March 11, 2012
Here in the third week of Lent, our readings are bringing us to revisit the Ten Commandments, which are having a rather hard time of it these days. Modern attitudes toward the Ten Commandments tend toward one of two extremes: Either people feel they are archaic, outmoded laws that should be disposed of or (at the other extreme) that they should be posted in every public place and waved around like a flag. There are rarely any attempts to thoroughly and critically study the Commandments to see what value they might hold for us today (other than being used as pious wallpaper).
One Commandment that is frequently misunderstood is the third: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exod 20:7), more popularly known as “Thou shalt not use the Lord’s name in vain …” (King James Version). Everyone who has ever grown up Catholic has probably brought to Confession the sin of “using the Lord’s name in vain” after hitting one’s thumb with a hammer, or some other mishap. The use of the Holy Name as an exclamation, a curse or a groan has become so commonplace as to be hardly even noticeable. There is something to be said for refraining from using the Holy Name in this way: If we really take seriously the proposition that YHWH is the author of life, the beating heart of the universe and the holiest of holies, the name of YHWH becomes something to be treasured, rather than tossed around like verbal trash.
Nonetheless, the Third Commandment is not just about pious self-censorship. As even Pastor Rick Warren has commented, if you’re more upset about the use of the word G*dD@##it than you are about world hunger, there’s some re-prioritizing that needs to be done (not that I’m a huge Rick Warren fan … ). The phrase “in vain” implies use that is vain, or trivial. However, the original Hebrew term shav’ has a broader meaning. In his book The Ten Commandments for Today (2006. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), Walter J. Harrelson says that shav’ also means “moral worthlessness or even evildoing” (pp.36).
So what are the ways in which the Holy Name is used that are morally worthless? Well, for starters, let’s look at using the Holy Name as a marketing tool. It seems that just about any modern consumer product or service has a “Christian” variant. A casual Internet search will yield Websites for “stylish Christian apparel”, “Christian home decor”, and even “Christian motorcycle decals”. My personal favorite is ChristianMingle.com, a “Christian dating” site. The site sports the Scripturelet “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. – Psalms 37:4″, suggesting that the Lord is a giant gumball-machine for romantic interludes. The Psalm quoted is actually an assurance to YHWH’s people who were under severe oppression in Babylonian captivity – not a promise to indolent singles that they, too, will righteously get laid (after marriage, of course). The only thing that separates ChristianMingle.com from its secular counterparts is that its owners have slapped the Lord’s name on it, added a cursory “Statement of Faith” and sprinkled a few links to other Prosperity Gospel sites.
Then, there’s using the Lord’s name as a political football. Few people have excelled at this form of blasphemy quite like Texas Gov. Rick Perry did in his failed Presidential bid. In a May, 2011 fundraiser in Longview, TX, Perry told his audience, “At 27 years old, I knew that I had been called to the ministry. I’ve just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was gonna have. I still am. I truly believe with all my heart that God has put me in this place at this time to do his will” (The Atlantic, “Is God Really telling Rick Perry to run for President?”, November 10, 2011). Even more stunning was Gov. Perry’s response to the horrific 2011 drought in Texas, in which “26,148 fires covering 3.9 million acres have destroyed 5,065 homes, barns and other structures in the Lone Star State” (ibid.). In April 2011, Perry responded by issuing the formal state proclamation of a three-day “Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas”. The drought and fire, “both continued and worsened” after Perry’s proclamation (ibid.). Perry eventually received the answer to his prayers regarding the Presidency … “No.”
Finally, we have using the Lord’s name to do flat-out evil, hateful things (or to manipulate a child into doing them). The following picture from a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration pretty much speaks for itself:
So, the idea of the Third Commandment is that – if we are going to use the Holy Name – we should do it with humbly, prayerfully, and with God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) squarely in mind. The Holy Name should not be used for cynical self-enrichment, political gamesmanship, and certainly not to hate or damn others. What might be an example of the proper use of the Lord’s name? How about this quote, from Nobel Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”
Amen. And you might stop dropping those G-D bombs, too, while you’re at it.