Censoring Significance: Giles County and the Unoffensive Six Commandments UPDATED: Video Added

In the continuing saga of the lawsuit against the Giles County Public School system over its decision to keep the Ten Commandments in a display of historical documents in each of the county’s public schools, a hearing on the suit was held yesterday in federal court in Roanoke and the judge attempted to apply some, um, Solomonic wisdom to mediate the dispute:

Judge Michael Urbanski has indicated that he will order the case into mediation, in large part because of the financial cost to the school board if the matter were to be litigated.

He said he would want the two sides to look at whether the first four commandments, which are more explicitly religious, could be removed from the display, leaving the other six, more secular, commandments.

“I just wonder if there isn’t a reasonable compromise,” Urbanski said.

After today’s hearing, Roanoke CBS affiliate WDBJ-7 caught up with the Rev. Shahn Wilburn, the Giles County pastor who initially conceived the idea of posting the Ten Commandments in the county’s schools in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School.  When asked his thoughts on Judge Urbanski’s “modest proposal,” Rev. Wilburn demurred:

“That was an interesting suggestion.  As a pastor I don’t feel that I have the right to edit the Commandments.”

I’m not sure whether to applaud the Court for creative thinking or cry over the inanity of the proposal.  As a commenter on Facebook noted, the “Ten Commandments are kinda a package deal.”  To edit out the “offensive” commandments and keep the unoffensive ones opens a Pandora’s box of offense.  How does one decide what constitutes offensive?

The four commandments the Court specifically cited are easy to flag as they all deal with issues of Judeo-Christian piety (besides they’re so exclusive…Quetzalcoatl doesn’t get his due in any of them and that’s offensive to Americans of Aztec derivation!).  Even though, as C.S. Lewis illustrated in his brilliant, yet controversial book The Abolition of Man, almost all cultures seem to have the same basic, traditional laws (maybe with slight variations) dealing with issues of murder, theft, etc., there’s a good case to be made that even these “more secular” commandments are equally offensive to some Americans:

  • Honor thy father and thy mother”  Parents are symbols of “The Man.”  It’s the duty of the young to rebel, cast off the old system and embrace change.  Should we really be encouraging students to honor their parents…those capitalist pigs?
  • Thou shalt not kill”  My body, my choice!  Keep your laws off my body! Etc., etc.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery”  What’s up with Americans’ puritanical obsession with sex, anyway?
  • Thou shalt not steal”  Is it really stealing if I’m hungry and have to steal a loaf of bread to survive?  (Especially since you baked an extra loaf….)
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness”  “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
  • Thou shalt not covet”  It’s not “class envy,” it’s “economic fairness.”

Secondly this proposal is vaguely reminiscent of the controversy last year over the release of a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which offensive racial terms have been removed in an attempt not to offend readers while also exposing students to a classic and influential text.  Admittedly, the terms used are wrong and are incompatible with contemporary American values, but there was also something fundamentally unsettling about censoring a classic to avoid offending readers–a frequent complaint about the new edition.  Much of Huckleberry Finn‘s significance is its portrayal of antebellum life along Mississippi River.  By editing out offensive terms, you’re diminishing the book’s role as a time capsule, thus also diminishing its significance.

Similarly, the Ten Commandments were placed in a display of significant historical documents for, among other reasons, the significant role the Ten Commandments have played in the history of American (and Western) law.  Just because some Americans find those first four commandments offensive or choose not to obey them–which is completely within their rights as American citizens–does not diminish the significant historical/cultural role the 10 Commandments have played in Western thought.

The Court should apply the relevant law to the facts of the case and make his decision.  Whatever that decision is, though, the Ten Commandments should stay or go together.


Courtesy of a friend: Maybe if “Moses” had been clumsier, we wouldn’t still have those “offensive commandments” for the Court to censor.


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