The Moral Universe – What If?


I know I’m a dreamer. I’ve been accused of “magical thinking,” a term I’ve come to dislike. I have seen it used to dismiss the idea that the world can be better than it is. I do believe I have a responsibility as a dreamer to move from the dream into action, to try to bring hope into reality, to cooperate with the “better angel of my nature,” in Lincoln’s words.

So, what if? What if everyone used their extra hour this weekend to meditate on the Ten Commandments? I don’t think you have to believe in God, or be of a particular religion, to see the wisdom in them.

1. I am the Lord, your God.

There are dimensions of life on Earth that are beyond our control and should stay that way. The Western world, especially, has since the age of exploration tried to mold nature and other peoples into its image. Usually bad things ensue. Example: When the British started establishing themselves in Africa, they uprooted natural plants and vegetation that had been for eons a source of immunity to Africans from certain diseases. The disappearance of these plants led to death for people for whom they had been a major food source.

2. Thou shall bring no false idols before me.

What do we worship that is bad for society and nature? To what lengths will we go to ensure that we have enough money, drugs, alcohol, gasoline-fueled toys no matter on whose backs we have to step to get them? Can we dare to make a vision of goodness the thing we prize above all else?

3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.

How often do we blame God for situations that we as a society caused? Or how often do we say that tragedies prove there is no God when in fact those tragedies only prove how thoughtless or even evil human beings can be? What would happen if we all refused to be part of the systems that cause tragedies and became part of the systems that prevent them?

4. Remember the Sabbath and make it holy.

Why do we insist that businesses be open seven days a week for our convenience? Do we not see that this means that some people have to work seven days a week? This is true especially in lower-paid, part-time jobs. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one day a week, the same day, that everyone had off and put the commercial world aside? Or, at the least, what if we all took time every week to relax, to seek the beauty of the natural world, to renew ourselves and our commitment to our causes?

5. Honor thy father and thy mother.

What if we thought of the Earth and our communities as our father and mother, as the source of the things we need to grow into better people? Instead of thinking of ourselves as masters of the universe, what if we thought of ourselves as children and as servants of the universe and all that is within?

6. Thou shall not kill.

Are we implicated in killing the hopes and aspirations of people who are different from us? Do we really believe that someone’s “right” to own a gun trumps the right of little children to grow up, to fall in love, to learn, to experience everything that life can offer? Do we discourage people from having hope by taking away their right to vote, to be decently housed, to receive proper nutrition? Do we spread fear so that other people will be as scared as we are? And do I even need to mention the death penalty?

7. Thou shall not commit adultery.

In this day and age, a lot of people probably find this commandment absurd. There have been ages in human existence when the meaning of adultery even extended to banning married couples from having recreational sex. But the word “adultery” (which is not related to the word “adult”) comes from a French word meaning “to corrupt,” and I think that this is where the essence of this commandment lies. How often are we corrupted by our baser instincts to cheat, to lie, to justify bad behavior, or to let our bodies rule our intellects? Might those actions of ours tempt others, corrupt others who were previously innocent? How many children watch the adults in their lives being jerks and decide that it’s okay for them to be jerks too? How many children in homes where domestic abuse takes place grow up to be abusers?

8. Thou shall not steal.

Beyond physically taking what doesn’t belong to us, we can steal by gossiping about someone by taking away their good name. We steal precious resources of the Earth by overusing or polluting them. Whenever we steal, literally or figuratively, we are not sharing. Sharing is not only a way of spreading the wealth around, it is also a way of building community.

9. Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Are our neighbors just the people who live on either side of us, or are they all of the people who co-habit the world with us? Do we challenge stereotypes or allow them to define people? Isn’t it bearing false witness when we think we know how whole races, whole countries, think and live? Whenever we perpetuate a stereotype, or don’t challenge one, we perpetuate a lie.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

Even fairly strict interpretations believe this really means one’s neighbor’s property, since sadly wives were until not so long ago considered a husband’s property. Do we want something just because somebody else has it? Do we stifle our individuality so as to fit in the popular folks? Do we spend more time wishing we were someone else than realizing our own potential? How many wars have been fought because one government coveted another’s land? How many countries in Africa have been despoiled by conquerors’ greed? How much human suffering has been caused by the search for profit, whether financially or in terms of prestige?

Just in the couple of hours in which I’ve been writing this, I have had to face the fact that I am guilty of breaking all of these commandments. I do happen to believe in God; perhaps inspiring me to write this is Her way of getting me to look at myself. In which case, I’d better end now as I have a lot of work to do.


The Moral Universe – Random Reflections 1


Sometimes I have to let ideas percolate, sift them around in my mind, and let them come to maturity in their own time. In an area as fraught as civil rights, and the lack thereof, this is especially true. The stories have to be told, I believe, especially when there is such a danger of them happening again. Indeed, some have happened again. Yet there is a toll too in chronicling the worst side of human nature. And so I need to let some of these stories percolate a bit more and offer for a while some random reflections that have come to me during my reading and research.

Abraham Lincoln says, in the first debate with Stephen Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois, in 1858: “Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.”

I have tortured myself, and I know how neurotic it is, by asking myself whether I would have been one of the people calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus. Would I have been a German who somehow allowed myself to ignore the sounds and smells coming from the concentration camp nearby? Would I have stood by and watched slaves being bought and sold, or relied for my creature comforts on a slave and thought that was a fine way to live?

Since time began there have been people who thought that slavery was a positive institution and that the wholesale extinction of a group of people from different backgrounds was allowable. But there have also been people, since time began, who thought differently and who acted on it. It cannot be a matter of opinion, but something deep in the genetic makeup or psyche or soul of a human being that first says, “No, owning other human beings is wrong.” “No, annihilating all Jews and Armenians and gypsies is wrong.” “No, crucifying a man who has only sought to heal people is wrong.”

There are lovely pictures on Facebook of black and white children hugging: a caption reads, “People aren’t born racists; racism has to be taught.” My gut reaction is to agree, but I do wonder sometimes. Who taught all the Tea Party members from traditionally liberal states to hate so much? Where did they learn to have a horror of not only people of color but poor people, immigrants, homosexuals, and Democrats?I have no answers here, only questions. And the biggest question, how do we overcome this?

It seems hard to believe that while we were running around talking about making love, not war in the Sixties, young children were being togged out for Ku Klux Klan rallies.

I do think that anyone who puts their child in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and brings them to a rally ought to be charged with child abuse. But by whom? Most likely their local law enforcement officials will be at the same rally.

I think that Abraham Lincoln’s statement is legitimate on one level. I also think that changing the minds and hearts of people who hold so firmly to racist ideas is not just a matter of tradition and geography.

Another piece of historic trivia: This comes from famous trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz on the CD “Great Trials of the 20th Century,” which is one of the Great Courses series.

According to Dershowitz, who has read all the case records, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” was about more than teaching evolution in public schools and it was a good thing that John Scopes and Clarence Darrow lost. William Jennings Bryan was portrayed in the play and film as a conservative, ultra-religious buffoon who was prosecuting the case because he was a denier of the theory of evolution.

In fact, says Dershowitz, this wasn’t the case at all. Bryan had seen the textbook that Scopes was teaching from. It was written by a group that was subtly pushing eugenics by way of teaching evolution. In other words, they saw the advantage of might be called “unnatural” selection and a way to breed for only the whitest traits. Again, genetics.

darrow and bryan

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan.

Since Tennessee did not have integrated schools at the time, the textbook would have been used only in white classrooms and would have been another way of teaching that “white” is good and “black” is bad. This horrified Bryan and motivated him to prosecute the case.