I suppose part of what gets to me about Alabama’s harsh new papers-please law and its crackdown on Sooners is that this is the same state that spent much of the past decade boasting of its fealty to the (Protestant formulation of the) Ten Commandments.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, Roy Moore, based his whole public career on refusing to remove a sectarian Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse. He installed the thing there in the first place as a challenge — daring the courts to order its removal as he knew they would have to, and thus positioning himself to defy that order and to grandstand as the cut-rate Moses of Montgomery. Wikipedia provides a useful summary:
A month after his election, Moore began making plans for a larger monument to the Ten Commandments, reasoning that the Alabama Supreme Court building required something grander than a wooden plaque. His final design involved a 5,280 pound (2400 kg) granite block, three feet wide by three feet deep by four feet tall, covered with quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the national anthem, and various founding fathers. The crowning element would be two large carved tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. High-grade granite from Vermont was ordered and shipped, and Moore found benefactors and a sculptor to complete the job.
On the evening of July 31, 2001, despite some initial installation difficulties and concerns regarding structural support for the monument’s weight, Moore had the completed monument transported to the state judicial building and installed in the central rotunda. The installation was filmed, and videotapes of the event were sold by Coral Ridge Ministries, an evangelical media outlet in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which later used proceeds from the film’s sales to pay Moore’s ensuing legal expenses. Coral Ridge was the operation of the late Reverend D. James Kennedy, a staunch Moore supporter.
The next morning, Moore held a press conference in the central rotunda to officially unveil the monument. In a speech following the unveiling, Moore declared, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.”
So extravagant claims of obedient submission to the Ten Commandments are at the core of the very same conservative movement in Alabama that pushed for, passed and signed into law the nation’s harshest statute for the harassment, persecution and prosecution of the stranger and the alien in our midst.
And that shoots past “ironic” to land squarely on “obscene.”
The Ten Commandments, like all of the many laws contained in the Books of Moses, cannot be divorced from the basis for those commandments — the constant and relentless refrain that always accompanies the commandments of the Pentateuch: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”
There are two parts to that. The first part is, partly, a declaration of authority — the ultimate declaration of ultimate authority: “I am the Lord your God.” Many believers treat this as nothing but an assertion of authority, as something like the equivalent of God the parent saying, “Because I said so, that’s why.”
But this statement is not only an assertion of authority, it is also an assertion of character. It is not simply, “Because I am your God,” but “Because I am your God.” You must not oppress the poor, this God says, because I am your God and this is what your God is like. You must welcome the stranger, this God says, because I am your God and this is what your God is like.
The commandments, in other words, are not merely edicts from God — inscrutable and ineffable rules to which we must submit. The commandments also teach us about God. They tell us what God is like. And what God likes and dislikes.
This Alabama law is not what God is like. And God does not like such laws.
The second part of “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” makes an appeal to empathy.* That reminder of oppression and slavery offers a rationale beyond brute authority. Remember when you were oppressed? You didn’t enjoy that very much, did you? So let’s not go around oppressing others either, OK?
This divine appeal to empathy is rather interesting. God commands — those two words suggest that ought to be sufficient, that nothing more needs to be said. But then God says more. God offers reasons why we should heed these commands. God appeals and persuades and argues. God seems to want something more than blind obedience. God seems to want us to understand why these commandments matter, why we should want to heed them.
That reminder of past oppression is also, of course, a reminder of past liberation. It is thus not only an appeal to empathy, but also an appeal to gratitude. It implies something along the lines of “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” … so you owe me one. This is part of what Calvin meant by “ethics is gratitude.”
That reminder of liberation also reinforces and repeats the assertion of character. The Exodus was an expression of what God is like. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” means also “I am like this — I am the liberator of the oppressed.”
One of the remarkable things about us humans is our ability to turn that which was intended to liberate into tools of oppression. We take a slew of commandments, all of which were presented as “I am the liberator of the oppressed, therefore thou shalt …” and we immediately begin concocting inventive new ways to turn them into devices for oppressing ourselves and others.
That also is not what God is like.
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* That word empathy has, astonishingly, been turned into a partisan and contentious term. That’s astonishing because it required one group of people to surrender their claim to it — to voluntarily position themselves as being against the idea of our shared humanity. That stance is so outlandish that it leaves me gasping and grasping for a response. I’m not eager to accuse an entire political party of being sociopaths, but what can one say when members of that party, unchallenged by their fellows, rush forward unprompted to declare themselves proud enemies of empathy and proud advocates of sociopathy? They’re accusing themselves of something truly appalling, should we take them at their word? Or should we patiently attempt to explain that this isn’t really something that anyone wants to say about themselves, even while they push an agenda increasingly demonstrating that maybe in their case it is?