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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 5: No Other Gods


That the Jews call the second Commandment, Christians tend to divide into two parts, some making it Commandments one and two. The text is simple and quite familiar:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make to yourself any graven image or the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. I visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me but showing steadfast love to the thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Notice that this Commandment is in the first person, for this is the last time the first person is used in the Commandments; after this, God does not speak as the "I," but is spoken about as "the Lord."

Analyzing the Commandment from a form-critical point of view, we find it is really three interrelated injunctions. They all mean substantially the same thing: You shall have no other gods; you shall make no images; you shall worship nothing less than God. Then there is added a rather long explanation of God’s nature. This constitutes the fullness of that Commandment. It is rich in theological insight, profound in its penetration into the meaning of life itself, and exciting to seek to understand. You might be surprised to discover that it is also very controversial.

In many ways this Commandment transcends the limitations of time, space, and the outlook of the first century. First consider it in its biblical context and then in its expanded version.

Exodus Nineteen describes the setting: Israel, the former slave people, encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Somehow they believed themselves led to this particular, specific place, for in their minds this was the mountain of God. The people, standing at the foot of this mountain, were embraced, says the text, with "a holy fear" that made them receptive to the word of the Lord. In this setting, God spoke what the Torah regards as his holiest words. The first, as the Torah would list the Commandments, isa simple proclamation of his being: "I am," he said. It is not, for the Hebrew, a subject for debate. "I am" is a statement of the fact of God’s being. "I am Yahweh." With that statement God makes an implicit claim for sovereignty over all of life.

Then the words move on. "Because I am," the second Commandment follows naturally, "I am the truth that fills the universe. I am the final reality so you can have no other gods. I am infinite so you can make no graven images and pretend that something you make might encompass my being. I am ultimate. You shall not bow down or worship anything less than the great I am, Yabweb."

This Commandment is a double-edged sword because it is first a literal statement meaning exactly what it says; and second, it is a sweeping, probing, almost unfathomable message, searching the deepest recesses of human life.

This is not a Commandment given much attention today, for idolatry is not considered a major temptation of our time. Very little do we understand the meaning of idolatry!

Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the twentieth century, defined God as a person’s ultimate concern. Your God is that reality which elicits from you your deepest feelings and your most ultimate concern, he said. If that Tillichian definition is accepted, then there is no such thing as an atheist, for every life has an ultimate concern. Every life has a god. The question is not, Is there a god for you? but What kind of god does your life serve? What is the nature of your ultimate concern? Is it personal or non-personal? Does your ultimate concern give you slavery or freedom? Does it give you death or life? Does it open you to all that life has, or does it push you out of existence? Looking at life through these eyes, we can see that our world is no less polytheistic than in the days when the Ten Commandments were being composed. The only difference is that we are a little more sophisticated about our idols and about our gods. Ask yourself these questions, and then you will know where your idols are: Where is your ultimate loyalty? What is the ultimate value your life is organized to serve? Where does your security rest? Where can you be most deeply threatened? What does your money finally support? On an even deeper level, does your life serve a unified whole? Or are you split up in divergent, competitive values, serving all sorts of conflicting goals. If God is one, then there must be a unity that comes to our lives by the worship of that oneness. If God is one, then our lives must reflect one standard, one value, one truth, and one love that is ultimate. That finally will result in one human family, not a family where everybody looks alike, acts alike, or understands the truth in the same way, but one family all drawn into unity by the worship of one God.

If God is a unity for us, then there cannot be one law that applies to people we like and another law that applies to those we don’t like. There cannot be one value by which we relate to our families and another value by which we relate to strangers. There cannot be one code which governs our countrymen and another code which governs aliens. If the God of life is one, and if the God of life is seen in every child of his creation, then we must treat every child of his creation as if that child is holy, and there can be no categorical denial of another’s sacred humanity. If God is one there can be no slavery. If God is one, there can be no segregation. If God is one, there can be no prejudice and no bigotry, for every act of discrimination, whether it is economic, political, or social, reveals that we have different standards by which we judge the creatures of God’s creation. Every act of discrimination reveals that God is not one, and our lives are schizophrenic, for if the value we live out is not unified, then the God we worship is not one. We are serving other gods than Yahweh, the great I AM, the source of life, love, and being, the bringer of freedom. We are violating this Commandment.

If the God of life is seen in every child of his creation, there can be no distinction between those who fight on our side in a conflict and those who fight against us. When we depersonalize people to the point of rejoicing in their deaths, we are violating the oneness of God. To preserve our humanity in the face of our attitude toward people who in warfare we call our enemies, we try to act as if they are not really human. We depersonalize them through our propaganda in all kinds of ways. Those are not human beings who are brothers, fathers, or sons that we are killing in our wars; no, they are "Krauts," "Japs," "Chinks," "V.C.," communists or mercenaries. They are reduced to subhuman levels of life. All of those terms of personal disparagement that we employ allow us to kill and not violate our humanity. Whenever this attitude invades our lives, the oneness of God is compromised, and polytheism is apparent. Therefore one cannot listen to this Commandment without hearing judgment. "You shall have no other gods before me."

