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conformity and the ten commandments

September 29, 2011

If there is a stereotype about religion, it involves a system of rules, regulations, and procedures. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”, someone has said. Our lives are governed by laws and boundaries. Human activity is restrained by gates, fences, credentials. We all live by some system of rules, regulations, and procedures. Some are external: pay your taxes, recycle, educate your children, and maintain your property. Some are internal: eat balanced meals, keep your distance from danger, and smile politely at acquaintances in safe places. Some are external and internal. Slow down when you come to a speed bump. If you don’t, you are disobeying the visual message—that’s external, but you and your car may also suffer the consequences—that’s internal.  

All of us live with rules, regulations and procedures. And the way we get along, in this world, is through conformity. We fit in. We keep most of the laws, more or less, right? We drive the speed limit, right? We stop at red lights, right? We conform, because, if we don’t, there will be a punishment, a consequence.

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly a matter of avoiding punishment and the consequences. Religion was heavy on conformity. I served briefly, right out of school, in a mill village in the Deep South. One of the members of the church told me that he could recall a time when, if he missed Sunday School two times in a row, the foreman in his mill, who was not a member of his church, would call him into the office to ask if there was a problem!

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly doing the right things, and when we did the right things, most of the time there were good consequences. And so we conformed. We conformed to avoid the bad stuff, and we conformed to get more of the good stuff.

There is a powerful urge within us to conform. And when we live in a culture of conformity, something about our human nature wants to know the specifics. What exactly am I supposed to do? What are the good things you want me to do? What are the bad things you want me to avoid? I remember being a teaching assistant in the undergraduate school at Duke University, and later teaching religion at Greensboro College. I distinctly remember a certain kind of student, very engaged, very motivated by a central concern: what can I do to get a good grade, and to avoid a bad grade?    

These questions have been ingrained within us, and I think we bring these questions to a study of the Ten Commandments. The problem is that the commandments are about something different altogether. They are not our usual code of rules, regulations and procedures. They are a way that leads to life. They are not about getting the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff. They are more complex than that. They are not about conformity to laws. They are about formation of character. They are not old words that should be pushed aside in favor or the enlightened world in which we live. They are new and living words, as relevant as this morning’s breaking news, and we ignore them at our peril.

Question for Reflection:

How can a way that leads to life, and a life that pleases God be more than conformity to what we perceive to be right and avoidance of what we believe to be wrong?


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