would society change if we took this commandment seriously — in white collar contexts too, of course.
9. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
If it’s not true, don’t say it. Don’t lie.
What if no one lied to anyone? I don’t mean we should utter every unkind thing we think, because (as we suppose) it’s the truth. I mean, what if we were all careful not to deceive anyone — in business, in politics, in our private lives?
Would society be better, do you think?
What if President Trump, for example, were known as a concientious truth-teller? He wouldn’t be universally loved, and his opponents would still call him a liar, but would he have tipped enough support his way to have had a less temptestuous and more productive term, with less bitterness among Americans generally? It would have been good for him and good for the country in general.
What if people who based their movements on convenient narratives of events, regardless of truth, insisted instead on the truth? Black Lives Matter could have found enough true offenses without exalting a false narrative about Ferguson, for example. How much more credibility would the movement have then than it has now? How many more people would rally to its causes (the legitimate ones), if they hadn’t clearly demonstrated that truth matters less than power?
We’re in an odd, Orwellian time when a major party’s nominee for President says he decided to run because of something the incumbent said in Charlottesville — but the incumbent actually said the opposite.
Some conservatives lie. Some liberals lie. But if we go further right (as we haven’t) or further left (as we have), factions start to resemble that biblical phrase, “whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Revelation 22:15).
In critical theory, which is the post-postmodern, post-Marxist version of Leftist theology, there is no objective truth. There is only power.
But what if no one falsely accused anyone? Would society be more peaceful? Would our politics?
10. Thou shalt not covet … anything that is thy neighbour’s.”
To covet is not merely to admire. It is to envy your neighbor, because he has something you don’t. Coveting is to wanting what someone else has, even at the cost of depriving that person of it. In many instances it is a sad symptom of materialism. It is the basis of oppressive ideologies’ popular appeal.
What common legal or business practices would fade away, if we refused to covet? What ideologies? Would our neighborhoods be more peaceful? Our families?
What if we practiced gratitude, contentment, and generosity instead? What if we coveted virtues instead of possessions, another’s labor, or specific personal relationships?
Several of the other nine commandments would take less of a beating.
My Point, Such As It Is
(With more help from Henry Fairlie, since his book is still on my desk.)
I get that it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to obey the Ten Commandments or any other moral principles, religious or otherwise, all the time. I’m not saying we should invent and universally implant a chip or do any other tyrannical thing to compel obedience. I even get that taking the Ten Commandments seriously wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems. But it might free up a lot of time, energy, and other resources we could use to address the remaining problems. And we might be happier with ourselves and each other.
My point is, as we watch society fray and unravel, we would do well to consider something besides policy, law, and government action, if we want real remedies.
Again, I’m not saying the answer is compulsion. Compelling others to change is fool’s errand. Choosing to change ourselves, if we can align ourselves with a power which wants to change us, can be quite effective — but we must choose that power carefully.
The Ten Commandments seem like a decent starting point. How can I better understand and live them? How could you? How might we model and teach them better? What could we change if we did?
Yes, it’s horribly old-fashioned to see our own conduct, let alone society at large, in terms of moral good and moral evil — doubly so if we add some pesky religion to the mix. But since we’re quoting Henry Fairlie today: “If we do not take seriously our capacity for evil, we are unable to take seriously our capacity for good” (15).
And: “‘The devil is a gentleman,’ said Shelley, which is interesting as a comment on gentlemen but no less interesting about the Devil, because he often has the most civil manners and comes with impeccable letters of introduction. … ‘The Devil’s cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist,’ said Baudelaire. This is not as difficult for him as we might suppose, since he is inside us already, and we do not care to look for him there” (16).
Some say the roots of our civil unrest are in a lack of meaning, especially among the young. So here’s one more bit of Henry Fairlie. If this hurts in all the right places, or any of them … #sorrynotsorry.
“If we acknowledge that our inclination to sin is part of our natures, and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd, nothing but a willful gesture against the odds. We can try to make sense of evil and, in making sense of it, make sense of our lives, of what we attempt in them.
“We will not draw up preposterous schemes to make us all at once innocent, only to find that the flowery meadows of the earthly paradise do not spring up around us; neither will we pretend that our evil is the result of some maladjustment in our psychologies or our societies, only to find that when the next adjustment has been made we remain as evil as before.
“We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and if it is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it.
“When we say that someone is a ‘good man’ or ‘good woman,’ we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it. We say that they are people of character, and rightly so, because they have formed their characters in the wrestling” (19, my emphasis).
I think we will never cure what ails us with politics, because our politics are ailing too, and they lack the power to save themselves or us. We need something that can cure them or at least transcend them. Something higher.
Sometimes, as I contemplate the world, with its vexing web of issues and challenges, I get the impression that the most unwelcome answer is the real one.
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