If God is one, then every war in human history is a civil war, for it is a war inside the family of God’s people. If that is so, then our nation must be seen by the worshipers of Yahweh not as any more sacred, any more holy, or any more righteous than any other nation or people, and our propaganda that would try to convince us otherwise must be countered in the name of the oneness of God. That propaganda is especially vicious when we are involved in a foreign war; it is amazing that we do not realize what is happening to us. Somehow when we get into the conflict of a war, we have to choose sides. We do not stop to think that war itself is nothing but an instrument of our foreign policy. Our foreign policy is formulated by fallible, egocentric human beings who constitute our government and who inevitably are serving their scheme of values and their understanding of life.

When an administration makes a mistake in domestic policy, criticism is free. Critics bring pressure upon that administration to change that policy; that is considered legitimate political dialogue. Yet when an administration makes a mistake in foreign policy and embroils us in a war, suddenly those critics are called traitors; their patriotism is questioned. This can only be done in the name of a nationalistic idol that stands in the place of the one God, Yahweh.

Someone once asked Abraham Lincoln if he thought God was on the side of the North in the Civil War. Mr. Lincoln responded, "The real question is not whether God is on our side but whether we are on God’s side." If you suggest such a sentiment in a time of conflict, you will run the risk of being branded a coward or a traitor. If the flag of nationalism flies above the altar of God, we have become idolators. The worship of God calls us out of that narrow boundary by which we define the worth of human life; it calls us into a deeper understanding of the common humanity that binds us all. Nationalism is one of the idols that we have enshrined in the place where only God belongs.

This nation may well be the greatest nation upon the face of the earth, but don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We cannot stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition unless we see this nation as always under judgment. Indeed, worshipers of Yahweh in every land must always see their nation as under that judgment. There are things more sacred than nationhood.

We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but Caesar can never be the object of worship or we become idolators. "My nation, right or wrong," is okay by me, so long as I am free to say with my patriotism and my human integrity intact, "But in this instance my nation is wrong!" Those bumper stickers that proclaim "America, love it or leave it!" express idolatry. Because I love America I will be critical in the same way that a parent who though loving the child still judges the child’s behavior according to certain noble standards.

God can never be the guarantor of the American way of life. God can never be used as the bulwark for democracy. God can never be the battler against communism, as if all evil resides there and all virtue is on the side of capitalism.

God is. That is what the Commandment says. God is. Only God is sufficient, whole, and complete, and only God is a unity that needs no ulterior motive. When God is used for ulterior purposes, we have created a god out of our own needs. Some aspects of our lives reveal that we have changed very little from the pagan days when there was a god who was served on each day, and each god had requirements that were different. The days of our week were named for gods. The sun god was the object of worship on Sunday. Thor, the god of war, was the god of Thursday, and so on.

We seek to use God in other ways, and whenever we succeed, we become idolators. God can never be used; this never works. The only way we can respond to God is in worship. We cannot isolate him and manipulate him. Prayer does not bring good luck. Worship does not guarantee success. Religion cannot be sought as the means to create family solidarity. Praying together will not guarantee that you stay together. Faith is never a tool or a means to gain something else, at least not faith in the God who is I AM, the God whose glory fills the world, the God whose life throbs in the life of every human being, the God whose love is the matrix of our world. God is. God alone is ultimate. God alone is real. God alone must be worshiped and adored. The God who is God can never be manipulated, measured, captured, or tamed.

That is what the second part of this Commandment goes on to say: you cannot make an image of this God. Don’t limit that to simply building golden calves and icons that you can bow before in your home. That is not what this aspect of the Commandment means. It means that God can never be captured; God can never be seen. God can never be made to serve your needs or mine. No barriers of human life, no places of worship, no representation, no symbol, no sacrament can contain God. His beauty cannot be captured in any beauty of humanity—not in architecture, not in art. We can point to him, but we can never capture him. God’s being can never be described, not in the Bible, not in a church, not in a denomination, not even in a creed. These are only symbols that point us to God but they never capture God. Thus no Bible can be worshiped nor can it be installed as the infallible revelation of the word of God, without falling into idolatry. No creed can finally define God. No denomination can finally capture truth; and when with our limited minds, we act as if one can, we become idolators.

The experience of worship is supposed to open life to the world, to call life to freedom, to accept life’s diversity in the common quest after the oneness of God. Idolatry, on the other hand, is always closed and defensive, even imperialistic. Idolatry demands conformity. Idolatry will make us slaves to a system for it suggests that deviation from the system is deviation from God. God alone is real. God alone is truth. Even Christianity only approximates God; it does not capture God. Christianity contains truth but it is not to be equated with truth. Christianity points to God but to the degree that it is a system devised by human beings, we must acknowledge that God is always beyond our human system. And if Christianity does not capture the truth of God, then surely neither does any individual branch or denomination of Christendom, despite the claims of little minds made through the centuries.

