Last September when 18 US bishops were on a pilgrimage of prayer for peace in the Holy Land, we spent a moving afternoon at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust. At the close of our visit, we were meditating on the prescriptions on holiness found in Leviticus (18ff), based as they are on the Ten Commandments. With us was my beloved friend, 91-year-old Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld who, as we concluded, added this comment: “The most important words regarding these prescriptions and commandments are ‘For I am the Lord!’” How right the Rabbi is. We who believe in God know that the commandments come from God and as Christians we observe them because they are God’s word given to the Chosen People and to us to guide our lives.
There was a time in our country when this rich heritage of our Judeo-Christian religious faiths was integral to our society. Today a far more secular culture does not want anything that can be labeled “religious” to be included in the public square. Sad but true! Yet the question keeps coming back to me; if we who accept the words “For I am the Lord” were to place them aside for a moment, do not those same prescriptions make sense as guidelines for all men and women whether they believe in God or not?
Daily the newspapers report lying, cheating, extortion, murder, exploitation on every level and in every sector of our society. Politicians are caught. Business men and women are sent to jail. Academics plagiarize. Teachers abuse children. The elderly are taken advantage of and even physically and emotionally abused. Is this really a good way to live? Is there any limit to doing what we want except, “don’t get caught”?
Whether we believe they came from God or not, would we have a better or a worse society if we all observed the Ten Commandments? Is something wrong with ‘Honor thy father and mother.”? If we did would we not also respect and care better for the elderly? Is something wrong with “Thou shall not kill”? Or would we have a better life if we did not fight with one another, physically and psychically attack one another, but treated everyone with respect? Would you prefer we live in communities where people observe – for the sake of mutual living together – the call not to lie? Is it better to live in a world where you never know if your neighbor tells the truth? And what of stealing? And what of coveting another’s spouse or his/her goods? Yet we idolize people who spend their lives moving from one casual sexual encounter to another and we applaud. We see people who are “stars” using drugs and living lifestyles that are totally irresponsible and we let our children and young adults be seduced by the “glamour” and make heroes out of people whose lives are tawdry and whose values are vices.
One of the most holy men I know often said, “God and his Church can forgive any sin with comparative ease but not even God can forgive calling darkness light.” We who have received the gift of faith and seek to live according to God’s commandments, buttressed by Christ Jesus and the love which is the Holy Spirit, should not lose the opportunity to point out a simple truth to our non-believing friends and neighbors: You don’t have to believe in God to recognize that virtue is better than vice and, as human beings, we all benefit if we agree to live according to these prescriptions that urge us to respect one another, protect one another and live in communities where we all respect one another and observe the truth, the goodness, the beauty and the wonder of life that avoids vice and observes the virtues of justice, fortitude, temperance and prudence.