Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ten Words: We Are Not Our Own, for There is an Other

ALL OF US, Christian or not, have to concede two things as truths, and it is these two things that are at the basis of the religious and even moral sentiments of all mankind. The German philosopher Schleiermacher had two rather cumbersome words for these truths, but they express the entirety of this insight: We are all Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben (we-have-not-brought-ourselves-into-being) and things about us are Irgendwiegewordensein (things-have-somehow-come-to-be).

None of us can say that we have made ourselves be. None of us can say that we have brought to be that which is outside of us. For both ourselves and what is outside of us have been received from an Other. The entirety of existence, of being and its laws, is contingent upon an Other. It is this self-evident insight, which is at the center of all religious experience which seeks this Other, that leads to the recognition of "the dimension of gift and gratuitousness" of being, of life, ultimately of the existence of all creation. (Compendium, 20) This is bedrock reality.

The unquestionable fact that existence is a gift given to us freely by the Other, however we know him to be, necessarily imposes upon all of us--every single man, woman, and child--a moral obligation of caretaking, of stewardship. Any other response is to be an ingrate. And ingratitude is never justified: ingratitude in the face of undeserved generosity is self-evidently wrong. The fact that our life, the life of others about us, and the cosmos in which we live are gifts gratuitously given us is at the heart of our moral obligations. In light of the fact that being, life, and the world are contingent, are gifts, our conscience is spurred into sensing that "it is called to manage responsibly and together with others the gift received." (Compendium, 20) The gift of life, of being, is not my gift alone; it is our gift.

Christians believe that the Other has not stayed quiet, but that he has revealed himself. Strikingly in the history of mankind, "God's progressive revelation of himself to the people of Israel stands out." (Compendium, 21) He intervened in the life of that nation while they were yet slaves, living oppressed under their Egyptian masters. He delivered them from that slavery, and revealed himself to Moses as the "I am who am." (Exodus 3:14) The Other, the necessary Being, the Being from which all other being comes, the Gift-Giver of all that is, spoke. His speaking was yet another gift.

And in this revelation given to a Jew named Moses and through him to all Israel, the world lept upwards in what the philosopher Eric Voegelin called the great "leap in being," a leap for all humanity, Jew and Gentile. What was a "leap in being" was also a "leap in morals," and a "leap into freedom." The "leap into freedom" was derived from being bound to a covenant with the Gift-Giver, at the heart of which was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are also known as the Decalogue, from Greek, Deka-logos, "Ten words."

In these"Ten Words" given to Moses by the One God whose name is "I am who am," we found our freedom. "The Ten Commandments, which constitute an extraordinary path of life and indicate the surest way for living in freedom from slavery to sin, contain a privileged expression of the natural law." (Compendium, No. 22). The Ten Commandments and the natural moral law which binds all men are substantively equivalent.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Domenico Feti (1613)

Americans taught by such misguided groups such as the ACLU or Americans United for Separation of Church and State think that the Ten Commandments are sectarian, and that our social, political, and governing institutions can, and indeed must as a requirement of pluralism and justice, disassociate themselves from the Ten Commandments. The Ten Words must not be seen in the public square.

This is a lie, a folly, not to be believed because the Ten Commandments are not sectarian. Quite the opposite, they are universal. The Ten Commandments bind all mankind, and are part of mankind's patrimony, moral treasure. The are part of our "leap of morality," our "leap into freedom," a gift of God through the Jew to the world. Moreover, they, and the authority of the God behind them, are the objective source of human rights. Get rid of the Ten Commandments and you get rid of any basis of human rights. Human rights have to be tied to something, and if you untie them from the natural law, they sink.

More ominously, once you get rid of the Ten Commandments, they will be replaced by something worse, and you will be at the mercy of man in power, who, unlike and apart from God, is not very merciful. Without the Ten Commandments or the natural law, man invariably tends to lapse into a "might means right" mentality. If you harbor doubts about that, look at the history of the 20th Century, and focus on China, on the U.S.S.R., and on Nazi Germany, where the Ten Commandments were also not seen in public.

Importantly, the Ten Commandments can be divided into what traditionally has been called "Two Tables." The first table deals with the relationship between man and God, the second table deals with the relationship between man and man. In the words of the Compendium, the first table concerns itself with "fidelity to the one true God." The second table concerns itself with the "social relations among the people of the Covenant."

Now here is something crucial, and something often forgotten if we divorce ourselves from the historical and biblical context of the Ten Commandments. Americans have a tendency--I am not sure where it comes from--to view the Ten Commandments individualistically, as if they are laws of the bourgeoisie, fat-cat laws, as it were. But we are soon disabused of that impression if we read Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus with an open mind, or perhaps even more importantly, with an open heart.

The second table of the Ten Commandments was understood not only to apply to the healthy Jew who was a member of the Mosaic covenant, but it also embraced the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and sojourner. Hidden within this second table is a built-in solicitude toward the weak and disenfranchised. It is a recognition that might does not make right. And the Jews are constantly reminded by God and their prophets to remember what it was like living under the might makes right jurisprudence of the Pharaohs. Their big feast--the Passover--revolved around this.

Built in to the Mosaic covenant, therefore, is also a concept of "justice and solidarity," and it reflects itself in such social and economic institutions such as the law of the sabbatical year (celebrated every seven years) and the jubilee year (celebrated every fifty years).* These institutions governed such things as the tilling of fields, the cancellation of debts, and the release of persons and goods from ownership or burdens. Part of this "justice and solidarity," therefore, clearly involves a respect toward creation and an aversion against the concentration of, and particularly the abuse of, wealth. Viewed positively, these institutions sought to ameliorate economic poverty and curb social injustice. "The precepts of the sabbatical and jubilee years constitute a kind of social doctrine in miniature." (Compendium, 25)

Finally, we must also recall the role of the Prophets who, in their message against the powers that be and a recalcitrant people, focused so much on justice, social solidarity, and the abuse of the weak and the poor. The Prophets ceaselessly work against social stratification. The Prophets ceaselessly denounced any sclerosis in the law, where law is implemented stiffly, inflexibly, even against its very spirit. The Prophets sought above all to have this solicitude to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger internalized. "This process of internalization gives rise to greater depth and realism in social action, making possible the progressive universalization of attitudes of justice and solidarity, which the people of the Covenant are called to have towards all men and women of every people and nation." (Compendium, No.25) In short, the Prophets insisted that men should imitate the gift-giving God, especially "the Lord's gratuitous and merciful action on behalf of man." (Compendium, No. 26).

Sin was the great blotch: the great distorter of God's message and law, the source of resistance to a eucharistic response to God's gratuitous love that was so much at the heart of the Prophetic urgency. But there is in man the faculty of what Budziszewski calls the "deep conscience," which can't not know what is wrong. And if we do not face this deep conscience and turn back to the merciful God, we shall necessarily turn away, and run, and hide, much like Cain did after he slew his brother with malice aforethought. But we shall not run into freedom. Rather we shall run into the hives nest of conscience, and there suffer the sting of its furies.

This turning away does more than harm the is, "the internal unity of the human person." It also harms the is with, "the relations of communion between man and woman," and the "harmonious relations" between man and man, and "mankind and other creatures." "It is thus in this original estrangement that are to be sought the deepest roots of all the evils that afflict social relations between people, of all the situations in economic and political life that attack the dignity of the person, that assail justice and solidarity." (Compendium, No. 27)

If sin is the cause of all these ills, it seems that we are in need of a Redeemer. And it is precisely to that issue to which the Compendium next turns.

*See Exodus 23, Deuteronomy 15, and Leviticus 25.

No comments:

Post a Comment