My life in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, was a succession of delights. To me in my childhood, hearing, smelling, and seeing the amusement park brought moments of abandon and freedom. What is paradise to a 9-year-old boy but swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, eating Nathan's hot dogs and French fries, licking frozen custard, and riding the "Cyclone" roller coaster?
The tenement apartment where I lived was within walking distance of the beach and the rides. School didn't have a chance with my friends and me once the warm caresses of summer began to touch us. When you walked down the midway, the barkers would dare you to try to win a teddy bear. There were penny arcades, palm-reading gypsies, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, strong men, midgets, the fat lady, and more. One person in the freak show I shall never forget: "Milo the Mule-faced Boy." He was a pathetic creature with protruding teeth so bizarre that he did indeed resemble a mule.
I lived in a rather typical New York neighborhood of those days. Those who lived there were knit together in the common struggle of the poor to survive and to carve some meaning out of human existence. All the symptoms of despair were evident: too much drinking, too much gambling, and too much fighting.
Being "tough" was the ultimate social status for kids. Gangs were popular and, in some neighborhoods, necessary for daily survival. Some of my acquaintances—repeatedly beaten by their fathers—were bullies we all despised. I remember one boy who lived around the corner—Arthur Kelly. Wiry and fearless, he used to spit out the side of his mouth three or four times a minute as he swaggered down the street in his leather jacket. Hunched over like a gorilla, his collar turned up, Kelly enjoyed frightening anybody who was afraid of him. I hated him so much most of the time that one of my supreme moments in the eighth grade was the day a friend of mine beat him up and gave him a bloody nose in the schoolyard.
Skirting the law was also an integral part of my childhood. Our parents used to play the horses and the numbers through bookies, and many of the older guys routinely stole bikes and cars. We were initiated by stealing from candy stores. Then we graduated to the more expensive items, such as hubcaps and watches. We never talked much about morals or religion. It was a sign of weakness, almost corruption.
Sex was the typical "street" kind. Seventh-grade girls were serving as prostitutes. Boys not yet in their teens were forced into homosexual acts for "kicks" by older guys. One incident I witnessed so revolted me that I reported it to the police. As a result, some guys found themselves in reform school.
From the perspective of my maturity, I now realize that my childhood was not as glorious or free as it seemed. My life is very different now, so different that I am not the same person—at least not in the most fundamental sense of the term "person"—who ate Nathan's hot dogs.
Every now and then I bump into childhood friends. Some of them are now grown-up gangsters. They look at me as if I have chosen a life style that resembles a concentration camp or a monastery. In their view I am on the inside, robbed of my freedom, while they are on the outside, laughing at me—the fool. To them, my respect for the law of the Ten Commandments is a fence that confines me. They see the limits in my life as rigid suffocators of spontaneity, while I see these limits as parameters for safety or as guidelines giving me the freedom to live with a measure of security about the moral quality of my actions.
What my former associates seem to recognize intuitively is that an emphasis on the law can be destructive; what they miss is the law's potential to liberate and energize. The law can be different things to different people in different circumstances. This paradoxical feature of the law is apparent even in the Bible, which contains passages that apparently condemn the law alongside other portions of Scripture that praise the law. Before we go further, however, we need to define our terms.
Whenever the Bible speaks about the "law," it usually refers either to the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—the five books of Moses) or to the Old Testament as a whole. The technical Hebrew term for the ten commandments given at Mount Sinai is the "ten words," which every Hebrew understood to be the heart of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Therefore, whenever the law is mentioned, the Ten Commandments are included, even as the foundation is included when you use the word building.
Of all the praise for the law in the Bible, perhaps none is greater than that of the psalmist, who declared that the law of God is "sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb" (Ps. 19:10, R.S.V.). Here the law is seen as a gift from God whose lusciousness re quires lavish images. There is no hint of the forbiddenness that sweetens the fruit in transgression, only the freedom that sweetens the law in obedience. To the psalmist it is not the law, but rather disobedience, that is bitter.
What makes the law sweet to the Bible writers is an understanding of it as a fence giving structure to what would otherwise be libertinism or anarchy. The law orders our lives, marking boundaries, keeping us from swirling around unpredictably like small balloons whose air is escaping. We are not to be like wild balloons, but like aircraft controlled, disciplined, orderly, and capable of reaching our chosen destinations.
