Living the First Commandment

By Susan Mark Landis

These are First Commandment days.

You probably remember the first of the Ten Commandments: "You shall have no other gods before me." When I was a kid, I thought I was home safe on this commandment—I didn't sacrifice to a golden calf on my household altar! As I matured, I began to realize that almost anything I was willing to sacrifice for could take the place of God in my life, if I wasn't careful. This might be my course of study, a pleasant home, entertainment or security. Note the "might." My list of possible personal gods is long—sometimes superficial, sometimes deeply rooted.

…I began to realize that almost anything I was willing to sacrifice for could take the place of God in my life, if I wasn't careful.

Just a few weeks ago, another type of god snuck up on me: perfection. I don't mean personal perfection; I mean something much more complicated and not at all personal. I mean belief that something or someone in addition to God is perfect.

Only God is perfect—his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him (2 Samuel 22:31 and Psalm 18:30).

Only from God can we expect perfection. As soon as we hold anything but God unaccountable, as soon as we are unwilling to criticize something that isn't God, as soon as we sacrifice too much or put trust where it is not deserved, we are creating an object of perfection. This might lead to worshipping something that is not God.

These days, when tempers flare at criticism of country or government, I hear the passion of someone struggling with the First Commandment. I see an issue that strikes at the core of a person's being, his or her basis for understanding and interpreting life. For some Christians, their relationship to their country is the most important relationship in their life. Thus, they are struggling with the First Commandment.

For some Christians, their relationship to their country is the most important relationship in their life.

When we try to help people see that their country is not perfect (which only God can be), that God calls us to witness to our government about Christ's truth and justice when we disagree with the government, we are treading on holy ground. We are forcing an issue about who to believe. Who is telling the truth about reality—the government or God, through the Bible and the church? Who knows best how the world works—God, who preaches peace through sacrifice and nonviolence, or the government, which claims violence must be overcome by revenge and more violence? Are Christ's ways practical and workable in our world, or are they just a nice idea? Is "dying for one's country" the biggest sacrifice a person can make? Do our seemingly ineffective decisions for peace and justice make any difference in the long run?

Emotions we humans barely understand rear up during such discussions. Peacemaking and justice-seeking are first truth-telling: "God truth"-telling. Peacemaking, as Jesus so bluntly says, brings a sword to relationships.

As I come to understand the depth of the turmoil people feel as they struggle with the First Commandment, with putting God or government first, I better understand why our congregations and Sunday school classes and friendships are being torn apart. We must take this struggle seriously and provide tools: spiritual foundation, community and security for people willing to face this issue at this time.

We dare not give our government or our country the allegiance or worship that God alone deserves. If we put our trust and our need for security into earthly, human constructs, we will ultimately be disappointed and humankind will be less well served.

Reproduced by kind permission of PeaceSigns, the online magazine of the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA.

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