The Ten Commandments express eternal lessons for humanity, though we may never fully internalize them; every day on earth many will observe the commandments and many will break them. And, while some religions do not empower the God-idea as in Buddhism or Jainism, they do reverentially exalt a Sacred notion while practicing many of the same sensible ethics. These ethics can be defended in Kantian terms, to translate them to the non-religious. We do not lie because we do not wish to be deprived of truth. We do not steal, because we value that things are earned by honest labor. We do not kill because we value our own life as much as we do our neighbors. Yet, even so, we forget this simple equation of right and responsibility. Christianity calls this the sinfulness of man, while Hindus label it avidya or “ignorance.” Either way, the day we have nothing to observe or learn from the commandments is far off.
But as transparent as the commandments may seem, there is the extended text of the second commandment which begins to defy rational sense. We are commanded not to make idols, not to bow down to them, “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showering steadfast loved to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commands” (Exodus 20:5-6). A puzzled atheist might ask why an exalted Cosmic Creator God would have the petty human characteristic of jealousy? Why indeed should the progeny of an unjust man suffer at all, if they never knew their great-grandparents nor could control their actions? Indeed, what is one to do with this commandment if their mother were just and their father unjust? It defies rational application, says the atheist, who dismisses it as a human construct designed to empower the priesthood in the 7th century BC. There is some sting to this critique, but also little imagination.
The punishment and application of the law cannot be literally carried out, but perhaps it was not meant to be. Was it some kind of “divine bluff” from a God who commanded us vigilantly to observe what is good and diligently avoid what is bad? A God who knew we would sin but had mercy to forgive us in the end? That is a possibility, but it does not exhaust the full paradox of the passage nor address its application to human relations and politics. The passage refers to idols, but idols may be more than just statues or possessions of this earth. Idols may also be about concepts, such as justice and mercy, a theme also strongly involved in this passage. Humans must recognize that we are caught also in a paradox of justice and mercy, that this subtext of the second command applies to our own political and personal relationships inasmuch as it may apply to a deity. What, succinctly put, is this paradox?
It is that justice and mercy, in the application and remembrance of the law, is an art; there is no exact measure on how it needs to be applied. Like any skill or trade, it must be learned by trying to be ethical ourselves and realizing our own failures and limitations in that regard. Although social scientists produce elaborate T-statistics and R-Squares that attempt to exactly account for human behavior and our variation in groups, no measure they produce will exactly be able to describe our need for the art of practicing justice and mercy. The Biblical passage in question suggests this reading, if interpreted properly and poetically, for it would indeed be absurd to literally apply punishment to the 4th generation or forgiveness indefinitely to the thousandth, yet both must be done in proper measure. Politics is an art of enforcing justice, but without a belief system to give vigor to that ethic and a capacity for forgiveness, the art breaks down and fails.
We cannot ask and simultaneously expect the victims of those who have suffered by gun violence to forgive murderers. Yet, we know that some measure of forgiveness will cause the painful rancor of hatred in their hearts to abate. Nor can we ask that gun murderers be set free without penalty, for that is irresponsible for protecting the peace and enforcing justice. There are so many situations in which daily we fail at this art of ethics because we have not practiced it sincerely ourselves, or because we have forgotten that it truly is an art, not a science. Religion, indeed, might be called the living art of observing ultimate values daily.
In personal relationships, husband and wives often divorce because they forget the balance of love and forgiveness. In political relationships, Republicans vilify Democrats, and vice versa, forgetting the art of justice and mercy, as well as the unity of our identity as Americans. This happens in every country, where one sub-group (perhaps a party, an ethnicity, or some other cultural schism) exalts itself at the expense of the other, forgetting a common humanity, and the need to balance justice and mercy. In Ukraine, at some point the war will end, and there will be need for reconciliation as well as justice. In Sudan right now, decades of war and bad policy have again exalted one group against another at the price of suffering for all. One also wonders if this thing we called the Cold War is over, for though Marxism may be denounced, freedom of religion and democracy still very much hang in the balance internationally. Cannot we idolize a false ideology, and do we not routinely do so?
The Bible sometime speaks to us quite directly, and literally, as with the Ten Commandments. There also, however, we have seen in the text of the second command a poetic and political paradox which reflects our own human predicament. We must always foster a love that has a capacity for forgiveness with a vigilance to observe and enforce the law. This is an art form learned, experienced, and daily lived, not an axiomatic or mathematical formula we can apply. Indeed, the day that the sun rises, and we have nothing left to learn from the commandments is a long way off, for if we have not seen the limitation and merits in ourselves (Matthew 7:1-5), we have not also considered their larger ramification in society and politics.