Negative use of law
If this is so, why does the law feel so negative to us at times? The answer is that whenever it is perceived or applied as a form of control and restriction, rather than as a discipline and defense of freedom, we will chafe under its pres sure. Seen primarily as restriction, violating the law spawns a euphoria of freedom; seen as a discipline for freedom, a broken law produces a rational guilt that can lead to creative change. In surgery, if the procedures for sterility and cutting are seen as unnecessarily restrictive, a surgeon could feel liberated when violating them. On the other hand, if surgical rules are perceived as safe guards to give a physician freedom to save lives, ignoring them produces fear and guilt and robs the surgeon of his freedom to heal.
It should be pointed out that not all the Biblical laws are equal in importance to the Ten Commandments. Many have only a cultural, temporary value. Rules and mores that help define a culture will always be needed to civilize social relations. We are amused by stories of the Puritans who punished their members for kissing their spouses on the Sabbath, and we would rightly react with anger at such a mentality in the present, knowing as we do the image inflicted to one's emotional health by such attitudes. Mores are easily confused with morals. Some people are even tempted to think that the confusion of mores and morals is in the ten-commandment law itself. So, to eliminate this confusion they stress love alone in morality, as if love can be defined without laws of any kind. They would throw the law as we know it into the junkyard of ethical requirements because, in their view, it is antiquated. It no longer fits in a modern society, be cause it is too rigid.
Such an attitude rejects the view that the law and love are compatible and that the gospel (literally the "good news" of Christ's salvation) taught in the New Testament elucidates the relationship between them. The apostle Paul speaks of the law as "holy, and just, and good" (Rom. 7:12), and James labels it the "law of liberty" (James 1:25). In some pas sages, it is true, the apostle Paul seems to be critical of the law, but he makes it clear that he is not then thinking of the law as a moral statement or as a discipline for freedom in love; he is thinking of human beings who would treat the law as a means of curing sin and achieving virtue before God. He tries to show us that breaking the law, or sin, is not merely the violation of some code, but the rupture of trust between persons.
To lie, steal, or kill inevitably creates a problem between persons that cannot be erased simply by ceasing to do such acts in the future. Telling the truth now can not change the fact that there has been lying. While right-doing preserves trust, it is helpless in restoring trust.
I do not trust the burglar who broke into my home simply because he has stopped burglarizing me. For while a change in his behavior is essential, only forgiveness can establish a relationship and create links of trust.
To put it another way: If one breaks a code prohibiting him from lying, the code may exact a penalty for the crime. But if one ruptures a relationship by lying, whether that relationship can be healed depends on the willingness of the involved parties to make the relationship more important than the violation, always recognizing that no relationship can endure repeated breaches of promise.
Forgiveness restores trust
This is the point at which the gospel makes its contribution to man's freedom before God. It is in the heart of the gospel that the violations of law that rupture the God-man relationship are not as great as the eagerness of God to for give those sins and restore full fellow ship between Himself and us. Mere obedience cannot restore trust lost through disobedience. Forgiveness—accepted forgiveness—can.
Once we accept God's forgiveness, His method of reconciling us to Himself becomes the model for our reconciliation with others. Further, when the law is perceived only as an impersonal code, rather than as a discipline for love and freedom, it will appear antithetical to forgiveness, full of condemnation, guilt, and destruction (Rom. 7:4-6). But if we see the law as reflecting the desire of the Lawgiver to make us free, it will be "holy, and just, and good" to us. We will see it as a protector, not a restorer, of trust. We will also see that it is the way we relate to the law, not the law itself, that condemns us. Put simply: The law defines the basis for maintaining love between us and God and among our selves. It is the fence around our lives that keeps out the suspicions and deceptions that destroy business relation ships, friendships, and even marriages.
Thus, the Bible teaches that the law, when transgressed, imposes guilt. It cannot forgive and heal. That is why, when the law was broken, the same God who gave it at Sinai as the basis of a personal covenant had to do something more at Calvary to demonstrate that forgiveness and law are not in opposition. In that sense, the gospel is "much more" than the law could ever be. This is Paul's point in Romans 5, where, like a refrain, he talks about the "much more" of the gospel in relation to the law.
But the gospel's "more" should not lead us to make less of the law. If it is a discipline for freedom in love, then we moderns who face profound moral and religious dilemmas need to bathe in its wisdom more than ever before. Since technology has affected many of our moral decisions, I believe a reexamination of the Ten Commandments can equip us, somewhat, to resolve some of these dilemmas.