What arrogance marks our Christian history! We have taken our tiny little insights into the truth of God; we have elevated them to the place of God himself; we have thereby created an idol; and then we have taken our little idols and we have used them to club into submission those who do not agree with us. If they do not get clubbed into submission, we excommunicate them as heretics who no longer share the truth. We have blessed our inhuman behavior with religious phrases and religious jargon. It is neither a secret nor a mystery that even the Ku Klux Klan frequently invokes the name of God in the prejudice and venom which it spews out upon people.

We take our inhuman behavior; we bless it with religious phrases and religious jargon; then we beat on one another in the name of God so that Catholics and Protestants feel justified in killing each other in Ireland, and Christians and Moslems do likewise in Lebanon. Back on the ranch, mild sinners that we Episcopalians are, we content ourselves with simply living out our attitude of superiority. Few Episcopalians are committed enough to go out and fight a war over Episcopalianism. We are content to sit back and look down on everyone else. That too is idolatry.

You shall have no other gods but me. This is a call to live in responsible freedom. It is a call to live in this world without any certainty, without any ultimates, in the midst of life’s unknown dimensions. It is a call to live in the world without the certainty that any word, any phrase, or any institution is finally eternal. It is a call to live without idols, to know that every revelation, including our Bible, our creed, our tradition, is but a shadow; it is but a pale replica of the glory of God that no image of human creation will ever capture. When we pretend that we have captured it in our forms we are idolators.

The Commandment continues: "I am a jealous God ."Jealous is a wonderfully human word. Jealousy occurs when my fulfillment is threatened by someone else, when my place is taken by another. This Commandment is saying that God fills the universe, that God fills the deepest hunger in the human soul, that God fills the vacuum and the emptiness in the heart of human life, and his place cannot be preempted. If it is preempted, life is inevitably distorted.

A layman in the deep South once said to me, "There is a God-shaped hole in every life that nothing else will finally fit." When anything else is put there, life is distorted, bent, and twisted.

The order of creation is achieved when God is the vine and we are the branches, when God is the life-giving power and we are related to him in such a way that we expand and bloom, becoming full, free, whole, and real. If that central relationship is distorted, if we look to something less than God for our fulfillment, seeking affirmation on the level of status, wealth, social position, achievement, education, power, or whatever, then our human light will inevitably burn at a lower wattage; our being will be distorted.

Human ego needs are manifold. Insecurity is part of our humanity—self-negativity can always be excited and elicited. To be apart from God is to be less than we are for it is an attempt to fill ourselves with some lesser deity. That will inevitably distort us and make us slaves to a lesser humanity. We will always seek to affirm, justify, or to prove our worth as if we do not believe that our worth has been given to us in the act of creation. When you and I are not at one with the source of life and love and the infinite ground of being that we call God, then inevitably we are not at one with ourselves either. When we are not at one with ourselves, we will not be at one with anyone else. Something else has been installed where only God belongs, with the result that we become agents of distortion in life, for God is jealous. The distortions of life are visited upon us and upon our children to the third and fourth generations, for insecurity gives birth to insecurity. Human beings build themselves up by tearing other human beings down. That is the price of our insecurity. That is what makes life a jungle. I seek power by reducing you to powerlessness. If I have to prove my worth or demonstrate my value, then my concern is inevitably focused upon me. I am seeking your acknowledgment of my superiority and not so subtly announcing that you are not as superior, that you are somewhat less than I. It is this insecure being who characterizes humanity in general and every human life in particular. Our humanity is insecure because we are separated from God’s infinite source of love. God is not at the center of our life; something less than God is. That is the human condition and out of it we yearn for completion even while we try to convince others that we have it. The Bible calls this human condition sin. In the Bible sin is not a deed; it is a description of human life separated from the love of God and experiencing the reality of lack of love, inadequacy, and insecurity, and seeking to create the missing ingredients ourselves and always at someone else’s expense. Sin in the Bible is all around us. That is why this sin can affect generation after generation. My inadequately loved self will inevitably give off inadequate love, and that inadequate love will distort my children, who in turn will distort their children to the third and fourth generation.

This is not a simplistic, deed-oriented Commandment. It is not an expression of some divine injustice that would picture God punishing children for the sins of their fathers. This insight underlies the actions of human behavior, and it must be understood there. This Commandment says that our being, our very human being, is either a source of death or a source of life to the world. The one factor that makes the difference, the one factor that affects our being is God’s position in the organization of our world. How adequately are we in touch with this infinite source of life? How alive are we? Are we burning at the full wattage of our created power?

The glory of God is seen in human life when we are being what we were created to be. God is the vine, the source of all that gives life. We are the branches, through whom God’s life and power flows.

"You shall have no other gods before me. I am jealous. No one can take my place without distorting my creation." The sins of the fathers do get visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation, for sin is the distortion of life that always comes when God is not central. Yahweh’s demand is unconditional, exclusive, uncompromising, total. It is his divine picture of the meaning of creation, showing us the way that life is supposed to be. The Commandment does not, however, empower us. It only makes us aware that we are not what we were created to be, and that is the final burden of the law. The law cannot empower, it can only judge. Liturgically, when this Commandment is read in services of worship, our response is "Lord, have mercy upon us."

You shall have no other gods. You shall make no graven images. What depth! We shall find these Commandments to be deeper than we have imagined time after time.

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