Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The world has received many blessings through God’s Chosen People, the greatest of which is, of course, the mind-opening knowledge that there is one God. Among the other gifts the Almighty has given us through our “elder brethren” is the Decalogue, those ten commandments presented to Moses more than three millennia ago which now underpin the civilized world. An indication of their prominence is their display on a frieze in the Supreme Court of the United States!
For many today the Ten Commandments are, like the objects depicted on the friezes of the Pantheon, relics of a mythology that is as interesting as it is irrelevant. One hopes that those who think like this (or perhaps one should say ‘don’t think’?) are in the minority because any competent student of western history appreciates the civilizing effect of humanity’s genuine compliance with these divine injunctions. Even so, an observer of our society in the west today would be hard pressed not to conclude that civilization as we have come to receive it is on the wane and that among our ‘movers and shakers’ little respect beyond lip service is paid to this gift Moses gave us so long ago.
It isn’t hard to understand how nine of these commandments could fall into such desuetude. Human nature being what it is, one can see how from time to time (and perhaps more often than not) we ignore the first three which address our relationship with the Creator. We forget to acknowledge him, or fall into the habit of using his name in vain, or – with the hectic pace of modern life – feel justified in ignoring our religious duties on the Lord’s Day. Then, of course, we remorselessly disregard the last six commandments which have to do with our interaction with other people. We allow ourselves to substitute for these commandments the far less demanding rules of civil laws as they pertain to such human failings as deceit, lust, jealousy and anger. We persuade ourselves that it is normal to replace challenging moral imperatives with restricting legal codes.
But, what about that other commandment? The one that comes after the first three and before the last six? The one that demands respect for one’s father and mother? Surely even the most convinced secularist accepts its wisdom and would defend the privileged rank motherhood and fatherhood have in nature’s hierarchy of relationships. No matter how ‘inclusive’ one’s definition of family might be, would anyone deny the time-tested benefits that arise from a family unit consisting of a mother, a father and children – each position with roles and responsibilities special to itself?
Astonishing as it is, the answer is yes. This month the government of France – the “Church’s Eldest Daughter” – has announced its intention to outlaw on all public documents references to ‘mother’ and to ‘father’ and to replace them with ‘parent.’ Needless to say, outlawing the terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ goes far beyond legalizing same sex unions.
In Saint Augustine’s day when the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse the fear was that “the barbarians are at the gate.” Today we in the west believe we are faced with a new threat, one inherent in the ‘clash of civilizations.’ Perhaps a greater threat is we ourselves. Perhaps the barbarians are inside the gate and we are they.