Disciplined for freedom
Now, I must be more precise about what I mean when I say that the law is a "discipline" for freedom. When the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci performed so splendidly and effortlessly in the 1976 Olympics that she received perfect scores, many were tempted to think most of it came "naturally." But a life sketch televised one evening portrayed a dedicated young woman on a Spartan regimen, practicing three to five hours daily over a period of six years. Because she had been minus the freedom to go and do whatever her immediate impulses desired, she confessed she often felt like a caged bird. But she had a goal, and the freedom to win a gold medal for herself and her country could be achieved only through intense discipline. Furthermore, as more and more she mastered the sport of gymnastics, her love for it increased. She was disciplined in order to be free, and in her increasing freedom to perform she grew in her love for her sport.
Likewise, to be free to fly an airplane, the student pilot must use discipline to memorize air-traffic regulations and practice maneuvers. The more perfectly the student flies, the more secure he feels and the more love he or she has for flying. It is the same with an aspiring physician, or even with aspiring saints who wish to be free to live in love and in trust with God and others. What we discipline ourselves to do, we master; what we do well, we love to do.
When the law was enunciated at Sinai, the Jewish people (or Israelites, as they are called in Scripture) were, to some extent at least, conscious of the potential liberty in the law. When told that God would give them all that their hearts desired if they obeyed, the law became their most precious treasure. Accustomed as they were to Egyptian slavery, their new liberty was dizzying. Unfortunately, as later events revealed, although the Israelites were free politically, they only dimly perceived at best the discipline of the law that was necessary to enjoy authentic spiritual, inner freedom.
God made known His will to Israel in the law, and unified the nation under a covenant in which He was Lord and the people were His subjects. Recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy, this covenant primarily describes a relationship that suggests that the nation's religious—not political—destiny is supremely important. 1 God had brought the Israelites into freedom and would keep them free as long as they obeyed His laws. They had no claim on His love; He bestowed it only because He was and is love and they needed Him. While He promised that His love would never abandon them, His freedom allowed Him to withdraw it any time. God is thus portrayed in the Scriptures as the sovereign Person who chooses to create and sustain His created "persons" in love and freedom as long as they choose to allow Him to help them.
The response of kindness
Such a consistently gracious God in Israel was unlike the neighboring Babylonian nature deities, .whose moods changed capriciously. Their devotees had little or no idea how they would respond to them in worship. 2 However, God's kindness (Hebrew, chesed) toward men was firm. Men were to respond to God's chesed by showing kindness to one another, by being just, not in the legalistic sense of mechanically and impartially applying minute laws, but in the expansive sense of applying a few basic principles "over and over again." 3 Application of the law to individual, concrete instances was left in many cases to a healthy feeling for justice. Even when one scrupulously observed the law, love, or chesed, should have been felt. If it was not, as was often the case in the surrounding cultures, lesser and lesser value was placed on human life, and increasing importance was attached to an unfeeling preoccupation with obedience. A personal God of love, who cared about the Israelites for no reason outside that love, called for obedience to His law to enhance the love and trust relationship between His people and Himself so that they might enjoy the unique freedom of those created in His image.
However, that freedom could grow only when God's promise was met by human faith. If human faith was posited other than on God's promise, it led to an obedience to the letter of the law, which replaced faith in His promise. Obedience of that sort paradoxically destroyed the love relationship it was supposed to protect, for when human obedience is made more central than God's promises, the divine-human relationship has no enduring basis. Further, an inordinate confidence in obedience tends to elevate the law over people, causing us to forget that the law exists for the sake of persons. Thus the "law of liberty" in Israel be came the "yoke of bondage." Israel was to understand that the Ten Commandments are personal through and through, coming from a personal God, who gave them for the sake of persons. That is why they can be obeyed only through faith or trust in God as a person. Persons are always greater than the law. The law exists for them.
This is one reason why Israel, upon receiving the law, "understood the rev elation of the commandments as a saving event of the first rank, and celebrated it as such." 4 Not merely a code of ethics governing behavior, but an event that saves, caused the camp of Israel to be filled with joy. The giving of the law was seen as the moment in which God and His people had reestablished trust. As long as Israel lived in trust by obeying the commandments, she would be free to grow in love. Obedience to the law was to make her a unique community on earth, an amazement to a world filled with prejudice, hatred, and war. These were grand blessings claimed for the law if obeyed by faith in God's promises and strength.
1 Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament trans. by J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 399ff.
2 Ibid., pp. 234, 235.
3 Ibid., p. 77.
4 Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, I, trans. by D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 193.