"Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst."
- From Mandalay, by Rudyard Kipling
With hundreds of pages clarifying any government bill before it becomes law, and more than 200 years of state and national legislation behind us, I can't envision a building large enough to contain all the paperwork this process entails. The sheer volume of laws and regulations in our collective archives today is beyond my comprehension. Contrasting this verbiage with the laws and codes of the past is mind-boggling, too. Consider:
The oldest written code of law, The Code Of Hammurabi, circa 2100 BC, had 285 provisions concerning commerce, family and criminal and civil law.
England's Magna Carta, instituted in 1215 to guard against abuses by an unregulated monarchy, contained 63 clauses.
The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses around 1450 BC, takes up half a page in the Old Testament book of Exodus, and during his earthly ministry in 30-33 AD, Jesus reduced those 10 laws to two: "Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and ... love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39)
We've often heard that all the laws ever conceived fall under at least one of the Ten Commandments. But is law really that simple? Could we retire our legislative bodies, find other careers for those who defend or enforce it and reduce the requirements for citizenship to half a page?
Probably not. Where there are people some regulation is necessary, if for no other reason than to prevent chaos. But after the obvious, try thinking of a law that would be necessary if the Ten Commandments were universally accepted and obeyed.
I can hear the laughter now: "Simplistic ... naïve ... separation of church and state," etc.
In the realms of human imperfection, replacing our current legal system with a scrap of paper we could attach to our refrigerator does sound kind of stupid. But let's see why God and many of his followers think such a system could work.
As civilization began, laws were made by the whims of whatever ruler was in charge - and enforced for the entertainment of despots, not for the good of those they ruled.
In contrast, before God gave his people any laws at all he delivered them from just such a tyranny. Then, as they journeyed to their own land, he gave them the commandments as a guide to governing themselves. For example, the one about keeping the Sabbath Day holy allowed them their first day off from work.
But that's religion and, as we all know, it's not politically correct to base civil law on the Bible.
So let's toss out the first four commandments. But maybe we could keep the other six, the ones that tell us how to treat our fellow men. If we honored our parents and didn't lie, steal, kill, act immorally or wish we had what belongs to someone else, wouldn't that be enough?
"When man prescribes his own morality, there is no higher court of appeal," wrote Bernard Ramm a half century ago - and nearly 40 centuries after the commandments were written.
We've tried everything else. During the past dozen years we've ousted the Democrats and ensconced the Republicans, but now millions of Americans think the old guard looks pretty good. Like the changing winds and whims of the kings of old, we haven't found much that lasts a political term, let alone 4,000 years.
Short of trying with the poet to find that place east of Suez where laws and rules aren't needed, perhaps the internal, unlegislated - dare I say, religious? - example, where morals matter and love rules and someone else's rights are at least as important as our own, just might work.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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